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He Springs Eternal

If Studs Terkel were Japanese, he’d be a Sacred Treasure. As John Kenneth Galbraith has said of him, “Studs Terkel is more than a writer, he is a national resource.” Hope Dies Last is the latest in the series of American oral histories he’s been publishing since Division Street, America appeared in 1967. In the thirty-six years between then and now, he’s covered, in separate books, the Great Depression, World War II, race relations, working, the American Dream, and aging. For each book, he interviewed an amazing variety of people—where does he meet some of these folks, anyway?—and the entire oeuvre has an exhaustiveness and monumentality that will make it necessary reading for future social historians of the American twentieth century.

The arrangement of subjects begins to look less serendipitous than schematic. Books about youth and middle age—initiation, ordeal, and daily life in action—were followed by books about contemplation and stock-taking. The second-to-last was entitled Death: Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (2001), which carried us into the unknown: Will there be an afterlife? (The general consensus: maybe, maybe not.) The series now resembles a planned cycle, like the cycles of mystery plays put on in medieval towns. You’d think Death would have ended it, but with the addition of Hope Dies Last, the pattern is now similar to that of Armistice Day ceremonies, where taps, the sundown signal, is followed by reveille, the wakeup call, symbolizing the Resurrection. Death and hope are paired as well on many Christian tombstones, which bear the words In Spe. No coincidence then that Terkel kicks off his book with an upward-tending sentiment: “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.” First the dead body, then the young green leaves of grass.

It’s very Terkelesque—by now, the man requires an adjective of his own—that after death should come hope, for Terkel’s optimism has seldom failed him. His lifetime of ninety-one years has spanned the boom times of the Twenties, the Depression, World War II, the McCarthy red-hunting era, the civil rights movement, the hippie activists of the late Sixties, and on into present times. He grew up in Chicago in the 1920s, eavesdropping on the arguments that went on in the lobby of the workingmen’s hotel run by his widowed mother—arguments that pitted old Wobblies from the International Workers of the World against anti-unionists, with ordinary working stiffs who “didn’t give a hoot one way or the other” putting their oars in too. This was the perfect education for a man who was to become the American interviewer par excellence: Terkel became a practiced listener. He learned how to take the measure of what he was hearing, and to assess who was saying it.

He spent three dispiriting years at the University of Chicago Law School, then took up acting in radio soap operas to avoid being a lawyer—“I was always typecast as a Chicago gangster,” he says. Then he became a disc jockey—classical, jazz, and folk—and, with the advent of television, an unorthodox talk show host. On Studs’s Place, he ran a version of the entertaining hotel lobby debates of his youth—improvised, filmed live, scrappy, unpredictable. His kind of TV was known as “TV, Chicago style”; it had its own manner, a rough-and-tumble ambiance with a whiff of Carl Sandburg’s famous Chicago poem about it: City of the Big Shoulders, “with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning,” not to mention the fearless, defiant, brawling, dusty-faced, white-teethed laughter to which Sandburg gives pride of place.

Terkel was always a laugher in this sense, though of the puckish kind rather than the brawling, white-teethed variety; and he was never afraid of putting himself on the line. Naturally, he got involved with picket lines and petitions—“I never met a picket line or a petition I didn’t like,” he says, with daunting Pickwickian geniality. Needless to say, he found himself an object of repeated scrutiny during the McCarthy era. FBI agents used to visit him in solemn twosomes, and though his wife was cool toward them, he himself was “always hospitable. Remember, I was an innkeeper’s boy.” When an emissary from NBC showed up, demanding that he say he was “duped by the communists,” he refused. “Suppose communists come out against cancer. Do we have to come out for cancer?” he asked. “That is not very funny,” said the NBC official, like many a schoolmarm before him.

Terkel was then blacklisted for several years, during which he made a living lecturing to women’s clubs about jazz. (He’s proud of these women’s clubs, for they too were fearless Chicago-style laughers: though warned off him, not one club ever canceled an engagement.) In the mid-Fifties he was finally rescued by Mahalia Jackson, who insisted he be the host of her weekly CBS radio show. When an emissary from the network turned up with a loyalty oath, insisting Studs sign it or else, Mahalia said, “…If they fire Studs,…go find another Mahalia.” “In saying no,” says Terkel, Mahalia Jackson “revealed more self-esteem, let alone what our country is all about, than…all the sponsors and agencies rolled into one.”

