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Studs Terkel–Interpreter of America

When I was in Junior High, I had a job delivering the Washington Post newspaper to about sixty houses in and near my neighborhood. I would often end my Saturday route by riding my bike to the local shopping center where I would eat breakfast at the drugstore counter with a couple other newsboys. This was where I had my first cup of coffee, although I preferred the vanilla cream soda. Usually, after paying the dollar or so for the eggs, bacon and toast, I would make my way over the newsstand in the drugstore and read as much of as many magazines as I could until the clerk would tell me to pay or leave. My standard reading material was sports magazines, teen music magazines, science fiction magazines and the police crime pulp magazines. Occasionally, I would begin reading a paperback that caught my eye. Indeed, it was at that newsstand that I first began reading Tom Wolfe’s tale of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was also where I first heard of the great oral historian and commentator on many things, Studs Terkel. It was his book on 1960s United States titled Division Street that first caught my eye. I liked what I read so much in the few minutes before I was shooed away by the drugstore clerk, that I bought the book and took it home. As I read more and more, I found myself fascinated by the realness of the dialogue and the format of the book. I honestly felt like I learned more about the various issues facing the nation in reading Division Street than I had in every social studies course I was in at my school. A couple years later, Terkel’s book titled Working was the primary text in one of my college classes.41ndjcdjgml-_sx331_bo1204203200_

In the world of the word, Studs Terkel was a multi-talented man. He was an actor, a playwright, an organizer, a deejay, and an interviewer, among other things. Mostly, however, as Alan Wieder makes clear in his newly-published biography of Terkel, Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation, he was an “interpreter of America.” His ability to not only listen, but to also ask the right questions of an interviewee, made his radio shows and books of oral history not only informative and enjoyable; those interviews became the standard to which others strived to achieve. It was as if Terkel had a certain magic once the tape recorder was turned on. According to Wieder and his research, that magic was in the manner Terkel listened and his ability to become the interviewee’s confidante in a matter of minutes.

Wieder narrates Terkel’s life in the way which a life is lived. In other words, he tells Studs’ story in a relatively linear manner. The reader is introduced to Terkel in his childhood, meeting his family and following him into the world of work and political action. Wieder, an oral historian in his own right and the author most recently of an excellent biography of anti-apartheid fighters Ruth First and Joe Slovo (Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid), leans leftward in his politics. So did Studs Terkel. It is my opinion that this was part of the reason his interviews/conversations with so-called regular folks come off as genuine; Terkel considered every person’s story had the same potential to be something important, no matter what their social position. Wieder emphasizes Terkel’s politics in this biography, understanding their essential place in Terkel’s work.

Studs Terkel had a favorite kind of biographical story. He called it the “transformational story.” In other words, it was a personal biography of an individual whose life had changed 180 degrees because of an experience that individual went through. One of Terkel’s favorite such stories was one which appeared in his book American Dreams: Lost and Found. C. Ellis was a poor white male who joined the Ku Klux Klan in his youth who eventually became both a union organizer and an anti-racist fighter in the US South. It was Terkel’s experience that people can change and it was his hope that he himself had inspired a few such metamorphoses.

Terkel understood part of his work to be “lancing the boil” of US political and cultural complacency. In doing so, he hoped not only for a broader conversation but also a better world. He lived in a time when that hope was shared by millions and fought for by millions. His multiple interests and his ability to discuss them all combined with an apparent belief that most folks had something he could learn from them made his radio shows a thrill to listen to and his books engrossing reading. In writing Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation Alan Wieder provides the reading public with a comprehensive and quite readable companion to the material Studs Terkel produced over his long life. Its accessibility, like that found in the works of Studs, makes it rewarding for almost every audience.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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