He Interviewed the Nation

Studs Terkel has a new book out—the fourth one he produced after turning ninety.* I was writing a review of it when his son called to tell me he had died (at age ninety-six). Terkel’s astonishing late productivity came from what, for him especially, would seem a crippling development: the fact that he lost most of his hearing during his late years, despite the best efforts of doctors and hearing-aid technicians. Bad as this would be for any of us, it was a special blow to Terkel, whose specialty was hearing others tell about themselves. I have been in cabs with him and wondered at his ability to elicit the driver’s whole life story before we reached our destination.

It was a gift that came from empathy, curiosity, and a willingness to let others express their views, even when Terkel did not share them. On this gift he built a literature—some eighteen books of oral histories and radio interviews with people famous and obscure, all of them unusually willing to reveal themselves in intimate ways. He has given his vast trove of tapes to the Chicago History Museum, where they will be listened to in perpetuity. (Where else can you hear the voices of Dorothy Parker being witty or Zero Mostel being explosive?)

When he was deprived of his ability to listen to others, he dug into his own memories, his vast experience, his range of acquaintances (many now dead), and his observations of the worlds of politics, music, theater, and urban life. With the help of his longtime assistant at WFMT Radio, Sydney Lewis, and the encouragement of his publisher, André Schiffrin of the New Press, Terkel took his isolation from sound as an opportunity to write more than he had in any other part of his life.

The wonder is that he was not really isolated. I have seen him, in earlier days, walk along the street in Chicago and be mobbed by people wanting to talk with him. He welcomed them all, and made slow if any progress to wherever he was going. But even when he was mainly immobilized in his Prairie School house in the northern part of Chicago, the world beat a path to his door. People still wanted to talk with him, even if they had to shout at close range and repeat themselves.

In recent months and weeks, streams of people came to draw on his genial memories. The opera director Peter Sellars asked to see him when he brought Doctor Atomic to the Lyric Opera. Mos Def, the hip-hop artist, who wants to do radio interviews modeled on those of Terkel, brought his musician father along, who had played with some of Terkel’s friends in the folk music world. Neal Baer, the philanthropist and producer of Law and Order: SVU, who is doing a book on storytelling as a social force, wanted to consult the practiced storyteller. Old friends dropped in whenever they could—Garrison Keillor, Alex Kotlowitz, Jules Feiffer, and…

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