Studs Terkel
Studs Terkel; drawing by David Levine

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.

The subject of Hope Dies Last isn’t just any kind of hope, such as “Hope you’re feeling better,” “Hope for the best,” or even “I hope you die.” Lots of things have been said about hope; nor has it always had a good press. For some, hope is a phantom, a deluding will-o’-the-wisp, luring men away from reality—presupposed to be grim—and into attractive but deadly swamps. For some, Camus included, it’s the dirty trick at the bottom of Pandora’s box, the deceptive gizmo that keeps Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill. “Hope sustains us, to be replaced sooner or later by a walking stick,” said the Bulgarian epigrammatist Kouncho Grosev. “There is an abundance of hope, but none for us,” said Franz Kafka. “You must go on, I have to go on, I’ll go on,” says Beckett in The Unnameable.

Terkel knows his Camus and his Beckett and the Greek myths, but does not change course for them. Two of his subjects refer to Emily Dickinson’s poem:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird—
That kept so many warm….

This is the kind of hope Terkel means, the hope that persists in the face of discouragement. All but a few of the people he interviews in his book have been chosen because they did not cease from mental fight, or let their swords sleep in their hands; they took up their bows of burning gold and their arrows of desire, and let fly.

If there are biblical echoes here it’s not by accident. “Studs…you have such a big mouth, you should have been a preacher,” Terkel quotes a pal as saying. But he is a sort of preacher. One branch of Christianity has always led to activism: according to it, all souls are equal before God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and you must love your neighbors as yourself and visit them when they are sick and in prison, and if you do bad things unto the least of these, you do them unto God. (There’s another branch of Christianity that rests on the verse about those who have getting more, and those who have not being deprived even of what they have, which these folks interpret financially; but that’s another story.) A number of the subjects in this book started out along the path of religion; among them are priests, seminarians, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists.

As for hope, it goes hand in hand—biblically—with faith and charity: you might say faith is the belief, hope is the emotion made possible by it, and charity is the action required. Terkel’s hope is not vain hope, but is one with the kindly light that leads amid the encircling gloom: it’s hope for something better. The book’s title comes from a saying that was current among the Spanish-speaking farm workers organized by Cesar Chavez—“La esperanza muere última“—but is cited by others in the book as well. Terkel comments, “It was a metaphor for much of the twentieth century.” He quotes Kathy Kelly of the Voices in the Wilderness project: “I’m working toward a world in which it would be easier for people to behave decently.”

It’s possible to get swept away by what at times resembles an inspirational revival meeting. The spirit moves you; Good Samaritan kindly feelings suffuse you; you feel like rushing out and joining something. Perhaps a caveat is in order: one person’s hope-inspired activism is another’s pain in the neck. Who’s to choose what “a better world” is, and how to best bring it about? There’s a point of view that might characterize various well-intentioned activities as misguided obstructionism, illegal interference, subversive undermining of the social order, godless communism, and so on. Should actions be judged by the sincerity of their intentions? Yes, say the Romantics; no, say the historians, they should instead be judged, like wars, by their outcomes. As for good intentions, we know what Hell’s paved with. Were the Resistance fighters behind the German lines in World War II brave heroes striking a blow for freedom, or were they criminal thugs? Depends on who’s doing the labeling.

Hope respects no national boundaries, and it crosses ideological lines at will. Terkel’s book dodges this issue, though his inclusion of General Paul Tibbetts—pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb that wiped out Hiroshima—makes us sit up and blink. To be sure, Tibbetts says he was motivated by hope of a kind—he hoped his action would end the war and “save a lot of lives.” American lives, it’s understood, for his attitude toward the Japanese civilians who were snuffed out is cavalier: “That’s their tough luck for being there.” As Lenin famously remarked, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, but what kind of omelet is needed will always be a matter of dispute, and there’s no long line of candidates anywhere for the position of egg.

That said, Hope Dies Last captures the reader, though the choices will not be to everyone’s taste. Terkel’s main emphasis is on people from the parts of society familiar to him: old lefties, workers in housing projects and among the poor, students who fought on behalf of custodial staff during the sit-in at Harvard in 2001, union activists as well as activists against corruption in unions, civil rights workers, peace workers, teachers in difficult neighborhoods. No surprise that quite a few of these are from Chicago.

But there are surprises of other kinds. In one section—“Easy Riders”—the interviewees share only the fact that they ride around on bicycles. One is a courier, living in the moment. Another is a doctor who goes

a half day every week out into Golden Gate Park on my bicycle with medicines…. Usually, if you work in a clinic, people come to you. Whereas if you’re doing outreach in the park, you go up and offer your services. It’s a different kind of playing field.

Another section, “Immigrants,” contains a sound engineer of Iraqi origin, two undocumented Guatamalans whose hope consists in the hope of not being found out, and a man of Japanese descent who describes how, as a high school senior, he was put in a detention camp with his family after Pearl Harbor and has since worked with the movement to redress the harm done to the Japanese. Will American Iraqis one day have their own redress movement? After September 11, Mr. Usama Alshaibi told Terkel,

I was very worried because the government took three thousand men and put them in detention centers. They weren’t officially charged…. I wouldn’t be surprised right now if they grabbed me and just started asking me a bunch of questions.

