The Lower Depths

Division Street: America

by Studs Terkel
Pantheon, 381 pp., $5.95

In the past few years, there has been greatly increased interest in the use of individual case studies in books designed to give the general reader an understanding of what life is like in social circumstances very different from his own. The most impressive of these works have been Oscar Lewis’s books on the lives of the Latin American poor, which differ from the two books here reviewed in that Lewis deals with the same individuals and families throughout an entire volume; while Mr. Terkel and Miss Dunn have woven their books together out of brief, though related, vignettes. Like Lewis, Miss Dunn confines her interest to the lives of the poor; while Terkel encompasses the whole spectrum of economic life in Chicago.

All these books make distinguished use of ethnography in the service of popular writing. They provide a pleasing alternative to the statistical-normative approach to the description and analysis of life in society, which has come to dominate sociology; and suggest that anthropology may have a great deal more to offer the reader who wants to know what’s happening and what it feels like and does to the people involved in it. Unlike Professor Lewis, neither Miss Dunn nor Mr. Terkel is a trained professional anthropologist—a fact which would probably have given them trouble if they had undertaken to provide the continuity, and depth of background material, found in The Children of Sanchez or La Vida. But their insight and perception are wholly equal to the demands set by their respective tasks; both Division Street: America and Up the Junction are penetrating and engrossing books.

Up the Junction, indeed, is far more than that. Brief as it is, its sixteen episodes bring home the feel of slum life in Battersea with nearly unbearable immediacy. The book is as vivid as a documentary film, with the added depth and flexibility of print, which, unlike film, can qualify as it goes along. Most of the persons who appear in the book are young, or very old; all are poor, with a lower-depths poverty we like to believe the welfare state has eliminated. Their lives are not so much marginal to society as led in society’s seams and cracks. Miss Dunn shared these lives, working with them in the same freezing, filthy candy factory; taking a job in a primitive clip joint fleecing British and Asiatic bumpkins with the techniques of a Chicago dance-hall of Dreiser’s era; riding in a motorcycle “burn-up” with a boy whose friendly rival in the race is killed before her eyes; seeing one of her friends throw into the toilet the foetus of a baby which had been born to her alive in spite of months of efforts to abort it. Her totally unsentimental account of these episodes is made more searing by the brevity she assigns her own role in them. In each, she functions as one of the least articulate members of a group at work or in search of the recreation permitted by…

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