Studs Terkel - Talking America

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Studs Terkel was that rare thing - a sensitive, thoughtful and attentive listener.

For 45 years his daily Chicago radio show put flesh and feeling on the bones of history. His conversations with the famous such as Billie Holliday, James Baldwin and Bob Dylan were in many ways footnotes to a longer and more profound conversation, a dialogue with working class America.

The thoughts and memories he gathered were collected into a series of books in which ordinary people explored their experience of living through history. They were bricklayers and carpenters, prostitutes and singers, cooks and gravediggers, firefighters and nurses. Through them Terkel mapped the Depression (in Hard Times), the Second World War (The Good War), the racial divide (Race), and the social gulf that widened as the century grew older (in The Great Divide). Working and Coming of Age traced the paradoxes of labour and the traumas and joys of ageing.

Born in New York to immigrant parents, Studs moved to Chicago as a student and remained there for the rest of his extraordinary life. A short spell on television was cut short by a House Un-American Activities Committee that saw those amicable conversations as "subversive". Perhaps they were. Luckily the people who ran WFTM radio told him to "piss on McCarthy", and to carry on with his dialogue with everyday America.

How should we describe what Studs Terkel did? It is much more than "oral history" or "radio documentary" - much more than simple additions to a great historical narrative. It is a reminder that history is made and lived by human beings who are caught within structures that contain and, at times, control them, but who struggle always to see beyond them. As the great social historian E P Thompson put it, " something that happens in human relationships...embodied in real people and in real contexts".

That is why those real people can act on the structures that imprison them.
What Studs Terkel's books show is that the great truths about the way the world works and its contradictions can be understood by anyone and not simply by those whose social role it is to pronounce on them. In The Good War one of his interviewees touched on the strange paradox of a Second World War which opened the world to thousands of working class men and women, and promised them the earth when (and if) they returned:

"World War Two has warped our view of how we look at things today. We see things in terms of that war, which in a sense was a good war. But the twisted memory of it encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world."

There was a terrible foresight in that view. And if the vision fell to pieces in Vietnam, in the 9/11 attacks it began to seem like a kind of madness, as Studs himself said in an interview after the fall of the Twin Towers.

"It was one war that many who would have resisted 'your other wars' supported enthusiastically," he wrote in The Good War. "It was a 'just war', if there is any such animal. In a time of nuclear weaponry, it is the language of a lunatic."

The American dream has been unmasked more than once, but never more so than in a post-Katrina world when recession has turned millions more ordinary US families out of their homes and their jobs. But then, for one American working class mother of nine, it was always a myth: "I don't like the word dream, I don't even want to specify it as American. I'm beginning to understand that there's a human possibility. That's where all the excitement is. If you can be part of that, you're aware and alive. It's not a dream - it's possible."

In a culture that worships individualism for its own sake, and encourages people to attack one another in an endless chain of freak shows from Jerry Springer to Big Brother, all ambition is at the expense of someone else. The world of TV series Friends encourages a few individuals to hold together in a group hug to keep out the rest. Studs Terkel stands in the opposite tradition, where the lives of people who have no aspiration to greatness are shown to be heroic and profound, to have real value and meaning. Terkel's great gift was to make the 9,000 people he interviewed feel that what they had to say mattered.

One of his last books, Will the Circle be Unbroken?, looked at how some of the people he had spoken to over the years faced death. It could so easily have been a sad and morbid piece. It was instead, typically, in Kurt Vonnegut's valedictory words, a celebration of the lives of the "uncelebrated but undefeated, brave and just Americans whose long lifetimes are likely to expire along with a notoriously disgraceful century".

Sadly one of those who died was Terkel himself. But his voice is still there to be listened to (at and his conversations remain as chapters in a collective story that must be continued.

You can read Studs Terkel interviewed by Socialist Review on