Studs Terkel: Reflects on his own life

Historians in the News

IN the beginning, before blogs, there was Studs Terkel, who, more than anyone else in what Time-Life founder Henry Luce called the American Century, gave the great mass of Americans who were not Henry Luce a way to be heard. "I have, after a fashion, been celebrated for having celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated among us; for lending voice to the face in the crowd," Terkel, now 95, writes in "Touch and Go," his new memoir. In a dozen books of oral history, including "The Good War" (about World War II), "Hard Times" (the Great Depression) and "Working" (the life of people on the job), Terkel has won an enduring place in American letters. "Touch and Go" is, not surprisingly, conversational and impressionistic. It is his own oral history, engaging, entertaining and evocative of a big-hearted American liberalism we don't hear much about anymore.

Terkel has led an amazing life. He remembers perching on his father's shoulder on the steps of the New York Public Library as the parade marched by on Armistice Day in 1918. He listened on Chicago's WGN to Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan arguing at the Scopes trial. By his own account, he has been "an eclectic disk jockey; a radio soap opera gangster; a sports and political commentator; a jazz critic; a pioneer in TV, Chicago style; an oral historian and a gadfly." He was a lawyer, an actor and a labor organizer too, and he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era.

Terkel's father, Sam, a tailor from Bialystok who came to America in the first years of the 20th century, idolized the Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Terkel's account of Debs' activism is emblematic of the memoir as a whole. It is personal, political, anecdotal and illuminating: "It was Gene Debs whose glory possessed Sam. Of course, he knew the statement old Gene made on the day of his conviction for treason. Remember that? Oh, Jesus, how could you? Your grandmother had hardly been born. It was in Canton, Ohio, in 1916. Debs was challenging [Woodrow] Wilson's plan to enter World War I. As he was sentenced to Atlanta Penitentiary for ten years, Gene spoke up: 'While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.' " ...

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