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Finding Hope in America

by Wendy Smith

He’s the literary world’s most famous wielder of a tape recorder, and he’s been interviewing people on radio for nearly 60 years, but Studs Terkel is, he cheerfully admits, extremely inept with technology. This morning, the piece of equipment that’s giving him a hard time is his telephone, or rather the amplifying device he needs to attach to it. Though remarkably vigorous at age 91, he is rather deaf, and without this device it’s going to be a one-sided conversation. “Stick with me,” he advises in that famous clarion rasp before he puts down the receiver to wrestle with it. “You’re dealing with a guy who’s something of a Luddite.”

Like those desperate textile weavers who smashed machine-powered looms in England during the Industrial Revolution, Terkel has always made a point of “saying no to the official word,” as he puts it in his new book, Hope Dies Last (The New Press). Whether he’s listening to people talk about the Depression in Hard Times or about their jobs in Working or about the thorny subject of Race, Studs Terkel “celebrates the non-celebrated”; he gives voice to ordinary folks whose experiences do not always match the rosy picture painted of the American Dream.

Not that he’s a pessimist: even over the phone. Terkel’s zest for life comes crackling through the wires all the way from Chicago, his longtime hometown. It’s just that he’s a firm liberal in a conservative time and a convinced believer in Big Government (remember, he was a young man during the New Deal) even after Bill Clinton declared that its era was over. Give him the slightest chance, and you’ll get an earful of his opinions on the Bush administration’s sins, the folly of the war in Iraq, and the embarrassing presence in the California governor’s mansion of “muscle boy and his trophy wife.”

The union officials, progressive lawyers, populist performers, community organizers, student demonstrators, and other left-leaning types who speak in Hope Dies Last would mostly agree. Terkel’s tenth book of oral history is “a tribute to people who are imbued with hope: we call them activists,” he says. “I got the title from a retired Mexican farm worker, Jessie de la Cruz. She said that there are certain moments in history, certain times in our lives that are bleak, but there’s a saying in Spanish, ‘La esperanza muerte ultima.’ Hope dies last. She was in an earlier book, American Dreams: Lost and Found, about 20 years ago, but that remark stuck with me for a long time. People like Jessie, and like Virginia and Clark Durr [Southern liberals to whom the book is dedicated], they act because they have hope, and they imbue others with hope.”

Hope isn’t an easy subject to talk about, though. “This was my toughest book to do,” says Terkel. “All the others were visceral in nature. Hard Times: what’s it like to be a little boy and see your father come home at ten o’clock in the morning with his tool chest on his shoulder, then he doesn’t work for the next five years? The Good War: what was it like to be a mama’s boy about to land in Normandy in 1944, or a woman who has her first job thanks to the war? Or Working: what’s your day like as a teacher or a clerk at the check-out counter? They were specific, and Hope Dies Last is abstract, but strangely enough it turns out to be the most personal.”

“Personal” is a word that certainly comes to mind when listening to Studs Terkel. His conversation rambles all over the place—”You realize I’m going to wander around, don’t you?” he asks unrepentantly at one point—but it’s unified by his exuberant interest in the human race in all its variety. He’ll be in the middle of making a point using the example of someone he knows, when he’ll have to pause to interject: “handsomest union man I ever saw, looked just like Robert Redford”; “she was up for the Nobel Prize too, several times”; “you’d have howled laughing at her jokes.” It’s utterly charming, and it gives you an understanding of how Terkel has persuaded his interviewees to speak so intimately and directly about their hopes and fears: he just plain likes them.

“People feel that I’m really interested in them,” he says. “I don’t have any written questions, and I reveal my own frailties. This mechanical ineptitude of mine works out in my favor sometimes; they feel not only my equal but my superior when they see me mess up my reel-to-reel...in the days when we had reel-to-reel! So instead of some big-shot journalist and a humble subject, we have two people talking.”

“One of the great moments in Division Street,” he continues, making one of his characteristic intuitive leaps to recall a moment from the research for his first oral history, “was when I was interviewing this woman in a housing project—beautiful woman, bad teeth, because no money for dentists, but very pretty—and she’s got three little kids running around who want to hear their mama’s voice. So I play it back for them, and she hears her voice for the first time in her life. She puts her hand to her mouth and says, ‘My God, I never knew I felt that way before!’ Well, bingo, and bingo for both of us. That’s the kind of stuff that excites me.”

“People do have a way of speaking poetically,” he continues.”Once you cut out the fat, suddenly there’s a drama to what they say. A lot of actors use passages from my books for auditions because they make great monologues.” Indeed, although there may be “two people talking” in a Studs Terkel interview, only one of them winds up on the page; his oral histories are a series of monologues in which you seldom hear the author’s voice. “it’s there when it’s needed,” he says, “for a bit of humor or a transition, and the introductions pretty much give my game away. But I want to hear them, not me!”

Explaining how someone with such a powerful personality got himself involved in a four-decade career producing books he doesn’t appear in, Terkel remarks, “Remember, I’ve lived two lives. I do a radio show on WFMT, Chicago’s great classical music station; I got that job after I was blacklisted, which is a funny story in itself.” (Only Studs Terkel could describe being blacklisted as “a funny story.”)

“On the radio I interview artists: operatic, classical, jazz, or folk. Then in 1965 along came Andre Schiffrin [at that time publisher of Pantheon Books], who had just done the American edition of Jan Myrdal’s book, Report from a Chinese Village. Andre said, ‘I want you to do a book about another village: Chicago. ’I thought he was out of his mind, but I did it; Division Street was the first of that series. Then later he said, ‘What about memories of the Great Depression?’ and that’s more or less how it began.”

His next project is an oral history about performing—”If I’m still around,” he remarks bluntly. But you sense that Hope Dies Last is a book very close to the author’s heart, because the grassroots organizers who throng in its pages are the kind of people Terkel loves most, and because their bedrock optimism reflects his own deepest instincts.

“I think people are decent,” he says. “If there’s an accident they run immediately to help the other person. But we’re taught that you’ve got to beat the other guy, screw the rest of the world, get to the top no matter how. You know, the usual crap: I don’t need a union, I don’t need a community. You know who I like to quote about this? Einstein, because nobody dares contradict him! Einstein said, and I’m paraphrasing badly, that when the individual is on his own, he imagines that he’s strong, but he’s in a vacuum. When he’s part of a community, he’s strengthened, and his individuality is italicized; it’s stronger than when he’s on his own. I hope this book encourages people to join groups.”

“You see, I used that word: hope,” he says, laughing. “It’s the most ubiquitous word in our vocabulary.” •

from the July-August 2004 issue

"When [an individual]
is part of a community,
he's strengthened,
and his individuality
is italicized."