Studs Terkel, a tough son of New York, whose writings championed the American worker throughout in the 20th century and beyond, has died.
During his childhood in Chicago, his parents ran a rooming house and it was there that Mr. Terkel claimed he learned to listen. “Listening” he would later claim, was his most powerful tool as a writer. It had been rumored that Winston Groom, author of “Forrest Gump” based young Forrest’s childhood exposure to strange and influential figures in the fictional Gump boarding house in his novel on this legend of Terkel’s childhood. During the early days of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Terkel joined the WPA Federal Writers' Project, working in radio, beginning a lifelong association with the medium. Terkel hosted a daily radio show on 98.7 WFMT in Chicago from 1952 to 1997.
His books like: “Hard Times”; “Working”; “American Dreams: Lost and Found”; “The Good War”; “The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream”; and “Race” were a huge influence on writers like myself and offered a testimonial based look at critical points in history during and in the decades after the Great Depression. He won the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters; the George Polk Career Award; the Presidential Humanities Medal; and the Pulitzer prize for “The Good War”.
I still have my well-worn copies of “Hard Times” and “Working” that my dear friend Patrick MacEneany gave me in college in the late 1980s. In a time when the subjective was being eschewed as a mark of “unsophistication” in writing and in art, these works emboldened me to write from my own experience as a function of testimony, of bearing witness to things ignored, unseen or in some cases even lied about. I was not going to write my comic books about my own South Bronx adolescence in third person just to appease some nonsensical (and in my experience arbitrary) aesthetics. I have a running argument with another old friend from college, Jay Park, about the subjective versus objective focus in my narratives. While I’m sure I’m inviting another round of good hard fighting between us someday, I say again that it’s important to say something happened, as you saw it, as you heard it, with all of the trouble and compromise that may include… because any stories I was writing, and still write today, are necessarily about poverty, race, class and power among the urban ruin. Presenting them from some accessible overview, from some objective posture is not an erasure of bias (which is practically impossible) but rather an erasure of myself from the picture, and deletion of myself from the factual truth...
-in order to get at the truth?
I didn’t buy it then, and I still don’t.
I was criticized by my classmates, friends and even the few professors who bothered to take a look at the comic book stories I was creating; material that would form the basis of “The Shit House Poet” episodes published by World War III Illustrated in the 1990s. I thought if they were trying to make me write my stories like a historian, I was going to write like the historian of my choice. As much as I loved Richard Hofstadter, I wanted to look to someone who was more “people oriented”. Patrick MacEneany saw me banging my head against the wall and snuck me those Terkel books like we were both incarcerated writers in adjacent cells or something. There was much jargon-laden philosophy, phenomenology and manifesto-driven aesthetics popular on college campuses in those times. Walking around with any Studs Terkel book invited condescension from those students who had just discovered Foucault or Derrida, or worse gotten xeroxes from a professor, and assumed they had to enlighten you with their analysis and put down whatever you had as “light reading”.
It really is a wonder that some people didn’t get the shit beat out of them in college.
Unlike Terkel, I had to learn to “listen without listening” during this period in my life, listening instead for the motive and intent of a person’s words as opposed to their surface pronouncements and declaration.
Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize winning "The Good War" directly challenged the idea that World War II was an uncomplicated time in America when everyone marched shoulder to shoulder and nobody disagreed or dissented. Terkel didn’t want the propaganda films of the time to be mistaken for history. For my part I didn’t want the NY Post and exploitation movies like “Fort Apache the Bronx” (sorry Paul Newman) to be mistaken for reality. I don’t think I’d have that stubbornness in me if I hadn’t read Terkel’s work in college. Now that he has passed on, I wish I had inherited more of his openness. While listening with skepticism and remaining alert to opinions presented disingenuously as facts are necessary weapons, there is an ineffable quality to listening unfettered by doubt and suspicion. The taking in of someone's words, their viewpoint, their story can be its own reward and a unique education. I'm working on it.
Studs Terkel was a lifelong fighter for the average citizen, for us, -even when we didn’t seem to know any better. In May 2006, Studs Terkel filed a lawsuit against AT&T in federal court to stop them from giving our phone records to the NSA without a court order. I’ve wondered aloud many times since 9/11, what can I do in the face of George W. Bush’s reckless assault on the Bill of Rights? A 94-year-old man had an answer in 2006, it was very humbling and I was in awe of Studs Terkel again. Judge Matthew Kennelly dismissed the lawsuit citing a "state secrets privilege", but the Bush administration had been put on notice:
“Having been blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, I know the harm of government using private corporations to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans. When government uses the telephone companies to create massive databases of all our phone calls it has gone too far. ”
A lot of people don’t know that Studs Terkel even did a little acting. He played Hugh Fullerton in John Sayles’s “Eight Men Out”. Pretty damn cool, if you ask me.
A friend who called me with the news today asked: why should I be sad? He lived to 96. My simple answer is: if the right kind of history is made on Tuesday night, Mr. Terkel, who fought, listened, talked and wrote so honestly about our country and its people, should have lived to see it. He deserved to see it. It makes me sad to the point of tears. The last eight years must’ve seemed like the end of America to Mr. Terkel, who began to speak and write of his faith more and more often. Who could blame him?
He once said:
"I've always felt, in all my books, that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence, providing they have the facts, providing they have the information."
Apparently, the old man still has enough fight in him to keep talking to America beyond his mortal death. Studs Terkel’s next book, “Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening” is scheduled for release in November.
Rest in peace Studs Terkel.