Randy's Corner Deli Library

31 October 2008

Studs Terkel, Chronicler of the American Everyman, Is Dead at 96

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A great gift to the world is now gone. I grew up listening to Studs Terkel on WFMT in Chicago, reading his books (the first one I recall reading was "Working") and being totally enthralled with every one of his books of oral histories, each one a treasure of wisdom about so many things. I've made certain that Mitchell has a dose of Studs, too, so that the American Everyman will continue, at least through my family. May his memory be for a blessing among all the mourners of Zion.

Randy Shiner

Studs Terkel, Chronicler of the American Everyman, Is Dead at 96

Published: October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer prize-winning author whose searching interviews with ordinary Americans helped establish oral history as an important historical genre, and who for nearly half a century was the voluble host of a radio show in Chicago, died Friday at his home in Chicago. He was 96.

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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Studs Terkel in 2003 in New York.

His death was confirmed by Lois Baum, a friend and longtime colleague at WFMT radio.

In his oral histories, which he called guerrilla journalism, Studs Terkel relied on his enthusiastic but gentle interviewing style to elicit, in rich detail, the experiences and thoughts of ordinary Americans. “Division Street: America” (1966), his first best-seller and the first in a triptych of tape-recorded works, explored the urban conflicts of the 1960s. Its success led to “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression”(1970) and “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”(1974)। “ ‘The Good War’: An Oral History of World War II,” won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

In “Talking to Myself,” Mr। Terkel turned the microphone on himself to produce an engaging memoir, and more recently, in “Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession” (1992) and “Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It”(1995)’ he reached for his ever-present tape recorder for interviews on race relations in the United States and the experience of growing old.

Although detractors derided him as a sentimental populist whose views were simplistic and occasionally maudlin, Mr। Terkel was widely credited with transforming oral history into a popular literary form. In 1985 a reviewer for The Financial Times of London characterized Mr. Terkel’s books as “completely free of sociological claptrap, armchair revisionism and academic moralizing.”

The elfin, amiable Mr. Terkel was a gifted and seemingly tireless interviewer who elicited provocative insights and colorful, detailed personal histories from a broad mix of people. “The thing I’m able to do, I guess, is break down walls,” he once told an interviewer. “If they think you’re listening, they’ll talk. It’s more of a conversation than an interview.”

Mr. Terkel’s succeeded as an interviewer in part because he believed most people had something to say worth hearing. “The average American has an indigenous intelligence, a native wit,” he said. “It’s only a question of piquing that intelligence.

In “American Dreams: Lost and Found” (1980), he interviewed police officers and convicts, nurses and loggers, former slaves and former Ku Klux Klansmen, a typical crowd for Mr. Terkel.

Readers of his books could only guess at Mr. Terkel’s interview style. Listeners to his daily radio show, which was broadcast on WFMT since 1958, got the full Terkel flavor, as the host, with breathy eagerness and a tough-guy Chicago accent, went after the straight dope from such guests as Sir Georg Solti ,Toni Morrison and Gloria Steinem.

“It isn’t an inquisition, it’s an exploration, usually an exploration into the past,” he once said, explaining his approach. “So I think the gentlest question is the best one, and the gentlest is, ‘And what happened then?{minute} ”

Studs Terkel was born in the Bronx on May 16, 1912, the third son of Samuel Terkel, a tailor, and the former Anna Finkel, who had immigrated from Bialystok, Poland. In 1923 the family moved to Chicago. In the late 1930s, while acting in the theater, Mr. Terkel dropped his given name, Louis, and adopted the name Studs, from another colorful Chicagoan, James T. Farrell’s fictional Studs Lonigan.

His childhood was unhappy. The boy’s father was an invalid who suffered from heart disease. His mother was volatile and impetuous, given to unpredictable rages that kept the household in a state of fear and apprehension. “What nobody got from her was warmth and love, or at least not a display of it,” Mr. Terkel said.

After moving to Chicago, the Terkels managed hotels popular with blue-collar workers, and Mr. Terkel often said that the characters he encountered and the disputations he witnessed at the Wells-Grand Hotel on the Near North Side were his real education. Although he read avidly and feasted on Roget’s Thesaurus, he was, by his own reckoning, no scholar.

He earned philosophy and law degrees at the University of Chicago, but after failing a bar exam he worked briefly for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Chicago, doing statistical research on unemployment in Omaha. He then found work counting bonds for the Treasury Department in Washington.

When he returned to Chicago in 1938, Mr. Terkel, who once described his life as “an accretion of accidents,” joined the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program. He wrote scripts for WGN radio and, after appearing in “Waiting for Lefty” at the Chicago Repertory Group, found work in soap operas like “Ma Perkins” and “Road of Life.”

