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One of the best-known popular chroniclers of twentieth-century American culture, Louis ”Studs” Terkel is best known for his adaptation of oral history to print. His best work, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985, succeeded in presenting through oral history various perspectives and ideas about World War II that, despite the extensive attention that it had already received from historians and academics, had never before been seen. As an interviewer Terkel probed average Americans concerning their jobs, their dreams, their prejudices, and their memories. Today, he is largely credited with transforming oral history from a culture-specific tradition into a universal art form.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Poverty and Entrepreneurship
Terkel was born in the Bronx borough of New York City on May 16, 1912. His parents, Samuel and Anna Terkel, were recent Jewish immigrants from the Russian-Polish border, where poverty was rife and political contentions would soon turn the area into the main fighting ground of World War I. In the United States, Terkel’s parents worked in the garment industry and managed to save enough for a move to Chicago in 1921. There they ran a series of rooming houses, through which they began to prosper. However, with the advent of the Great Depression in 1929, their earning power was greatly reduced.
Terkel attended the University of Chicago, graduating in 1932. At the height of the Great Depression, with few job prospects, Terkel elected to remain in school. He graduated with a JD from the University of Chicago in 1934 and, after one failed attempt, passed the bar examination. However, he never practiced law. Instead he took a number of short-term jobs, including a position with the Works Project Administration writing scripts. From this he developed an interest in acting and became involved in radio drama. It was while working as an actor during this period that he earned his nickname “Studs.”
“Long Live the Blacklist”
In 1945 Terkel launched a radio program called Wax Museum, which consisted of music and interviews with musicians. The program was successful and brought him enough acclaim that by 1950 he was hosting his own television program, ”Studs’ Place.” Terkel had always been a vocal supporter of liberal causes, such as workers’ rights and civil rights, and these political views caused NBC to cancel his show during the anticommunist Red Scare. Terkel was informed that he could redeem himself by claiming that he had been ”duped” into signing liberal petitions. He refused. As a result, he was blacklisted—his name put on a list of people who were not to be hired because of their political beliefs.
Rather than blaming the anticommunists for destroying his career, however, Terkel wryly credited his blacklisting with saving him from a career of popular but banal television work. In an interview conducted several years later, Terkel cheered, ”Long live the blacklist!” and stated that without it, he never would have returned to his real interest: ”the little FM station playing classical music.” That station, WFMT in Chicago, would provide him with a platform from which to launch the ”Studs Terkel Show” in 1958—a show that he would continue to host for forty-five years.
Building on his loyal Chicago fan base, Terkel’s show was eventually nationally syndicated, earning Terkel a national reputation as a radio commentator and personality. In the 1960s, after the appearance of his first book, Giants of Jazz (1957), Terkel was commissioned by Andre Schiffrin, publisher of Pantheon Books, to write an account of the lives of ordinary Americans similar in style to Jan Myrdal’s Report from a Chinese Village. The result, Division Street, the first in his series of sociological, popular history books based on his interviews with average Americans, appeared in 1967.
Division Street combined Terkel’s experience as a radio interviewer with his editing and compilation skills to create what was widely considered a work of journalistic art. Consisting only of the transcripts of seventy conversations with Chicago residents from myriad backgrounds, the book was received with great acclaim by critics. Peter Lyon, writing for the New York Times Book Review, called the compilation ”a modern morality play, a drama with as many conflicts as life itself.”
Terkel garnered increasing attention for his later books, three of which focused on events significant to his own life: Hard Times (1970), a look at the Depression; “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize; and Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It (1995), a compilation of Terkel’s conversations with around seventy men and women, ages seventy and older. These books were followed by two memoir volumes, Touch and Go (2007) and P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, which appeared in November 2008, just after Terkel’s death.
Throughout his ninety-six-year life, Terkel never seemed to slow down. He claimed in interviews that the force that drove him was curiosity. Interviewers and critics have hailed him as perpetually energetic, actively involved with the issues that, for nearly a century, profoundly touched American lives.
Works in Literary Context
Terkel used the method of interviewing to discover how average Americans feel about contemporary issues or to define historic events. He was known to travel across the country interviewing hundreds of people from all races, backgrounds, geographic locations, and classes, posing the same questions and recording their replies. He would then edit what he deemed to be the best of these replies into seamless chapter-length accounts, which he prefaced with biographical information about the source.
