Yesterday I read in the papers that Studs Terkel, oral historian and radio disc jockey, died last Friday. He was 96 years old. When I read about it, I had a sad feeling. I first started reading his books when I was in college and these books helped me to learn about the way Americans thought about race, class, and the way they thought about the times they were living. I enjoyed reading the stories of individual Americans, their experiences and insights and their resilience in the face of hard times.
First, some facts. Louis “Studs” Terkel was born May 16, 1912 in New York City. His family moved to Chicago while he was young and he met the workers and activists who shaped his world view. He got the nickname “Studs” from the character Studs Lonigan in the James T. Farrells trilogy of books about an Irish American man in Chicago’s South Side. Terkel graduated from the University of Chicago in 1932, studying law and philosophy. He worked briefly as a federal statistician and found employment in radio through the WPA Writers Project acting in soap operas. In the 1940s, he worked fulltime in radio as a disc jockey and hosted an early t.v. show “Studs Place” set in a fictional bar in Chicago.
Terkel wrote his first oral history Division Street: America about a series of conversations of race with Chicago residents in 1967. A series of oral histories followed that tackled various subjects: Hard Times tackled the experiences of the Great Depression; Working chronicled the thoughts of workers and their jobs; Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About The American Obsession talked about race relations. Terkel won a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for The Good War, a series of remembrances of World War II. His book Working was listed number 54 by the Modern Library publishers as one of the century’s 100 best English language works of nonfiction.
Terkel was a liberal who was a big fan of FDR’s New Deal programs from the Great Depression. They influenced him to see things from the average person’s point of view and his oral histories celebrate the experience of the average everyday American. In a 1992 interview Terkel advocated political changes that came from “pressure from below, from the grassroots. That means the people who live and work in cities- that used to be called the working class, although now everyone says middle class.”
I own a copy of Terkel’s American Dreams: Lost and Found and it’s one of my favorite books. In this book Terkel asks people their thoughts on the American dream and their thoughts offer a wide view of the hopes and frustrations of Americans in every part of the country. In the introduction, Terkel writes,
“In The Uses of the Past, Herbert Muller writes: ‘In the incessant din of the mediocre, mean and fraudulent activities of a commercial mass society, we are apt to forget the genuine idealism of democracy, of the long painful struggle for liberty and equality… The modern world is as revolutionary as everybody says it is. Because the paradoxes of our age are so violent, men have been violently oversimplifying them. If we want to save our world, we might try to keep and use our heads.’
In this book are a hundred American voices, captured by hunch, circumstances, and a rough idea. There is no pretense at statistical ‘truth’ nor consensus. There is, in the manner of a jazz work, an attempt, of theme and improvisation, to recount dreams, lost and found, and a recognition of possibility.”
For my own tribute to Studs Terkel, I’ll just take excerpts of some of the interviews from my favorite book, American Dreams.
Emma Knight, Miss USA, 1973:
“Several times during my year as what’s-her-face I had seen the movie The Sting. There’s a gesture the characters use which means the con is on: they rub their nose. In my last fleeting moments as Miss U.S.A., as they were playing that silly farewell speech and I walked down the aisle and stood by the throne, I looked right into the camera and rubbed my finger aross my nose. The next day, the pageant people spent all their time telling people that I hadn’t done it. I spent the time telling that, of course, I had. I simply meant: the con is on (laughs).
Miss U.S.A. is in the same graveyard that Emma Knight the twelve-year-old is. Where the sixteen-year-old is. All the past selves. There comes a time when you have to bury those selves because you’ve grown into another one. You don’t keep exhuming the corpses.
If I could sit down with every young girl in America for the next fifty years, I could tell them what I liked about the pageant, I could tell them what I hated. It wouldn’t make any difference. There’re always gonna be girls who want to enter the beauty pageant. That’s the fantasy: the American Dream.”
Wallace Rasmussen, winner of the Horatio Alger Award:
“I think hardship is necessary for life to be good, for you to enjoy it. If you don’t know hardship, you don’t know when you have it good. Today, the father and mother don’t want their children to go through the same hardships. I don’t look at it that way. I have two children. One is forty and one is thirty-six. I can still say,’This is what you do,’ and that’s what they do. I’m a firm believer that they had to know things weren’t always that easy. There’s a price you pay for everything.”
