An Ear for the Lyrical Voice of Everyman

Studs Terkel said there was
Studs Terkel said there was "gold dust" in his interviews' "tons of ore." (2002 Photo By Warren Skalski For The Washington Post)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Much of what's important to know about Studs Terkel could be shorthanded in that nickname. Who calls anyone "Studs" anymore? Who even called guys that back when -- the 1930s, '40s, '50s, when Louis "Studs" Terkel honed his craft as a journalist, raconteur, and chronicler and champion of the working class.

As it happened, the nickname came from the character Studs Lonigan, hero of James T. Farrell's novels about a kid from Chicago's South Side, which was the Bronx-born Terkel's adopted home.

But "Studs" suggested much of what Terkel, who died yesterday at 96, was: a man who came up on the real people's side of town, who knew the gangsters and the showgirls, and who never lost his feel for the people at the back of the bus, slumped and slumbering in the dreary light. He was rumpled, and smoked cigars. Of course.

Reporters and priests and psychologists know it takes a certain kind of personality to get a certain kind of person to speak honestly. Terkel's gift -- displayed on his syndicated radio program for decades, as well as in print -- was just this. He perfected a kind of shoe-leather approach to writing the history of America in the last century that coaxed extraordinary tales out of nobodies.

His method was to travel the country, sometimes for years, interviewing hundreds of people about some enormous epoch or theme. Terkel essentially asked everyone a simple question: What was it like (or, what are your thoughts about . . . )? What was it like to live through the Great Depression ("Hard Times," 1970), to simply do your job ("Working," 1974), to live through World War II ("The Good War," 1984)? The result -- a series of oral histories -- was the poetry of ordinary people, shot through with desperation, hatred, love, dreams realized and lost.

"What first comes out of an interview are tons of ore; you have to get that gold dust in your hands," Terkel wrote in his 2007 memoir, "Touch and Go." "Now, how does it become a necklace or a ring or a gold watch? You have to get the form; you have to mold the gold dust."

In "Hard Times," Terkel's got an astounding cross section of people -- tycoons and autoworkers, farmers and stickup artists, even the fan dancer Sally Rand -- to open up not just about bread lines and poverty, but about heartache. The overriding theme of "Hard Times" isn't just deprivation but shame. Shame about losing a job and going "on relief." Shame about not being able to provide for one's family. Shame about the breakdown of families and, almost, the fabric of an entire society. You read it and think that the most terrible thing to happen to a nation is not to lose its economy, but to lose its faith in itself.

If "Hard Times" was about humiliation, "The Good War," Terkel's Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of World War II, was about fear. The title was, of course, ironic. No wars are good, no matter how just the cause. In contrast to the Depression, America's economy revived with the spark of war production. People had jobs and stuff again (even with severe rationing), but the book illustrates the limitations of comfort and material things.

For what doth it profit a man to gain the whole world (or at least a job again) if he wakes up every morning fearing something far more terrifying than his own death: the loss of his son in distant battle?

An unapologetic and lifelong lefty, Terkel's special affinity was with the waitress and the tool-and-die man. "I never met a picket line or petition I didn't like," Terkel once said. He was an avid New Dealer in the 1930s and was blacklisted in the 1950s, suspected of communist leanings, a suspicion that cost him his national TV show.

Terkel's younger contemporaries were the fading class of bar-stool journalists (Terkel undoubtedly would hate that term), hard-boiled guys like Jimmy Breslin, Jimmy Cannon and a fellow Chicagoan, Mike Royko. Terkel's latter-day musical analogue is Bruce Springsteen, whose anthems and ballads have the same bottom-up view as Terkel's clerks and mechanics.

The perfect Terkel quote: "When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch?" he said when he received an honorary National Book Award medal in 1997. "When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army? And here's the big one: When the Armada sank, you read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears? And that's what I believe oral history is about. It's about those who shed those other tears, who on rare occasions of triumph laugh that other laugh."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company