Saturday, November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel - A Man For History - (1912-2008)

I have to use this forum to recognize an icon of contemporary American culture, literature, history, activism, etc., etc. Louis “Studs” Terkel died yesterday at the ripe age of 96.

Terkel will largely be remembered for writing contemporary accounts of historical events through the use of oral histories or interviews with actual participants. Such a style offers a refreshing contrast to historical interpretation offered by more academic or pop authors. Indeed, I was drawn to Terkel’s works by their ability to rip much of the romanticism and nostalgia from mainstream versions of historical events and recognizes events by how they affected, and were affected by, the many people that lived them. It also reduced the tendency to see individual participants as heros or otherwise to aggrandize the acts of an individual when reality, and legitimate historical analysis, begs for more context.

I first was introduced to Terkel via my grandfather’s bookshelf, where The Good War captured my interest in all things World War II. The Good War recognized something that historians had traditionally, and willingly, ignored in their approach to writing about history - that the further we remove ourselves from the time, events and people who make up the setting for historical events, the more we lose the ability to capture the human experience. And what is history, if not a recollection and retelling of the human experience?

More recently, pop historians have begun to emulate Terkel’s oral history style. Most notably Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation essentially re-packaged The Good War, slapped a high profile name on the cover, and was published with the backing of a billion dollar publisher. The success of Brokaw’s Greatest Generation was buffeted by the fact that it came on the scene at a time when many of the subjects of the book were reaching their twilight years, and as many Baby Boomers sought a way to re-connect with dearly or soon-to-be departed parents. The same is essentially true of Ken Burn’s 2007 documentary The War.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trashing Brokaw or Burns here. In fact they confirm the importance of Terkel’s contribution - he legitimized of oral histories as a pedagogical method and established a mainstream art form that society craves.

Terkel’s personal story is also impressive for what it tells us about the values of our society and how they have changed in his lifetime. For example, in his Chicago Tribune obituary:

He attended the University of Chicago, where he obtained a law degree and borrowed his nickname from the character in the ” Studs Lonigan” trilogy by Chicago writer James T. Farrell. He never practiced law. Instead, he took a job in a federally sponsored statistical project with the Federal Emergency Rehabilitation Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies. Then he found a spot in a writers project with the Works Progress Administration, writing plays and developing his acting skills.

WPA, New Deal, FDR - cornerstones of the foundation for LBJ’s Great Society and a fundamental change in the shape of government and society. Yet, imagine a politician of either party standing in Congress to support the creation of a “writers project” funded by a WPA-like institution today. The disdain with which many popular decision-makers have towards arts and academia is palpable. There are fewer and fewer avenues for a future Studs Terkel to develop her craft with the resources to support a family available to them.

Studs Terkel didn’t achieve literary respect and fame until much later in life. In fact, his first major work wasn’t published until he was 55.

The result was “Division Street: America,” published in 1967 to rave reviews and best-selling success. It told the stories, in their own words, of businessmen, prostitutes, Hispanics, blacks, ordinary working people who formed the unit of America and also the divisions in society, using Chicago’s Division Street as a prototype of America.

And only after that did Terkel get to the works that will be the hallmarks of his legacy:

It was a theme that Terkel would explore again and again, in “Hard Times,” his Depression-era memoir in 1970; in “Working,” his saga of the lives of ordinary working people in 1974; in “American Dreams; Lost and Found” in 1980; and “The Good War,” remembrances of World War II, published in 1985 and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

In the chronology of his life, it’s interesting to examine how he didn’t achieve his greatest personal and professional success until later in life. It may be debatable, and I hope I can participate in the debate, but Terkel’s work and contributions must be considered something akin to genius, in the same way other literary giants are credited for their works.

A recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell provides an interesting and analogous study of genius - Late Bloomers - and why some achieve greatness early in life, such as T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” at age 23, and some later in life, Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” at 42.

What Gladwell concludes that those who reach success later in life:

his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. … Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.

Terkel certainly wasn’t toiling away at a kitchen table before he published at age 55, but his written works, the works that will have the greatest lasting impact were produced in the latter half of his life. But much like the history he wrote, his life success can be traced to the contributions and participation of others. The writing skills he developed in the federally subsidized New Deal programs, the interviewing skills he honed in thousands of interviews on his long running radio program, and what he learned from each of people he interviewed, and infinite unknown experiences, all contributed to his success. To this extent, Terkel’s approach to analyzing history - a history that is is complete only when it views events through the eyes of all the participants - is similar to how his own history would be written - it wouldn’t be complete without a review of all the perspectives.

Lets hope that Terkel’s death reminds us that much of the greatness of man cannot be attributed to rugged individualism, but a manifestation of the collective greatness that a committed society can produce.

-Jeffrey Oak

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