C.P. Ellis, member of the Durham Human Relations Council 1977, former Ku Klux Klan member:
“The same thing is happening in this country today. People are being used by those in control, those who have all the wealth. I’m not espousing communism. We got the greatest system of government in the world. But those who have it simply don’t want those who don’t have it to have any part of it. Black and white. When it comes to money, the green, the other colors make no difference. (Laughs)
I spent a lot of sleepless nights. I stil didn’t like blacks. I didn’t want to associate with ’em. Blacks, Jews, or Catholics. My father said: ‘Don’t have anything to do with them.’ I didn’t until I met a black person and talked with him, eyeball to eyeball, and met a jewish person and talked to him, eyeball to eyeball. I found out they’re people just like me. They cried, they cussed, they prayed, they had desires. Thanks god, I got to the point where I can look past labels. But at the time my mind was closed.”
Rafael Rosa, bellhop:
“What’s going on these days with all the violence, a person’s gotta think twice of walking down the street. one time I got mugged in the South Bronx. Three guys jumped me as I was walking down this dark street. One guy stops me for a cigarette, and as I go to give him one, two guys grab me from behind. They just started beatin’ on me and took all my money and left me on the floor and fled. I recovered, and now I think twice about it. Before I was mugged, I walked down any street. I’d rather walk around a dark street than go through it, no matter how much time it’s gonna take me to get there. If people call ya, I just keep on walking if I don’t know the person. I look back and just keep walking.
I suggest: Don’t walk alone at night. Walk with a stick to protect yourself. Don’t get too high because it slows down your reflexes. You gotta keep your head clear. They say: Never look back. In real life, you gotta look back.”
Jessie De La Cruz, small farmer and migrant worker activist:
I was given a shot in the arm by Cesar Chavez. (Laughs) All of the things I always felt, like I wanted t say, I helf back because of fear of losing a job, of being thought not a very good woman, or some kind of fear inside me that had been intelled in me by my grandmother, who always warned us whenever we did something, the police would come. Always being scared by a neighbor: I’m gonna call the police and take you to juvenile. We always heard these. So when Cesar Chavez started talking to us and sayin’ women have to become involved, they have to speak, they’re farm workers, too , then, I just, oh, had a good feeling. I said: ‘Boy, now!'”
Pat and Tom Gish, editors and publishers of The Mountain Eagle:
“The flood of 1957 came that just about wiped our everything in eastern Kentucky. the coal industry entered into a state of almost total collapse. the mines that had been working three, four days a week were working one day a week or none at all. Many mines closed. In ’61 we had what amounted to mass starvation. Nothing was being done. We were broke ourselves.
People were walking the streets of Whitesburg, begging for food, begging for clothes, begging for money to see a doctor, begging for money to buy medicine. I don’t think the rest of the country recognized what was happening. the turning point for me came when a women appeared, stinking, with an awful odor of dead and decaying flesh, with a not from a doctor saying she much have surgery if she was to live. She was diabetic and had to have her legs amputated. She was walking the streets of Whitesburg, begging enough money to get to a hospital.
We realized something had to be done. The rest of the world must know something about what the heck was going on in eastern Kentucky. We spent all our spare moments for the next several years showing around visiting reporters, writers, and government officials by the dozen. This in itself was an almost criminal thing to do. The pride of the area has been so enormous that it became a cardinal sin to suggest that anything might be wrong.”
Linda Haas, high school student:
“I learned all the whitewash things. I didn’t learn about America in school. I learned what they wanted me to learn. What I feel about America, I learned on my own. In school, everything was just great: We never did anything wrong. Everything was justified. Up until I was thirteen, I believed that. After that, I turned myself off, and from then on it was my own opinion.
I like living here. I should appreciate it more. We have so much freedom and stuff. We take a lot for granted. I don’t know if it’s the greatest place to live, because I’ve never been enywhere else. So I’m not gonna say it’s the greatest until I know. I know it’s a good place. At the moment, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”