What he called his “low, husky, menacing” voice made him a natural to play heavies। “I would always say the same thing and either get killed or sent to Sing-Sing,” he later recalled।

It was while performing with the Chicago Repertory Group that he took the name Studs. In 1939 he married Ida Goldberg, a social worker from Wisconsin whom he met while they were both with the Chicago Rep.She died in 1999. The couple had one son, Dan Terkell , who lives in Chicago.

After a one-year stint writing speeches and shows in the special services of the Army Air Corps in 1942 and 1943, he was discharged from the military because his perforated eardrums, the result of childhood operations, made him unfit for overseas duty. He found work doing news, sports and commentary for commercial radio stations in Chicago, and in 1945 he was given his own radio show, “The Wax Museum,” on WENR.

Although the show, which ran for two years, was primarily a jazz program, Mr. Terkel also followed his other enthusiasms, playing country music, folk, opera and gospel, as the mood seized him. He was one of the first to promote artists like Mahalia Jackson, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy and Burl Ives. On occasion, he would invite composers or performers to sit down for an on-air interview. His passion for jazz led to his first book, “Giants of Jazz,” (1957) a collection of jazz biographies.

In 1950, Mr. Terkel became the star and host of “Studs’ Place,” a variety show set in a barbecue joint, with Mr. Terkel appearing as the owner, shooting the breeze with his staff and with the guest of the week. (In a short-lived precursor of the show, Mr. Terkel played a New York bartender.) Along with Dave Garroway’s talk show and “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” the program helped define the relaxed, low-key Chicago school of television.

In January, 1952, with McCarthyism in full flower, NBC canceled the show shortly after picking it up for national broadcast, nervous because Mr. Terkel had a habit of signing petitions in support of liberal and left-wing causes. Executives in New York told him that he could clear his record by saying that he had been duped into signing the petitions. Mr. Terkel refused. “Duped” made him sound stupid, he said.

Blackballed from commercial radio, Mr. Terkel found work in the theater, appearing in a national tour of “Detective Story” and in other plays. One day, in October, 1952, he was surprised to hear Woody Guthrie on the radio. “I wondered, who plays Guthrie records except me?” he later recalled. “So I called WFMT. They were delighted to hear from me.”

In a partnership that would endure for more than 45 years, Mr. Terkel broadcast a daily hour of music, commentary and interviews, helping to build WFMT into a major fine-arts station syndicated around the country.

Although he shied away from actors and politians, anyone else was fair game, and the guest roster include figures as diverse as John Kenneth Galbraith, Garry Wills, Aaron Copland and Oliver Sacks. In 1980 he won a Peabody Award for excellence in journalism. His official title at the station, where he was instantly recognizable by his wayward white hair, red-and-white-checked shirts, and well-chewed cigar, was Free Spirit.

In the 1960s, AndrĂ© Schiffrin, the publisher and editor who ran Pantheon Books, was looking for a writer to produce the American equivalent of Jan Myrdal’s “Report from a Chinese Village,” a collection of interviews that shed light on the lives of ordinary Chinese under Mao. He called Mr. Terkel and suggested Chicago as a subject. Mr. Terkel went out into the city’s neighborhoods, tape recorder in hand, and produced “Division Street,” an enormous success and the beginning of a lifelong relationship in which Mr. Schiffrin would propose an idea and Mr. Terkel would execute it.

“Division Street” consisted of transcripts of 70 conversations that Mr. Terkel had with people of every sort in and around Chicago. Peter Lyon, reviewing it in The New York Times Book Review, said it was “a modern morality play, a drama with as many conflicts as life itself.”

In “The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream” (1989), he returned to an earlier subject and looked at it afresh. When Random House executives forced out Mr. Schiffrin as head of Pantheon, Mr. Terkel walked out with him, bringing his work to Mr. Schiffrin’s New Press, which published “My American Century,” a “best of” compilation.

It was followed by three more volumes of memoirs, “My American Century” (1997) “Touch and Go” (2007), and the forthcoming “P.S. : Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening,” which is due out on Nov. 11. In 1997 he received the National Book Foundation Medal to honor his contributions to American letters.

In “Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times,” Mr. Terkel took on his toughest interview, and many critics found the book frustrating for its refusal to delve too deeply into its author’s personal life and feelings. Mr. Terkel acknowledged the justice of the complaint.

“I’ve met hundreds, no, I’ve met thousands of interesting people, and I’ve been so caught up with them and fasinated by them and intrigued with them it’s almost like there’s no room inside me to be interested in my own feelings and thoughts,” he told an interviewer.

It may be the one time in his life that Mr. Terkel’s ruling passion failed him. “I don’t have to stay curious, I am curious, about all of it, all the time,” he once said. “ ‘Curiosity never killed this cat — that’s what I’d like as my epitaph.”

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