Studs Terkel, the remarkable writer, TV/radio fixture, and activist, has died at his Chicago home at age 96. His last book, titled P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening, was due to be published next month.
Terkel has had a long and very full life, but I still find myself so sad about this. This is a man who could find the spirit and soul in every person he talked to, who understood that these stories were the only stories that matter.
As I'm learning from remembrances of Terkel, he was a man with a law degree who never practiced law, who played very early recordings of Mahalia Jackson and Bob Dylan, on the air, and who was hired in a New Deal writers project that gave him his lift as one of the greatest listeners and storytellers of the last century.
A champion of progressive causes, and as a man dedicated to elevating the voices of the working class, Terkel was blacklisted under McCarthyism. He also organized for sharecroppers and others who felt the brunt of poverty.
He was in his 50s when he published his first book.
From one of his hometown newspapers:
It was a theme that Terkel would explore again and again, in "Hard Times," his Depression era memoir in 1970; in "Working," his saga of the lives of ordinary working people in 1974; in "American Dreams; Lost and Found" in 1980; and "The Good War," remembrances of World War II, published in 1985 and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Most of his books were written radio. Terkel asked questions and then listened. He drew out of people things they didn't know they had in them.
There was, of course, much more in him.
... In 1992 came "Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession," followed by 1995's "Coming of Age, The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It," and 1997's "My American Century." ...
...He ... published "The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With Those Who Made Them," a gathering of some of his best radio interviews. He set to work on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections of Death, Rebirth and Hunger for Faith," which was published in 2001, "Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times" (2003) and another collection titled "And They All Sang: Reflections of an Eclectic Disk Jockey" (2005).
He also published Work--an exhaustive and entertaining collection of stories from workers at an enormous range of jobs--and Touch and Go, a memoir of his life that is something of a prequel to the book he has being published next month.
In this 2004 video about Terkel, he describes how he listens and ultimately builds the stories of other people as a "solilquey," highlighting the poetry of their voices while staying very, very true to the speakers' words and meaning.
He had a craft, a craft the pretty much designed himself; I can't think of a single counterpart to him. Probably "oral history" wouldn't exist like it does today if it weren't for him. And that "on the ground" first-person sort of journalism that Hunter S. Thompson et. al popularized awhile back was old tread for Terkel. He knew all along the value of the first-person story, but like the Gonzo proponents, Terkel didn't put himself in the voice of the "I." That was a sacred place for another.
Interview shows are popular on radio and television today; Q&A's are regular features in print, and Terkel's legacy certainly shaped all these forms. But the influence hasn't cut deep enough yet. The interviews of today, across all media, spin within a very narrow spectrum, and none bear the blood and beating heart of Terkel's interviews.
Terkel was honored with the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts. His 45 years of recordings from his radio show and book interviews are held by the Chicago History Museum.
... "My epitaph? My epitaph will be 'Curiosity did not kill this cat,'" (Terkel) said.
All too true, and let's be thankful for the respect, patience and passionate enthusiasm Terkel brought into his conversations with those Americans whose names don't appear in bold-type in history textbooks. We are a better human culture because he carried their voices into prominent spaces--giving them a chance to speak for themselves--and gave us the gift of a truer, more colorful, more nuanced story of ourselves as a nation.
For myself: I'm growing weary of writing these online eulogies for people I admire.