Authenticity. At a time when so much of what we connect with has the quintessence of a pair of Chinese blue jeans, Studs Terkel kept weaving, telling American narrative from the fabric of work and life. The week that Terkel died both of the presidential candidates, in one way or another, continued to obsess over the “real” and the “Joe” that could be found in the voters. For decades Studs Terkel enjoyed a successful career by consistently talking to Joe – Joe Everybody.
Terkel edited and crafted (that debate in a moment) oral histories of World War II, the Great Depression, and how people felt about work and their jobs. He was an unassuming presence who allegedly struggled in operating his tape recorder, but eventually got people to be themselves and just talk. From those recordings Terkel fashioned meaningful texts that limned a real space where Americans lived, rather than one extrapolated by “research” or data or shrinks in search of a hit book.
I would put Terkel in the pantheon of those of my time who did things in new ways to get to results that mattered, rather than just succeeding on established terms. It felt like there was a period from roughly the 1950s to the 1970s where it became the most natural thing for talented people to simultaneously invent and produce. The space program was shaped by the men in the capsules who wanted to control and “drive” the spacecraft and pushed for that technology. Back on earth, writers like Terkel possibly felt something was getting away and reached for a means of capturing and understanding the real, at all levels of American experience.
Terkel was a radio personality in Chicago who also wrote newspaper columns, and wrote plays and acted when, in 1967, he published a collection of dialogues about race that he’d conducted on tape with fellow Chicagoans titled Division Street: America. The New York Times praised the book, and Studs Terkel had found his device: Editing interviews into books that spoke to the compelling present with the discipline of journalism and literature within the framework of the dramatic monologue or soliloquy.
The rap on Terkel was that he let his liberal politics and an ensuing sentimentality about his subjects shape his choices and editing. Having not read as much of Terkel as I would wish, I’d say that these charges had a basis, but were somewhat akin to indicting Mark Twain for being funny too often. Terkel liked the people that he interviewed, at a time when journalism was riding on new antagonisms over war and suspicion about Richard Nixon. For the crime of enjoying the life force he discovered in his subjects, Terkel took a few critical hits. I’m certain none of this came from sour grapes over Terkel’s winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Good War in 1985, as envy is so rare in the literary community.
At a certain point we became better at replicating creative activity than being involved in it: Much of recent art is about previous art, young people compete on TV to sound like popular singers rather than learning how to sing, and movies are exciting to us in the ways that they mimic classic films. Terkel circumvented any angst he might have had about the relevance of his output simply by building it from the testimony of those who lived life. And while he unquestionably impacted today’s journalism, very little of Terkel’s grit has been handed down. There can be more honesty and reality in any five pages of a Terkel interview than you’d get from 24 hours of a cable news channel.
But maybe that’s as it should be, since print should always be into something richer and deeper than video or Internet. That’s why we read. Or, do we? While the Los Angeles Times paid fitting tribute to Terkel in the Saturday edition, it would have broken Terkel’s heart to sit and spend any time with the rest of that day’s newspaper. The Times is in the throes of content anorexia, yet they laid off another 75 editorial staffers last week. Buddy, can you spare a dime’s worth of reporting….?
Studs Terkel refined his technique in the story-rich fields of the American scene at a time when writing was alive with “new journalism” and a sharper sense of the value of truth over entertainment and distraction. His place in that time is fixed, but his legacy should also include his model of what citizen writers do for us. Terkel recently complained about the national predilection for living fast in the moment. He thought we were all getting a kind of “national Alzheimer’s” where nothing from the past was remembered. If by some fluke or conspiracy you’re reading this column in the wake of a surprise McCain upset, we’ll all know that the disease has reached critical mass.