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Studs Terkel

Hearing the Voices of America Through the Ears of an Agitator

March 19, 2000|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to The Times. Her oral history "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work" will be published in October

Nobody knows Americans the way Louis "Studs" Terkel does. Since his first book of oral history, "Division Street: America," in 1967, Terkel has traveled the country, documenting the way people feel about how they live and work. The otherwise "anonymous many" have talked to him about the Great Depression in "Hard Times" (1970), their jobs in "Working" (1974) and old age in "Coming of Age" (1996). His eight oral histories have won him both the Pulitzer Prize (in 1985, for "The Good War: An Oral History of World War II") and a National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton in 1997.

Born in New York City in 1912 and raised in Chicago, Terkel trained as a lawyer but instead became an actor, disc jockey and, in the '50s, a radio and TV personality. His early talk and interview show, "Studs' Place," first aired on Chicago television in 1950. When the show ended three years later after he was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Terkel began a 45-year stint of weekday radio interviews on WFMT, Chicago's fine-arts radio station.

A few of Terkel's interviews published in a magazine in the early 1960s came to the attention of publisher Andre Schiffrin at Random House's Pantheon Books. The way Terkel tells it, Random House had just published Jan Myrdal's "Report from a Chinese Village," and Schiffrin suggested Terkel report on an American village, Chicago. The result was "Division Street," and, says Terkel, "like the serpent in the Garden of Eden," Schiffrin has been back again and again, tempting him with one good oral-history topic after another.

Terkel owes his success, he has said, to his ability to use interviewing skills and a tape recorder to catch and transform "the man of inchoate thought." His method, Terkel explains, combines the crafts of gold prospector and brain surgeon. He refines his "ore" of 40 or more pages of transcript down to a handful, using a surgeon's care and caution while editing.

"The Spectator," a 1999 book of his radio interviews with film and theater people, is the first of a planned trilogy that will also include "The Listener," about musicians, and "The Reader," about authors. He has already begun a new oral history of how we think about death.

Terkel was recently in Los Angeles for a public chat with actor-director Tim Robbins as part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Institute for Art & Cultures. Short and compact, wearing his traditional red vest, Terkel looks considerably younger than his 87 years. His wife of 60 years, Ida Goldberg Terkel, died in December.

Terkel prefers free association to traditional conversation and segues back and forth between the past and present, often in a single sentence. His speech is largely anecdotal as he rummages through memory, searching for the perfect person or anecdote to answer a question or express a thought.


Question: You've written about poverty and racism, cities and jobs. What are the most pressing issues you see today?

Answer: One of the ironies of our day--not ironies--one of the obscenities of our day is the fact that we have something I call a "national Alzheimer's disease": There is no yesterday. . . . I [was] talking . . . to people waiting for the bus, and there was this couple waiting with me one day. Yuppies. He's in Brooks Brothers clothes. Got the Wall Street Journal in his hand. She's in Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdale's and has Vanity Fair. I say, "Labor Day is coming up." He looks at me the way Noel Coward would look at a flyspeck. "We used to march down State Street," I say. "Waving flags. Solidarity forever. We shall not be moved. UAW. CIO." He looks at me and says, "We despise unions."

I ask him, "How many hours a day do you work?" It's a non sequitur, but he says, "Eight." I say, "You know why you don't work 18 hours a day? Because four guys in Chicago [died] back in 1886. It's called the Haymarket Affair. They were hanged for you, for the eight-hour day."

The bus is late, and she's tremulous, like Fay Wray in "King Kong." I ask her how many hours a week she works, and she says, "40." And I say, "You don't work 80 because, back in the '30s, men and women got their heads busted for you."

Now, I'm not going to blame them. How do they know about labor? Every paper's got a feature section. Business. Sports. Entertainment. Is there a labor section? Of course not. Labor page? Of course not. So is it their fault? Of course not. There's no knowledge.

Q: How would you describe the great changes in the nature of work?

A: When I did "Working," I went to an auto plant where this young union guy showed me a robot they called a Unimate. Out in front of the line is this thing that looks like a praying mantis. It doesn't eat. It doesn't take time out to smoke a cigarette. It doesn't organize unions. It doesn't complain. It does steady work, and they have to keep up with it.

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