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History's Etceteras

November 23, 1997|STUDS TERKEL

Editor's Note: On Nov. 18, Studs Terkel was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He delivered the following remarks:


There is more than a touch of irony to this pleasant occasion. I am, after a fashion, being celebrated for having celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated; for lending voice to the face in the crowd.

This, I imagine, is what much of oral history is about. It has been with us long before the feather pen and ink, and certainly long before Gutenberg and his printing press. It has been with us since the first shaman, at the first communal fire, called upon the spirits to recount a tribal tale, to reveal a hidden truth.

It is no accident that Alex Haley, in writing "Roots," first visited the land of his forebears, Gambia, to search out the griots, the tribal storytellers.

It was Henry Mayhew, a contemporary of Dickens, who sought out the needleworkers, the shoemakers, the street criers, the chimney sweeps, all those etceteras, and, in one year, 1850, poured forth a million words, their words, in the Morning Chronicle. He lent voice to these groundlings, who were so often seen but, like well-behaved children, seldom heard. The Respectables of London, Manchester and Birmingham, in reading their morning newspaper, were astonished. They had no idea these etceteras, who had for so long submissively and silently served them, thought such thoughts and, what's more, felt that way.

E.P. Thompson pointed out that Mayhew rejected the temptation to "varnish matters over with sickly sentimentality, angelizing or canonizing the whole body of workers of this country, instead of speaking of them as possessing the ordinary vices and virtues of human nature."

Listen to this Mayhew at a public gathering of tailors in October 1850: "It is easy enough to be moral after a good dinner beside a snug sea-coal fire, and with our hearts well warmed with a fine old port.

"It is easy enough for those that can enjoy these things daily to pay their poor's rates, rent their pew and love their neighbors as themselves; but place the self-same 'highly respectable' people on a raft without sup or bite on the high seas and they would toss up who would eat their fellows. Morality on 5,000 pounds a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing to morality on slop-wages in Bethnal Green."

It is no accident that Nelson Algren, winner of the very first National Book Award for Fiction in 1950, precisely 100 years later, often expressed his admiration for Mayhew's classic "London Labour and the London Poor." As for me, that book has been Scripture; Mayhew has been my North Star. Nor was Henry Mayhew the last so engaged in this adventure we call oral history.

It was Zora Neale Hurston, already established as a folklorist and anthropologist (she was a disciple of Franz Boas), who, during the Great Depression, as a member of the Works Progress Administration Writers Project in Florida, at the pay of $37.50 every two weeks, engaged in a similar adventure. She tracked down former slaves, children of slaves and their children, sharecroppers. She celebrated their lives, in their own words. There were scores of such writers so occupied throughout the country, under the auspices of Big Guv'mint.

Studs Terkel is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of numerous books, including "Division Street: America," "Working," "The Good War" and, most recently, "My American Century."

(A further touch of irony. It was the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal, best remembered by the much maligned acronym WPA, and other such alphabet agencies, that saved the self-esteem, the livelihoods and, in many instances, the lives of the daddies and granddaddies of those who most condemn Big Guv'mint today. It is a case of stunning forgetfulness, as though we're suffering from National Alzheimer's Disease.)

What distinguishes the work in our day from the efforts of these pioneers is the presence of a machine, a ubiquitous one--the tape recorder. I know of one other person as possessed by the tape recorder as I have been these past 30 years--a former president of the United States. Though our purposes may have been somewhat different, the two of us have been equally in its thrall. Richard Nixon and I could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians: I tape, therefore I am. I hope one of these two so possessed may be further defined by a paraphrase: I tape, therefore they are. Who are they, hardly deserving a footnote in history? Who are they, of whom the bards have seldom sung?

Bertold Brecht, in a series of questions, put it this way:

Who built the Seven Gates of Thebes. . . ?

When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch?

When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?

When the Armada sank, we read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?

That's what I believe oral history is about. It's about those who shed these other tears. Or who laughed, during those rare moments of triumph.

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