“My epitaph? My epitaph will be, ‘Curiosity did not kill this cat’.” Studs Terkel, author, journalist, actor and radio host, who died Friday at 96.
If it’s an epitaph you want for Studs Terkel, you could also do pretty well with the subtitle of his soon-to-be published and final book: PS: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening. Listening closely to people and thinking deeply about what they said were the two best qualities Terkel brought to his work, and the fact that he never stopped thinking about what he’d learned made him a literary resource of continuing, ever-renewing value.
His appreciation of America’s best qualities was grounded in his lifelong devotion to liberalism and progressive politics:
“This is ironic. I’m not the one was has Alzheimer’s. It’s the country that has Alzheimer’s. There was a survey the other day showing that most people think our best president was Reagan. Not Abraham Lincoln. FDR came in 10th. People don’t pay attention any more. They don’t read the news.” Studs Terkel, 93, talking to fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert.
My love and admiration for Terkel’s work began in 1972 when I used some paper route money to buy his book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do off the remainder table at Schiller’s Books in the Garden State Plaza. The book was like a choral work scored by Aaron Copland in his high populist mode: bookbinders, construction workers, cab drivers and prostitutes telling their stories, with Terkel serving as conductor and interlocutor. The book has grim and even upsetting passages, but the feeling it leaves behind can only be described as exaltation. Like most of Terkel’s work, it also demonstrates that the finest, most revealing interviews are always conversations.
Terkel was an intellectual omnivore: his appetite for recording experience was of a piece with his appreciation for all sorts of music and literature. He was one of the few radio hosts who actually read and thought about his guests’ work before a show. Even Bob Dylan, who early in his career made a hobby of running head-games with interviewers, played it straight when he sat with Terkel in 1963 and the resulting talk (transcribed in And They All Sang and posted in this collection of Terkel’s favorite interviews) has long been prized by Dylan bootleg collectors. This six-disc collection covering highlights of interviews from the 1950s through the 1990s can give you a taste of Terkel at his best.
The Chicago Historical Society has a huge online archive of recordings grouped around Terkel’s major books: Division Street, Hard Times, The Good War and Talking to Myself. In light of the McCain campaign’s heavy reliance on racial dogwhistle appeals and grubby stereotypes, this passage from his 1992 book Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession seems particularly apt:
“‘I went through a bad time,’ recalls a fireman’s wife. ‘I felt like being white middle-class had a stigma to it. Everything was our fault. Every time I turned on the TV, it would be constant trying to send me on a guilt trip because I had a decent life. I was sick of people making the connotation that because I was raising a good family, I was responsible for the ills of the world. The white middle class was getting a bum rap. Even when I went to church, I was angry.’”
“‘What I found fascinating is the tragically humorous condition of northern whites. The civil rights movement made the white ethnic groups more democratic. The Poles, Jews, Italians, and Irish could all get together in their hostility to the blacks. It has become another aspect of the democratic creed. Being white in America made them feel equal to all other whites, as long as the black man was down below.’”
“‘I think you become an adult when you reach a point where you don’t need anyone underneath you. When you can look at yourself and say, “I’m okay the way I am.” One of the things that keeps my class of people from having any vision is race hatred. You’re so busy hating somebody else, you’re not going to realize how beautiful you are and how much you destroy all that ’s good in the world.’”