Though his techniques might be comparable to those of New Journalists Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, Terkel’s goal ultimately is different: He strives to present the words of Americans exactly as they are, with little or no authorial interference. It is for this reason that his work has been compared with the works of Sherwood Anderson, James Agee, Erskine Caldwell, and Edmund Wilson.
Oral history—history that is composed of stories, poetry, or songs transmitted from speaker to listener, rather than writer to reader—has been a part of human tradition for thousands of years. Some of the earliest known oral histories are the (semi-historical) accounts of the Trojan War attributed to the Greek poet Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, around 900 to 800 B.C.E. Oral history thrived in America among the Native American and African cultures from 1600 onward; among the literary establishment however, it began to be considered less reliable than written accounts and fell out of favor in the late eighteenth century.
Terkel became known as the man who validated oral history among the establishment and the general public. His works, though sometimes criticized for their lack of fact checking and their reliance on fallible human memory, have been widely praised as providing perspectives on history that might otherwise never have been seen. As an oral historian he has been widely imitated over the past several decades, but he continues to be considered one of the foremost authors of the genre.
Works in Critical Context
Terkel’s books have been enthusiastically received by both the public and critics. Critics praise him for continuing in the long American tradition of seeking the voice of the common person and recording it so that it might resonate for others, particularly future generations. However, some critics fault Terkel, claiming that he does not offer enough insight into the interview process and the questions he asks.
”The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II
“The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, for which Terkel was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1967, was widely praised for its portrayal of World War II through the stories of myriad people who had experienced it. Loudon Wainwright nodded to the book’s lasting impact on history and the world of journalism when he wrote:
Mr. Terkel, who in six books over the past 15 years has turned oral history into a popular art form, has captured an especially broad and impressive chorus of voices on his tape recorder this time. The result, whatever its limitations, is a portrait of a national experience drawn in the words of the men and women who lived it.
The book was not, however, an unqualified success. Many critics noted the deficiency of the interview method, pointing out that it presented the decades-old memories of hand-picked respondents as if they were fact. Jonathan Yardley, while commending Terkel for his ability to bring out ”the deepest thoughts and recollections of other people”, also remarked: ”The chief shortcoming of The Good War is that the viewpoints expressed in it . . . seem largely to be Terkel’s own…. [T]he result is a book that, however fascinating, does not give the whole story.”
Division Street: America
Terkel’s first collection of interviews, Division Street was widely praised by critics for the skillful way in which it rendered the particular world of seventy-two Chicago residents universal. Martin Marty stated in his 1967 review: ”[T]he title of this book… refers to nothing more than Chicago and 72 of its people. In the hands of interviewer-author Terkel, however, it takes on macrocosmic dimensions and serves … as a comment on the Human Condition.” Though some critics preferred to think of Division Street as simply a collection of interviews, most nevertheless agreed that Terkel, for his role as an interviewer, editor, and arranger of the work, deserved high praise.
- Terkel, Studs. Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times. New York: Pantheon, 1977. –. Touch and Go: A Memoir. New York: New Press, 2007.
- Gewen, Barry. ”Facts Are Not Enough.” New Leader 67, no. 20 (November 12, 1984): 12-13.
- Grimes, William. ”Studs Terkel, Listener to Americans, Dies at 96.” New York Times, October 31, 2008.
- Marty, Martin E. ”Chicago: The Divided City.” Book Week—World Journal Tribune (January 15, 1967): 1-2.
- Snowden, Audry. Review of P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening. Library Journal 133, no.17 (October 15, 2008): 70.
- Review of Touch and Go: A Memoir. Publishers Weekly 254, no. 34 (August 27, 2007): 70.
- Wainwright, Loudon. ”’I Can Remember Every Hour.”’ New York Times Book Review (October 7,1984): 7,9.
- Yardley, Jonathan. ”World War II: The Best Years of Their Lives.” Book World—Washington Post (September 30, 1984): 3, 9.
- Corley, Cheryl. ”Studs Terkel, Oral Historian and Radio Legend, 96.” NPR: All Things Considered. Accessed November 30, 2008, from http://www.npr.org/ templates/story/story.php?storyId=94573985.
- ”Studs Terkel: Conversations with America.” Chicago Historical Society. Accessed November 30, 2008, from http://www.studsterkel.org.
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