||Finding Hope in America
by Wendy Smith
Hes the literary worlds most famous wielder of a tape recorder, and hes 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 thats 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 its 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. Youre dealing with a guy whos 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 hes 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 hes a pessimist: even over the phone. Terkels zest for life comes crackling through the wires all the way from Chicago, his longtime hometown. Its just that hes 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 youll get an earful of his opinions on the Bush administrations sins, the folly of the war in Iraq, and the embarrassing presence in the California governors 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. Terkels 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 theres 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 isnt 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: whats it like to be a little boy and see your father come home at ten oclock in the morning with his tool chest on his shoulder, then he doesnt work for the next five years? The Good War: what was it like to be a mamas boy about to land in Normandy in 1944, or a woman who has her first job thanks to the war? Or Working: whats 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 placeYou realize Im going to wander around, dont you? he asks unrepentantly at one pointbut its unified by his exuberant interest in the human race in all its variety. Hell be in the middle of making a point using the example of someone he knows, when hell 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; youd have howled laughing at her jokes. Its 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 Im really interested in them, he says. I dont 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 projectbeautiful woman, bad teeth, because no money for dentists, but very prettyand shes got three little kids running around who want to hear their mamas 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. Thats the kind of stuff that excites me.
People do have a way of speaking poetically, he continues.Once you cut out the fat, suddenly theres 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 authors voice. its there when its 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 doesnt appear in, Terkel remarks, Remember, Ive lived two lives. I do a radio show on WFMT, Chicagos 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 Myrdals 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 thats more or less how it began.
His next project is an oral history about performingIf Im still around, he remarks bluntly. But you sense that Hope Dies Last is a book very close to the authors 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 theres an accident they run immediately to help the other person. But were taught that youve 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 dont need a union, I dont need a community. You know who I like to quote about this? Einstein, because nobody dares contradict him! Einstein said, and Im paraphrasing badly, that when the individual is on his own, he imagines that hes strong, but hes in a vacuum. When hes part of a community, hes strengthened, and his individuality is italicized; its stronger than when hes on his own. I hope this book encourages people to join groups.
You see, I used that word: hope, he says, laughing. Its the most ubiquitous word in our vocabulary.
from the July-August 2004 issue