In recent years, Studs Terkel has become one of those celebrated authors whose books -- thanks to an engaging, extroverted personality and extensive media exposure -- are widely respected but rarely read through. People are taken with the idea of Terkel: a folk historian with strong poplist sympathies; an activist whose style and world view were shaped by the Depression years, who has managed to retain an astonishing optimism and ebullience; a University of Chicago Law School graduate who enjoys traveling about the country with a tape recorder, seeking out the "ordinary" man and woman, "listening," as he puts it, "to what people tell me."
Primarily a radio talk show host for Chicago's Wfmt, Terkel has, in fact, succeeded in turning what would in former times have been considered a charming social skill into a string of best-sellers. He is an extraordinarily good conversationalist, good at listening as well as asking questions which elicit detailed replies. He is also genuinely curious about people and committed to giving those who do not have an audience a forum for their views. For the past 15 years, Terkel has interviewed people about their lives on tape, has had those tapes transcribed, has edited out most of his comments and questions and published the end-products as books.
The first of thise, Division Street: America , appeared in 1967. Inspired by Jan Myrdal's Report from a Chinese Village , which examined the lives of its inhabitants before and after the Communist takeover, Terkel aimed to compile a kind of report from Chicago. He wanted "to searchout the thoughts of noncelebrated people (with a few 'newsworthy' exceptions) -- thoughts concerning themselves, past and present, the city, the society, the world."
The result of this deliberately loosely defined (some would call it ill-defined) objective was a compendium of 71 uneven monologues ranging in length from one paragraph to nearly 10 pages; some unadorned by any detail, others supplemented by brief descriptions of the subject's home, attire, history or manner; some punctuated by Terkel's questions or comments, others (presumably -- for the reader is given no information on method) intact. Many arts of the transcribed tapes were interesting, some were moving, some were boring. To a journalist, the finished product looked exactly like the notes and transcribed tapes that are the raw material of many articles and books. In 1967, however, Division Street was published as a finished product, in retrospect an interesting journalistic analogue to the process-oriented, naturalistic and determinedly democratic (all of us are artists) experiments then the fashion in the arts.
The book did well, and offspring were not long in coming. In 1970, Terkel applied the Division Street format to Hard Times; An Oral History of the Depression , and in 1974 to Working . These books had the advantage of presenting the reader, the interviewer and the interviewee with important, clear-cut subject matter toward which to turn their "thoughts." Both subjects were emotionally charged, and both afforded the interviewee the opportunity to structure what he or she had to say. The person recalling the Depression could narrate the story of what life was like Before, During and After; the person discussing work could describe a typical day or the story of how he or she fell into a particular line of work. Perhaps most imporatntly, the books held together because all those interviewed were talking about the same subjects.
Unfortuantely no such structure is apparent in American Dreams: Lost and Found . "Ion this bok are a hundred American voices," Terkel writes in his short preface, "captured by hunch, circumstance and a rough idea. There is no pretense at statistical 'truth' nor consensus. There is, in the manner of a jazz work, an attempt of theme and improvisation, to recunt dreams, lost and found, and a recognition of possibility."
The two "themes" Terkel then presents are voiced by a former Miss U.S.A. and former director of the United States Immigration Service. The former is sour, cynical and disillusioned: "The minute you're crowned, you become their property and subject to whatever they tell you. They wake you up at seven o'clock next morning and make you put on a negligee and serve you breakfast in bed so that all the New York papers can come in and take your picture." The latter, just as predicatably, is tired but idealistic: "Every new group comes in believing more firmly in the American Dream than the one that came a few years before. Every new group is scared of being in the welfare line or in the unemployment office. They go to night school, they learn about America. We'd be lost without them."
There is no attempt on the part of the author to delineate the subject of this 470-page opus any more than that, or to explore the curious concept of an American Dream. Is it any more than a cliche? Where did it come from and when? Do people today really consider their lives in terms of it or is it irrelevant to most of us? Is there a British, Japanese, Egyptian or Israeli Dream or is the notion itself peculiarly American? What does that say about us, orur values, our frustrations, our expectations and hopes for change?
There is no evidence that Terkel thought seriously about these questions or asked his subjects whether they had given any thought to the American Dream before he appeared with his tape recorder. We are not told what questions he asked or why he chose to include the people he did. What we get is a pastiche of monologues by "ordinary" men and women as well as some celebrated ones who discuss things they have written about better elsewhere. There is Jill Robinson talking about growing up in Hollywood; Jann Wenner talking about publishing Rolling Stone magazine; Helen and yscott Nearing talking about living off the land; North Carolina's Senator Jesse Helms rambling on about politics.
As in his previous books, Terkel is for the most part "not there." That means that there is no one shown questioning or contesting a vague or provocative remark, no one evaluating the way in which a thing is said, no one placing it into a context or reflectring on wehat it means. Oral history, as a form, pexcuses both interviewer and subject from any kind of responsibility. There is no agenda: people talk about their fathers, failures, jobs, problems, successes, children, hobbies.
Like a psychoanalyst, Terkel takes a backseat and lets his subject free associate but unlike the analyst, Terkel assumes that the entire monologue is valuable and of interest to other people. The interviewee, encouraged by a microphone and Terkel's enthusiasm, runs off at the mouth until the tape runs out or he gets tired. It's a one-shot deal; nobody will be back to hold him accountable for his words. "I'm a Libra," says one of the subjects, a propos of nothing that comes eigher before or after. "It says that as a mother I eat my children, from the old Greek fable. About twenty years ago, I realized I was eating my children. I was telling them what to do. Today the children are in revolt. I am living in a wonderful age, if I can only hold onto it."
This is talk-show talk, the kind one can hear over radio and television stations across the country. No one means or takes it seriously. It is casual, superficial, diverting perhaps, and it is perfectly appropriate in its context. To publish it as a book and claim it as a document of our time offends both the reader and the writer in me. A writer should have more than a "rough idea" of what he is doing by the time his book is ready for publication and a reader should not be served up material that belongs on the floor of a splicing room. On of Terkel's admirers finds in American Dreams: Lost and Found "raw material for 1,000 novels in one medium-sized book." I would point out that raw material is raw material -- not a book.