Studs Terkel: Oral historian ... but he hates the label

Historians in the News

Studs Terkel, whose new book Touch and Go: A Memoir (The New Press) appears just a few months after his 95th birthday, has often been called an oral historian for his collections of interviews with “ordinary people,” to use a term he despises for its implicit condescension. I take it from a look through JSTOR that some of the oral historians in academe dispute that label. They have their methods, while Terkel has his.

Terkel works the transcripts of his conversations over so that they become narratives — soliloquies of life in the United States during the 20th century, as seen “from below.” Whether or not they meet certain demands of the oral historians, his books qualify as a kind of literature, drawing from a tradition in American letters beginning no later than Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. That Terkel has lived most of his life in Chicago, where James T. Farrell and Richard Wright made their start as authors, seems like no coincidence. He also shares in the spirit of a collection of poems by another resident of the windy city, a guy who did the grunt work as a partner in Clarence Darrow’s law firm: Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. But where Masters wrote epitaphs for the dead in an imaginary small town in the Midwest, Terkel’s books are full of real people, stopping to tell their stories in the middle of real life. His works transfigure the ordinary, which is one definition of what literature can do....

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