Although he has enjoyed successful careers as a radio and televison host, a soap opera actor, a playwright, and an activist, Louis “Studs” Terkel is best known as a compiler of oral histories. With the aid of a tape recorder and a keen ear for narrative, Terkel has interviewed scores of common and uncommon folk and stitched together seamless first-person accounts in their own voices for best-selling books, including Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) and Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992). In what he has declared to be his last book, Touch and Go: A Memoir, Terkel has attempted an approximation of the method that enabled him to capture the memories and voices of hundreds of others, interweaving excerpts from earlier works with new material dictated over the phone to longtime friend, assistant, and amanuensis Sydney Lewis, herself an accomplished compiler of oral history.
Alert and curious, Terkel has been witness to many of the most significant events in the past century. As he often retells it, he was born only two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic, “Make of it what you will.” One of his earliest memories is of sitting on his father’s shoulders in New York City, where the family lived until he was two or three, watching an Armistice parade pass by. He listened to parts of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” and the arguments of attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan over the radio. He served in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression, did desk duty in the Air Force in World War II, organized unions, knew the singers and activists Mahalia Jackson and Pete Seeger, and was blacklisted during the Joseph McCarthy anticommunism era. He was a pioneer actor and broadcaster in the early days of radio and television. Through more than a dozen books, he has helped common Americans tell their own stories about what it was like to live through the Depression, the Great War, and the country’s struggles to find new ways to deal with work, with race, and with faith.
For Terkel, so closely associated with Chicago, life began in 1912 in New York City, where his parents Sam and Annie, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, worked hard to support a growing family that eventually included four sons. Sam Terkel, who ran a tailoring business, was an admirer of the socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), instilling in his sons a respect for unions and for “Gene’s style of speech, easy as well as fervent.” In 1920, the family moved to Chicago, where Terkel made his home for the rest of his life. His mother ran the Wells-Grand Hotel, a rooming house, for ten years, and Terkel loved to argue with the tenants hanging out in the lobby. These conversations, and the almost daily chance to hear radical speakers (some rational, some not) declaiming from soapboxes at Washington “Bughouse” Square, taught Terkel to listen well. “Perhaps none of it made any sense,” he writes, “save one kind: sense of life.” He graduated from the University of Chicago with a law degree in 1934 and worked in Chicago radio and television into the twenty-first century, parlaying his skills as a speaker and a listener into a career.
In one of the book’s first extended history lessons, Terkel interrupts the narrative of his family’s move to introduce Jane Addams (1860-1935), founder of Hull House in Chicago and the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Decades later, Terkel remembers, he interviewed a woman named Jessie Binford, who lived in Hull House from 1906 until the mid-1960’s, shortly before her death. Binford spent the last years of her life fighting, unsuccessfully, against plans to raze the settlement to provide space for the growing University of Illinois. In the story of Hull House and its eventual relocation, Terkel finds the central tension that informs his love for the city of Chicago: the compassionate and brave activists who work for the common good, and the mercenary, corrupt aldermen and other politicians who throw hurdles in their way. Both groups emerge in Terkel’s tales as the main characters in the drama that shapes the city he loves.
Terkel’s career has really been two careers, with largely different audiences. Terkel the writer has kept to the background, and those who know him primarily through his...
(The entire section is 1825 words.)