The unpleasant surprises include many horror stories—jailings, beatings, murders. Among them are the account of wheelchair-ridden Dierdre Merriman, a recovering alcoholic whose neck was broken by an ex-boyfriend and who now lives in a single room in a large Chicago apartment building and works as a rape victim advocate, and that of Leroy Orange, tortured with electrodes to obtain a confession of murder during a police department reign of terror in Chicago, wrongfully convicted, and finally pardoned by Governor George Ryan in 2003 after a courageous legal campaign.

By no means all of Terkel’s subjects are from the bottom crust of the social pie. John Kenneth Galbraith contributes a pithy statement to the section called “Concerning Enronism”:

As things now stand, we allow enormous incompetence and enormous compensation to those who have power. I see that as a great unsolved problem of our time. And since it is all quite legal, I call it the likelihood of innocent fraud. I entered the world of politics at a time when there were Fifth Amendment communists, and I’ve reached the age of ninety-four, when there are Fifth Amendment capitalists.

He’s followed by Wallace Rasmusson, who worked his way up through the Depression to become the president and CEO of Beatrice Foods, a company worth $7.8 billion when he retired in 1975.

What’s happened at Enron and WorldCom—cooking books—is criminal. A great country lasts about four hundred years. We’re in the declining-morality period. That is what ruined Rome…. Greed…. I always said, “In God we trust, everything else we audit.”

There are several kinds of activism that might seem obvious to some readers, but that are not much represented in Hope Dies Last. The women’s movement marks one of the most noteworthy social shifts of the last two centuries, but it is barely present here. There are women interviewed, yes—seventeen out of fifty-eight—and intrepid women at that. One of those mentioned is anonymous—an old white woman who kept a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Nashville from becoming a massacre, purely through force of character and through believing that some ways are no way to behave—a case of Miss Manners to the rescue. “I just came in to buy an egg poacher,” was her story. She walked

up and down between the students seated and the mob that would come up and put out a cigarette on them, spit on a young woman’s neck and all. The students just sat, they didn’t protest. This old woman…[would] go up and talk to these young white thugs. “How would you feel if that was your sister?” And they would kind of, “Oh, I didn’t mean nothing.” Then they’d go back in the mob and someone else would take over.

Some of the women are among Terkel’s bravest subjects—women like Kathy Kelly, jailed for planting corn on missile silos, and Mollie McGrath, who worked to reform sweatshops and took part in protests against the World Trade Organization—but they are included because they were involved in movements of other kinds. Why is that? Terkel has nothing against women; in fact, so nondiscriminatory is he toward them that he doesn’t appear to view them as a special category, or not one needing a movement of their own. Maybe he has the somewhat bashful attitude—so common among men once—of not wanting to butt in on a hen party. Maybe he can’t quite believe in oppression by a gender, of a gender, because of gender. There are no gay activists here, either.

With Mollie McGrath the antiglobalization movement gets a look-in, but no more than that. The green movement is touched on through Pete Seeger, folk singer to a generation, now busily trying to clean up the Hudson River; also through Frances Moore Lappé. Many will remember Lappé fondly as the author of Diet for a Small Planet: How would we ever have known about soy flour without her? Hope Dies Last is so filled with quotable quotes you sometimes think you’re reading Bartlett’s, and Lappé has some zingers. “Hunger is not caused by a lack of food, it’s caused by a lack of democracy,” she says.

My daughter, Anna, loves to say, “I used to think that hope was for wimps.” Hope is not for wimps; it’s for the strong-hearted who can recognize how bad things are and yet not be deterred, not be paralyzed.

Hope is not something we find, hope is something we become.

This is the first generation to know that the choices we’re making have ultimate consequences. It’s a time when you either choose life or you choose death…. Going along with the current order means that you’re choosing death.

We’re just a drop in the bucket…. If you have a bucket, those raindrops fill it up very fast…. Our work is helping people see that there is a bucket. There are all these people all over the world who are creating this bucket of hope.

If we were picking teams—the Hopes vs. the Despairs—Lappé would be my first choice for captain of the Hopes. Her outlook is global, she knows where we stand as a species, she’s tough as a week-old soy flour biscuit, and she’s looking ahead, not back.

And Studs Terkel would be the umpire. No, I’ll rethink that: he’d be too biased on the side of the Hope team. He’d have to be the coach. He’d bring to the task many decades of experience, the ability to galvanize, lots of anecdotal lore, and a store of energy to help out during the hard parts. That’s what Hope Dies Last is, in essence: not just a social document, not just fascinating American history, but a coach’s manual, complete with a number of model pep talks that may get you out of your armchair and propel you right into Blake’s mental fight. It’s all the more impressive that Terkel was putting this book together in the days after September 11 and before the invasion of Iraq, when it might have looked as if he’d be preaching to the sea. Now many will find the words he’s collected both inspiring and timely: Representative Dennis Kucinich speaks for many in Hope Dies Last when he says,

…We’re challenged to insist even more strongly on the basic freedoms that we have, because it is through those freedoms that we’re vindicated. If we lose those freedoms, we’re not America any more.

This Issue

November 6, 2003