Studs Terkel: Still Curious

Historians in the News

Teresa k. Weaver, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (April 11, 2004):

Studs Terkel, oral historian emeritus of America, has a question before the conversation begins. Pointing to my small silver tape recorder, he asks, "Who's the only person whose life has been more affected by the tape recorder than mine?" When I recite the obvious answer --- Richard Nixon --- the 91-year-old icon nearly leaps out of his chair with glee.

"You got it," he roars, raising clenched fists in the air. "You got it."

Terkel is a force of nature, a national repository of what he calls history "from the bottom up," a working-class intellectual, a self-described "technological Philistine" and an unapologetic liberal.

When his time comes, he has a perfect epitaph ready:

"Curiosity did not kill this cat."

Terkel, a native of New York who moved to Chicago with his family when he was 8, was back in Manhattan recently to pick up a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle.

"Unstinting in his generosity, high attentiveness, deep insights, wry humor and empathy, Studs Terkel has greatly enriched American literature and American society," NBCC board member Donna Seaman said in bestowing the honor. "And he's had such a good time doing it, his enthusiasm and convictions are contagious."

Terkel's writing career began in 1957 with "Giants of Jazz," but the three books that followed established his unique blend of rambling conversation and focused interview. For "Division Street," he interviewed Chicagoans from all walks of life; for "Hard Times," he went nationwide, interviewing hundreds of Americans about their memories of the Depression.

Then, in 1974, Terkel wrote "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do." The theme of disillusionment runs deep in interviews with dozens of Americans. A few were famous (film critic Pauline Kael, actor Rip Torn, football coach George Allen), but the vast majority were people like Hub Dillard, a heavy equipment operator, or Hots Michaels, a bar pianist, or Alice Washington, an order filler at a shoe factory.

"Who are celebrities?" Terkel asks. "They're known for being known. . . . I find that pretty boring stuff. People whose lives are unexplored --- those are the ones I find interesting."

Born Louis Terkel in 1912, Studs acquired his nickname because of his strong identification with the hero of James T. Farrell's trilogy "Studs Lonigan." He earned a law degree from the University of Chicago, but after flunking the bar exam, he went into radio, working as a sportscaster, disc jockey and actor, typically cast as a gangster. He switched briefly to television, hosting a talk show called "Studs' Place" until he got blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

In 1952, Terkel began working for the brand-new WFMT, Chicago's fine-arts radio station, interviewing novelists, biographers, playwrights, historians and poets for what would be a remarkable 45-year run. He still does occasional on-air interviews with authors --- "when I feel like it," he says.

His self-deprecating humor and slightly ruffled demeanor endear him to listeners and readers, as they do to the unsuspecting people he interviews.

"He's a great actor," says Andre Schiffrin, Terkel's publisher since 1967, first at Pantheon and now as head of The New Press. "He's able to completely conceal . . . that he has an incredible amount of knowledge in all sorts of fields, and he's incredibly well-read. I think he's probably better-read than anyone I know. . . .

"He has a remarkable capacity, and he also has an incredible memory. He remembers every single person he's ever interviewed."...

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