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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 its meager resources.

Meager, indeed. It is not only the group’s financial position which is desolate. Poverty of intellect and emotional range—though not emotional intensity—is depicted here in terms even more horrifying than lack of possessions. In fact, Miss Dunn’s friends do not lack possessions so much as they lack a tolerable social milieu in which to learn to use them and to tell good quality from bad. The boys do get hold of motorbikes; one of the girls acquires a gold damask blouse which her friends immediately destroy with a hostility hardly disguised by conventional teasing:

Tell you what, Sheila, we’ll cut the sleeves off for you, that’ll look better!”…

The blouse had large arm-holes and now Sheila’s grubby bra was exposed.

I can see the scruff under your arms, Sheil!” There were howls of laughter.

Here, Lily, let’s give her a low back.” Rube grabbed the scissors and cut a V. The blouse slid sideways revealing a torn vest. The door opened. “Back to work, you women.”

Sheila, still grinning, sat down hugging her arms to her chest till someone threw her a worn cardigan. On the brown lino, amid discarded sweet papers and cigarette ends, the gold sleeves lay gleaming in the raw electric light.

Mr. Terkel’s book is broader in scope, but more conventional and rigid in format. It is composed of seventy-one interviews with Chicagoans of every style of life, race, political persuasion, and character structure; and it certainly catches the feel of Chicago as I remember it, if one allows for the passage of nearly fifteen years. Yet, it does not have nearly the power of Up The Junction, nor does it cut so deep. Part of the reason is technical. Mr. Terkel, like Miss Dunn, keeps himself out of the picture as much as he can. But since he deals with his respondents singly, in interviews, what he presents is a set of more than seventy monologues, each introduced by a short description, broken by brief noncommittal questions. He is a skilled and sensitive editor; his monologues contrast greatly with one another and are consistently interesting; they do certainly give the reader not only a sense that he digs each of these people but a sense of what Chicago and, by implication, America is like. But one sees their life situation only through their eyes; and while the cumulative effect of this Rashomon-like technique presents a fully three-dimensional picture, it does not achieve the vitality, nor the morbidity, of Miss Dunn’s account.

The result, in fact, is curiously aseptic. What comes through in Miss Dunn’s book that even Oscar Lewis’s much more complete accounts do not convey quite so impressively is the association of poverty with filth and brokenness; one makes love in dirty vacant lots or abandoned houses, amid fragments of machinery and furniture. Having known both London and Chicago, I would say they are about equal in the elegance they offer their poorer inhabitants; in fact, Chicago’s squalor at times approaches magnificence. I recall reading in the Sun-Times, when I was living there, the story of a child who was rushed to a hospital for emergency treatment for having eaten deadly fungi which were growing wild in the muck under the bed the family shared. Such an episode would fit right into Miss Dunn’s Battersea; but it is hard to connect it with Division Street; just as it would be hard to connect it with a television interview of a member of the household.

It isn’t that Terkel de-emphasizes the poor; or that this would be a valid criticism of his work even if he did. His book is, in fact, more useful because it gives middle-class and even upper-class Chicagoans a share of attention commensurate with their actual social influence. American life, characteristically, is middle class in its qualities and its defects; and it can only be understood by a clear sense of what life at this level is like. Nor do I mean to suggest that Terkel presents a deceptively favorable picture of American life. He does nothing of the sort; in fact, the major message of his book is that, on Division Street, the middle classes are not much better off than the poor. Most of them lead lives of noisy desolation; and the minority who are more in touch with themselves as responsible human beings lead lives of quiet desperation fighting the others and losing, over segregated housing, the destruction of the Greek community and Hull House to make room for a freeway interchange and the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, brutality to homosexuals, and other issues familiar in American life. Terkel makes all this concrete and personal; and he has as good an ear for speech as Miss Dunn. But the difference between his book and hers still reflects the difference in the roles they assumed in order to gather their data. He makes you feel you were listening in with him; she makes you feel that it happened to you.

Nevertheless, these books fully corroborate each other on the main point. They both show that, in two different countries and over the widest possible range of styles of life, Western democracy operates under a lethal set of social assumptions and economic arrangements. There are people to be found in each book who are happy, at least briefly; and on Mr. Terkel’s wider canvas some figures who seem tranquil and fulfilled. But both books are dominated by people, rich or poor, who are struggling to make it, like Barny, the Battersea tally-man who sells poor West Indian immigrants shoddy, ill-fitting suits at exorbitant prices and continues to collect from his ignorant and careless customers long after the merchandise has been paid for. Or like Kid Pharoah, the small-time Chicago politician who observes that:

Killers are stalking all day long, faggots are on the streets, peeking Toms are on the streets, teenagers are on the streets, you gotta use a baseball bat on ‘em, guys like myself from the 43rd Ward, here in the Metropolitan Area of Chicago. We don’t believe in contaminating the morals. We run these guys off…The law isn’t qualified. The law protects these dilettantes and degenerates.

In our society these people, limited and frightened as they are, consistently beat the good guys, though they don’t get much out of their victory for themselves. Perhaps this has been true of all societies. But perhaps it needn’t be. These books suggest that much of the misery they depict is of the kind that Tocqueville predicted, a kind that is peculiarly prevalent in competitive, mercantile, egalitarian societies. In a peculiar way, capitalist democracy seems made for Barny and Kid Pharoah; just as it makes them what they are and gives their life what little meaning it has. To be sure, it also serves the needs, and gives meaning to the lives, of much better people. The question is at what cost, as compared to other social systems.

The most tragic possible answer to this question, which may also be the true one, is that what appear, to a liberal humanitarian, as the costs may in fact be a large part of the reward: and that this is the real source of social stability in any system. This is exactly what Amber Ladeira, a lovely and brilliant twenty-year-old Chicago girl, who has worked for a carpet company that fraudulently offers name-brands of carpet by phone, an employment agency with a secret, discriminatory code, and a cap-and-gown-factory, has concluded:

I have an opinion our free enterprise is gonna survive for a long time in some fashion, shape, and form, because it seems to go on with the unfortunate things that we have in the world, little, big, grabby, and we all want something to our own little selves. I’ve never seen a society that’s ever lasted that was really marvelous and based on things in human nature that would be nice.

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