Celebrated Author Elevated Listening to an Art

By Bart Barnes and Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel, 96, the preeminent oral historian of 20th-century America who described the major events of his time through the experiences and observations of the ordinary men and women who lived them, died yesterday at his home in Chicago after a fall.

As a radio host and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Terkel used a folksy but probing interviewing style to draw out unfiltered answers from political leaders and common people alike. He illuminated America from the ground up, seeking out stories from bartenders, housewives, businessmen, artists, doctors, social workers, coal miners, farmworkers, bookmakers and convicts.

"Who built the pyramids?" he once asked in his inimitable sweet growl. "It wasn't the goddamn pharaohs who build the pyramids. It was the anonymous slaves."

Through his daily radio interview show, which was broadcast from 1952 to 1998 and nationally syndicated, Terkel's voice -- slow and mellifluous, with a working-class edge -- became known to millions of people. He always ended his show with a line from an old union song: "Take it easy, but take it."

His best-selling books usually were transcribed from tape-recorded interviews with hundreds of people. His prolific use of the recording device led Time magazine to write that "next to Richard Nixon the person whose life has been most dramatically affected by the tape recorder is Studs Terkel."

He won the Pulitzer for nonfiction for " 'The Good War': An Oral History of World War II" (1984). Besides two volumes of autobiography, his other major books included "Working" (1974), "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression" (1970) and "Division Street: America" (1966).

These folk histories were told in first-person vignettes and anecdotes taken from interviews with a wide variety of people.

Terkel was an artist of conversation who once described his work as "listening to what people tell me." He was unusually skilled at drawing out his subjects, who told him about their dreams and memories, their fears, frustrations and anxieties, the condition of their lives.

"The average American has an indigenous intelligence, a native wit," he once said in a speech. "It's only a question of piquing that intelligence." He described this process as "guerrilla journalism," but writer Garry Wills described Terkel's philosophy and politics as "underdog-ism."

"Studs is a representative of an all-but extinct American breed," Chicago-born writer and lawyer Scott Turow told London's Guardian newspaper in 2004. "He is a leftist humanist, whose faith in the capacities of every human being has informed both his politics and his literary efforts."

Besides his radio, TV and book work, Terkel also had been an actor in radio soap operas and films. He memorably played a newspaper reporter in "Eight Men Out" (1988), the John Sayles film about the 1919 "Black Sox" baseball scandal. He also was a playwright, jazz columnist, disc jockey, lecturer and host of music festivals.

Despite his national celebrity status, his presence as an interviewer was barely discernible in most of his books. Like a psychoanalyst, he allowed his subjects to talk freely, with minimal questioning.

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