He Springs Eternal

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…

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