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'Working' on Labor Day with Studs Terkel

September 02, 2013|By Carolyn Kellogg
  • Studs Terkel in 2001
Studs Terkel in 2001 (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune )

Studs Terkel was a master storyteller, or maybe story-listener. His oral histories showed that with the right ear, he could make an interview something special -- he got to the heart of things, to the hearts of people.

His book "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do," published in 1974, became a smash hit -- in Terkel's hands, the work lives of everyday people became fascinating.

This is our 1974 review of the book by the L.A. Times' Robert Kirsch. It began with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita, "What is work? and what is not work? are questions that perplex the wisest of men."

What Studs Terkel uncovers in "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do" is a kind of living theater, captured on a tape recorder, transcribed and then edited down so that the character, tone, introspection and drama are retained. We hear these people and recognize them -- partially -- for the great accomplishment is the depth of the penetrations -- to dream, to fantasy, to illusion.

It seems such a simple idea. Like Terkel's previous books, "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression" and "Division Street: America," the idea came from his editor at Pantheon, Andrew Schiffrin, and Terkel acknowledges his help and the help of others. But in the event, the book which emerges is the product of Terkel's particular talent, which can be called interviewing, but is really something more than asking questions and listening for answers. The result, as you see, is far from simple.

Work is one of those basic human activities so crucial to life and identity that to pursue the detail of doing and the feelings it compels inevitably leads to something more: the way we feel about ourselves and our experiences, our children and our friends -- and enemies, our country and the way we live, our past, present and future. For the subjects, and for the reader, the book is a deep penetration of American thought and feeling, evokes the lives of more than 130 men and women in their own words, candid, insightful and honest, challenges them and us to the hard question of those homilies, banalities and Fourth of July abstractions which our politicians recite with such smug certainty and more often than not with self-delusion.

It is in its way, a masterpiece of the art of conversation. That said, the question is begged: Can conversation be an art? The way Terkel does it, it is, if art is that kind of activity which draws from ideas, experiences and emotions; matter so shaped that it compels in us expansion and awe, a recognition of the familiar in new ways, a surprise in the ordinary.

A few of the names of those who talked with Terkel you will recognize: the actor Rip Torn, the film critic Pauline Kael, the football coach George Allen. But most of them you won't -- Hots Michael, a bar pianist; Donna Murray, a bookbinder; Fritz Ritter, a doorman; Tom Patrick, a fireman; Therese Carter, a housewife; Pierce Walker, a farmer. And others: an elevator operator, a spot-welder, a waitress, a stewardess, a teacher, a jockey, a gravedigger, a meter reader, a salesman, a supermarket checker, a copy boy, a president of a corporation.

Crafts and professions, vocations and skills, have, as the medieval apprenticeship indentures tell it, their "mystery." To tune a piano, or make bed in a hospital, to sell a car or play professional hockey, to pick crops or write a press release, involve doing things in a certain way. But all work in its specific settings in turn shapes those who do it. Real people are not yet robots, automata or units of statistical data, and Terkel is above all interested in seemingly ordinary people.

His art, too, has its mysteries. But no less than the people with whom he spoke in living rooms, on airplanes, he does reveal himself. Interviewing is more than the work of asking questions, or even finding the right people to talk to. It can be an art. We cannot know precisely why one man, past 80, who grew up in Chicago, studied law, but never practiced, became an actor in radio soap operas, a disc jockey, a sports commentator, a television MC, runs a radio program, talks to himself on the elevated, can, in a society filled with interviewers, journalists, talk shows, manage to elicit what most fail to touch, the essential identity of the person which whom he speaks. This has more to do with talent than technique.

But it also has to do with personality. Terkel listens but he is neither transparent (an extension of tape recorder and lens) nor intrusive (no William Buckley). He is thoughtful and perceptive -- most of all open to learning, astonishment and surprise, cognizant of his own illusions and actions, but most of all, and here perhaps we come closest to the possibility of art, ready for risk and serendipity.

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