Chicagoland is mourning the loss today of Studs Terkel, who died yesterday at 96 after a long and unique career in which he was the exemplar of the radio interview, an audio documentarian of the ups and downs of the American dream.
If you listened to WFMT, the great Chicago radio station, you became familiar with Terkel’s program and his standard signoff: Take it easy, but take it. He interviewed major newsmakers and cultural figures, but it was the regular people he interviewed that make the magic of Terkel for me.
Right now, for instance, WFMT is broadcasting Terkel’s 1963 interviews with black Americans as they took the train to the March on Washington in August of that year for the civil rights protest, which culminated in the now-legendary I Have a Dream speech of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Here are the voices of regular people, explaining their lives and given the room to talk at length. Here we hear the sound of frustration but also of hope; several speakers talk about the breakthrough they think the march represents for black Americans, and indeed it was.
This is the special thing about Terkel’s work: He gets everyone to talk frankly about big topics, and they all end up sounding like philosophers. Something about his method, something about his native curiosity and empathy, encouraged people to open up and express their deepest thoughts to him. This is something that too few interviewers are able to do, and over the years, he compiled an extraordinary record of the American mindset.
Some idea of just the major figures he talked to can be found in this TV piece from Chicago’s public television station, WTTW, and in his many books there are the other voices. I’ve got his 1988 book, The Great Divide, on my shelves, and it’s a meditation on the gaps between races, economic haves and have-nots, and the nation’s religious, among other things. It’s still compelling reading today, and while the hero of his book is nuclear arms protester Jean Gump, he also has plenty of the other side, from a gung-ho commodities trader to a far-right congressman. This is true even though one of the book’s epigraphs casts a cloud over the idea of purely objective journalism.
It’s also interesting to read Terkel’s meditation, in the book’s introduction, on what the growth of technology was doing to his metier:
As technology has become more hyperactive, we, the people have become more laid-back; as the deposits in its memory bank have become more fat, the deposits in man’s memory bank have become more lean. Like Harold Pinter’s servant, the machine has assumed the responsibilities that were once the master’s. The latter has become the shell of a once thoughtful, though indolent, being. It is the Law of Diminishing Enlightenment at Work.
Terkel came to manhood in the early 1930s, when socialist politics were at their high-water mark in the United States, and he always remained on the progressive left, which is why he was talking about institutions such as labor unions long after their period of greatest influence had passed. I think this basic orientation of his led him always to seek out the most overlooked, the most anonymous, the most ordinary, when he went looking for interviewees; today, we tend to see these sorts of interviews only at times of national political moment such as the upcoming election. But for him, there always was a story there, and he compiled an oral history of how his countrymen thought and spoke that will be a historian’s dream for decades to come.
It’s unfortunate that Terkel died just before Tuesday’s election, which the big polls indicate is likely to go to Barack Obama. I’m sure he would have gotten a thrill out of seeing him elected, and it would have been marvelous to hear him gather, one more time, some of those American voices — positive and negative — as they commented on their nation’s historic choice.
It’s been good this afternoon to hear some of his past work, and to notice how little he intrudes. He just lets the people speak, and stays out of their way. His prompts are statements like this: So you’re pretty tired. And that little sentence brings out a long response that tells us much about the person speaking, far more than we would get if he were a wordy devil, supplying the answer to the question along with the query.
Because he did his work that way, we have an unmatched record of his times, of which the greater chronicle would be far poorer without his contribution. It’s a contribution whose worth will grow with time.