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November 1, 2008

Good listener
Posted by Patrick at 07:57 AM *

All he did, really, was get people to tell their stories. The results were astonishing.

I don’t think I realized before that he didn’t even begin his real career, the interview work he’ll be remembered for, until he was in his mid-fifties.

Studs Terkel, 1912-2008. Good overview here.

Comments on Good listener:
#1 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 09:34 AM:

I was impressed by the story, in the LA Times obit, of the university people arriving on his doorstep last year with an award, and hearing him typing away.

#2 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 11:19 AM:

He was a grand old man and the world is a sadder place for his leaving it. Losing him and Tony Hillerman in the same week is a real kick in the teeth.

#3 ::: Jon Marcus ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 11:21 AM:

I remember hanging out with my dad, listening to Studs Terkel on WFMT. His story-telling, and the way he elicited the stories of others, was truly amazing.

Favorite anecdote: Working was published with a different cover than the one above, where the author's name was in a vaguely similar type. An outraged library patron complained that the library would circulate a smutty book like this "Working Studs", by Terkel.

#4 ::: Susan Kitchens ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 11:52 AM:

Earlier this year, I read Terkel's Hard Times,. When the market tanked, I plugged the book on both my sites; it's an excellent collection of recollections of The Great Depression.

Two striking things about Hard Times: The vividness of the memories of those who went through that time period. I was born 30 years after the market crash, so "the Depression" has always been there, but been remote to me. No more. Now it's immediate and visceral.

Second, the variety of people he interviewed. Terkel didn't set out to interview a subset of people to support a narrow thesis about what that decade meant. He went wide, in order to say, "here's what happened." Contradictions abound: investors who lost it all in the crash, investors who managed to sell off before the crash, the destitute who were grateful for government assistance, destitute who refused government assistance, the creators of the government assistance programs, well-off people who despised government assistance, farmers who helped one another in the farming mortgage protests, and a guy at the Public Works Administration who saw the photos of Dorothea Lange and recognized the negatives had to be protected from political whims and preserved for posterity. Yes, and more (sorry, it sounds like marketese bullet points, but the vastness of the collection of voices really is "...and more!")

Hope Dies Last is a collection of interviews with politically active people; it's from reading that work that I made my first acquaintance with community organizers, before the current election brought the job title to the fore.

#5 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 12:07 PM:

Hard Times made a huge impression on me when I read it back in the '70s. I don't know of anyone else who did so much to capture the feeling of what it was like in the Depression. Things I should have asked my grandparents, he asked everybody, and did they talk.

#6 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 01:30 PM:

oh! that's sad news.

#7 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 02:29 PM:

I read "Working" back in 1973 or 1974 while in the Navy; I'd like to say it explained the mindset of some of the people I was working with, but I don't think I was smart enough to get that at the time.

I suspect he had a great influence on popular historians; even the military ones seemed to include as many stories from the PFCs and Lieutenants as from the Generals once his books became widely read.

#8 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 04:27 PM:

I came across Division Street: America when I was an undegraduate in the 1970s; it was eye-opening. I was deeply impressed by the work that went into eliciting those interviews. Terkel was brilliant at what he did; one of those whose presence truly enriches the world.

#9 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 04:55 PM:

I have to start reading his stuff. Been listening to him for years, but never cracked a cover.

I have a copy of The Good War on a shelf in the living room. Maybe tonight.

#10 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 05:16 PM:

The segments that featured Studs Terkel on Prairie Home Companion were always excellent. He was a frequent guest on the popular radio show, his last appearance only a few months ago, if that far away. He always demonstrated a true sense of humor, and an abiding love for radio broadcast, and for writing and his fellow human beings.

Minnesota Public Radio's website has a lovely obituary up for Mr. Terkel, that covers as much of his very long, varied career as possible.

As was also mentioned, with the passing of Tony Hillerman, we lost two of the best of humans beings this week.

Love, C.

#11 ::: Richard Klin ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 05:21 PM:

He also gets an acknowledgment in MEDIUM COOL, one of my favorite, favorite films.

