IF THERE IS SUCH a thing as the most American of cities, then probably it is Chicago, Los Angeles's claims notwithstanding, and Studs Terkel must be its most relentless, albeit impertinent, chronicler.
For years now Terkel has been asking people questions, often impertinent ones, which he firmly believes are the best kind, and in his autobiographical Talking to Myself, he tells something of what he has learned and discovered, not only about others, but also about himself. Much of it is interesting, some of it is fascinating, and almost none of it is dull.
Apparently, if you grew up in Chicago's 42nd Ward, as Terkel did, you soon acquired a rather seasoned view of politics and of those who follow that often gamey calling. You also gained a perspective which permitted very few personal heroes, almost none of whom ever got elected to public office. And if you were lucky, as Terkel was, there were a lot of dirty old men around who kept thrusting little blue books into your hands that cost a nickel and were written by such as Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, Thomas Paine, Bob Ingersoll, and Voltaire. Or as Terkel says, "That bunch."
Had it not been for such early influences, Terkel speculates that he might have grown up to be a Daniel Patrick Moynihan, or a Henry Kissinger, or a respected contributor to Commentary, of which fate he seems to feel there is none worse.
Instead, Terkel grew up to be a sometime actor, an occasional operatic spear carrier, a disk jockey, a tireless supporter of doomed causes, and a skilled interviewer of people. All kinds of people.
Terkel writes in a rather pleasantly rumpled style, which is no doubt harder to achieve than it seems. Along the way one learns that he was a law degree from the University of Chicago, although he never practiced; that his given name is Louis; that he is devoted to both opera and jazz, and that he probably has seen virtually every motion picture ever produced and remembers them all clearly.
Some of Terkel's most interesting passages deal with his interviews abroad with persons like Ivy Compton-Burnett, Fellini, Alan Paton, and Bertrand Russell. But as he interviews them, his thoughts keep turning home - back to Chicago, back to the city of Hinky Dink Kenna and Bath House John Coughlan - and his reflective comparisons provide much of the book's considerable charm.
A number of Terkel's formative years were spent helping his mother manage the Wells Grand Hotel whose five-dozen or so votes the local Democratic precinct captain rather liked to count on. Among the tenants was a man called Civilization (because no one could pronounce his real name) who kept firing off registered letters to the world's leaders (soundly reasoned letters, one feels) and then waited vainly for replies. There was also someone called Bandhouse Babe and Upsadaisy Connors and another nameless man who Terkel properly reveres because he was a journeyman printer who once helped Oscar Ameringer put out the Guardian.
Terkel, of course, knows who Oscar Ameringer was.In fact, he apparently knows most of the nation's dissenters, both past and present - men like Myles Horton who founded the Highlander Folk School, and Clifford Durr, the Alabama lawyer who resigned his Federal post rather than sign a loyalty oath during the Truman administration.
But Terkel also has a sneaking fondness for the highbinder and the mountebank, men such as Yellow Kid Well and Titanic Thompson, who once described his profession as separating "gibbering idiots from their money." Terkel recounts an interview about the Watergate burglary with two professional thieves, Kid Pharaoh and Doc Graham. Neither would fault the basic patriotic premise behind the burglary, but both were acerbic in their condemnation of the shockingly amateur manner in which it was executed.
Terkel comes through in his book as the epitome of the interested bystander who somehow invariably gets caught up in the events of his own time, a bemused man perhaps, and one who, like those he interviews, would be interesting to know.