Those who have had the pleasurable workout of being interviewed by Studs Terkel during his long-running book program on NPR will agree that it was an interview experience like no other. Unlike some, Studs would always read the book. Then he’d reread it. When you arrived for the interview, there would be Studs, hugging your book, which would look as if he’d been rolling around on the floor with it. It would be underlined in different pens and pencils, cross-referenced, with little bits of colored paper sticking out all over it. Then he’d start in—“I stayed up all night reading this, I couldn’t put it down”—and you’d realize that he knew more about your book than you did yourself. This knowledge was not used to make you look like an idiot, but to prop you up. The enthusiasm, the energy, the excitement, were put across with a verve that had you reeling out of the place feeling you’d just participated in a rafter-raising musical comedy, in which Studs had given you the role of star tap-dancer without your having auditioned for it.

While conducting the interviews for his oral history series, Terkel evidently drew on many of the same skills, though he concerned himself not with books but with people. He has made himself into a conduit through which voices have flowed—familiar voices, powerful voices, but also obscure voices, ordinary voices, voices that otherwise might not have been heard. It’s been a huge amount of work, in aid of which he’s traveled all over the country. In his later years it can’t have been physically easy for him—he recounts with appreciation his trip, while visiting a Chicago tycoon, up a flight of stairs in an electric armchair—and it must also have been hard in other ways: the stories he’s recorded have not been without their conflicts and defeats, the lives celebrated have often been tough, and not all of them have had happy endings. Some of those he interviewed for this book were old and ill. Their wives had died, or they’d had a stroke, or they were using a walker, or they were in a wheelchair. The two people to whom the book is dedicated are the lawyer Clifford Durr and his Southern belle wife, Virginia Durr, of Montgomery, Alabama, who spearheaded the civil rights movement there in the Fifties, against fearful odds. Both are dead.

What drove Terkel on? Partly it was the same kind of alert and open curiosity that led him to interviewing in the first place. “I’ve always wondered what made Virginia and Clifford Durr tick,” he muses, without coming up with a definitive theory. But it’s more than simple wondering. The answers to such questions, he implies, are in the stories, and he lets his subjects tell these stories for themselves.

It’s perhaps helpful to think of Studs Terkel as the inheritor of the same strain of American idealistic romanticism that produced Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck, and many more. According to this tradition, “democracy” is a serious idea, indeed an article of belief, rather than a snippet of election-year rhetoric or Oscar Wilde’s wisecrack about the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people. For those who still keep faith with the early, bright-eyed concept of American democracy, all men really are created equal, and to treat any human being as less than human is a heresy. No coincidence that Terkel quotes Tom Paine, that eighteenth-century gadfly and apologist for the rights of man, and finds his words appropriate in the America of 2003:

Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing…. In such a situation, man becomes what he ought. He sees his species, not with the inhuman eye of a natural enemy, but as a kindred.

One’s-Self I sing, a simple sepa-rate person,/Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse,” says Whitman…

One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same….
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.”

This could almost be a prospectus for Terkel’s life’s work: the bringing together of diverse voices until they join in harmony and counterpoint, the goal being a unified whole in which every individual nevertheless remains distinct. “It’s…like a legion of Davids, with all sorts of slingshots. It’s not one slingshot that will do it,” says Terkel.

But there are problems with a legion of Davids. An aroused and rightfully annoyed society is not the same thing as a mob on the rampage, but how do you keep the one from turning into the other? And if the Davids win, won’t some of them become Goliaths in their turn, as witness the histories of some unions? E pluribus unum, says the Great Seal of the United States, but it doesn’t say what kind of one is to be made out of the many, or how you keep the country from becoming a de facto dictatorship, ruled by fear, with everybody snooping on everybody else. These are the difficulties faced by a pluralistic, individualistic, market-driven, yet officially democratic society like that of the United States. “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” said Thomas Jefferson. Terkel might amend this to “The price of liberty is eternal slingshots.” But does liberty mean you can do whatever you like as long as you don’t get caught? At what point does the liberty of one depend on the serfdom of another? And what Goliaths, exactly, ought the Davids to shoot at with their slingshots? Any Goliaths who forget that liberty entails responsibility, Terkel would probably reply: walk on people and you’re fair game.

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