#12 ::: Christopher Turkel ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 06:38 PM:

He was my fourth cousin; fairly distant. My father interviewed him a few times for the AP. He signed my copy of "The Good War". It read: "Cousins are like good stories: one can never have enough of them".

#13 ::: Tom Barclay ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 09:31 PM:

We think of him now as the writer and interviewer; back when I first saw him, he was an actor and writer in the early days of Chicago television, doing the live drama that vanished so soon.

His nickname came about because he was very taken, at a young age, with the novel STUDS LONERGAN by James T. Farrell.

We also lost Elaine Flinn this week, a grande dame of American mystery writers, if not hugely known. A tough week for arts and letters.

#14 ::: dido ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 10:10 PM:

We kept a copy of "Working" on our shelf "For Older Readers" all the years that I worked downstairs at the kid's book shop.

"Working" and "Nickeled and Dimed" made me proud of my working class background.

Requiescet in pace, Studs.

#15 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 10:29 PM:

Seems that paul is having trouble with his copy-and-paste. Not so simple as it may seem, eh?

(P.S. spam!)

#16 ::: P J Evans sees double spam ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 10:33 PM:

pushing some kind of political comment-spam software?

#17 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2008, 11:52 PM:

Terkel's ability to preserve cultural and historical moments not as propaganda but in the voices of real people puts his books permanently on my shelves.

This is sad news.

#18 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2008, 09:24 AM:

One good thing about published writers is that you can re-visit them after they're dead, even though that doesn't make up for not visiting them often enough when they were alive.

I think I'll start by locating a copy of _Hard Times_, which I've not read, and see if it makes a point I've been thinking on recently. I was born about a year before the start of The Great Depression -- 80 years ago today, actually -- and have childhood memories of how hard it hit "middle/working-class" (in quotes because I gather that the British differentiate this into two categories) families like mine.

The major lessons it taught me were to avoid going into debt if you possibly can, and that survival of the Group (no matter what group) commonly depends on people helping other people less fortunate than they are.

There seems to be a high probability that this latter is a big part of why I find myself classified as a Liberal in politics, wouldn't object to paying more of my income in taxes (not _too_ much more, mind you), and rather favor Income Tax plans that progress steeply in the upper brackets.

And yes, now that you mention it, I _do_ expect to vote on Tuesday -- either before or after going over to cultivate the Community Gardens plot and giving away a bunch of intentionally-surplus lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and onion seedlings to people who haven't yet quite mastered the art of watering newly-planted seed-beds properly.

#19 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2008, 09:36 AM:

Paul's auditioning for the role of "spammer" in Working the musical, second edition.

#20 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2008, 10:34 AM:

Slightly off-topic: For the last few weeks, whenever I've heard of the death of a public figure like Paul Newman or Tony Hillerman or Studs Terkel, I find my first thought is "I hope they voted an early ballot."

Definitely off-topic, but: Happy Birthday, Don Fitch!

#21 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2008, 11:11 AM:

Don Fitch @ 20

Happy Birthday and many happy returns of the day.

I was born just after WWII, so I have no personal memories of the Depression, but my family was working-class immigrant, and it was a large family, so I got lots of both history and attitude about how people endure such times as I grew up.

No question in my mind, the idea that we have to help each other through the bad times was one of the important lessons that working folk took out of the Depression. Like most lessons, its impact seems to have faded over time and the generations; today "I'm all right, Jack" seems to be a lot more popular. But I have hope: Obama's talk of unity and compassion for the less-fortunate seems to have struck a spark in a lot of people, and the next couple of years, while not an economic time I'd wish on anyone, may encourage those ideas to spread.

We're going to need a chronicler and a listener; I hope there's someone out there who will step up to the task. Studs Terkel would have been the one for that job, and we'll need someone as extraordinary as he was to do it.

#22 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2008, 12:51 PM:

All he did, really, . . .
“all”
uh huh

Here in Chicago, I heard his interviews for years on WFMT. And the stories about him (and his liquor and cigars and obscenity) number a substantial fraction of the stories he collected.
Who else could talk about Big Bill Broonzy and Bertrand Russel intimately in the same paragraph? Heck who else's career was *made* by the Blacklist??

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