Archive for November, 2008

Studs Terkel – 1912-2008

Posted in History, Literature, Uncategorized with tags , on November 1, 2008 by JE Cornett
Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

Some people seem perennial, ageless, as though they have been around forever and will continue to be around forever. Like Gore Vidal. And Henry Kissinger. And Studs Terkel.

It would be trite to say that Studs Terkel is an icon, such an ubiquitous part of America that his death seems impossible, but there it is.

I don’t ever remember not knowing the name “Studs Terkel,” but I was in college the first time I picked up a copy of his 1974 book Working. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t interviews with hotel maids, prostitutes, cabbies, or any of the many other people whose voices comprise Working.

I was not unfamiliar with oral history, but Working was oral history that I had never heard or read before – that of everyday people, people whose 15-minutes of fame were no doubt contained within the pages of Working, people most of us had never heard of before or since, and people that most of us could never imagine wanting to hear from in the first place.

Working, which Modern Library ranks as 54 on its list of the 100 best English-language works of nonfiction of the 20th century, was the essence of Studs Terkel’s desire to capture the experiences of the people whose histories are usually lost to history – those that he called the “non-celebrated.” Working told the stories of everyone from hookers to traveling salesmen to executives. Hard Times documented the Great Depression from the perspectives of politicians, agitators, Okies, a panorama of a time in American history that many would as soon have forgotten. In Division Street: America, he captured both dire poverty and great prosperity in mid-century Chicago. He collected oral histories about race relations, aging, and death, and in doing so, let Americans without voices contribute to the history of their country.

With one of the most important elections in American history just a few days away, it will be interesting to see how attention the press will pay to Terkel’s passing. For those who are interested in tracing our journey to this point, the story is in Terkel’s books.

For more information about Studs Terkel and his books, visit Conversations With America.