Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel

Mary L. Dudziak

"My epitaph? My epitaph will be 'Curiosity did not kill this cat,'" Studs Terkel once said. The author and radio host died today at the age of 96. "At his bedside," the Chicago Tribune reported, "was a copy of his latest book, 'P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,' scheduled for a November release."

Historians have especially valued Terkel's works based on oral history interviews, including Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression and The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, for which Terkel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In 1997 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts.

The New York Times described his work:
For his oral histories, Terkel interviewed his subjects on tape, then transcribed and sifted. ''What first comes out of an interview are tons of ore; you have to get that gold dust in your hands,'' he wrote in his memoir. ''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.''
One thing I never knew: Terkel was a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. According to the Trib,
He never practiced law. Instead, he took a job in a federally sponsored statistical project with the Federal Emergency Rehabilitation Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal'' agencies. Then he found a spot in a writers project with the Works Progress Administration, writing plays and developing his acting skills.
Recordings from Terkel's radio programs and oral history interviews are here.
Cross-posted from the Legal History Blog.

Photo credit.


"This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence---to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us."

From introduction to Working.

I've thought about these lines many, many times . . .

While it's a little wrong to say that its sad Mr. Terkel passed away, given his amazing century-long life, it really is sad day.


As I approached retirement, I offered voluntary time to my local public high school for an after school course on what a lawyer does so that the young students would get an idea of what an attorney actually does, and expanding the course to include Studs Terkel's "Working ... " for contrast. The response was in effect "Thanks but no thanks." I'm sure Terkel's "Working ... " inspired many to further pursue their educations to get out of dead end jobs. Studs was a mensch.

Working was and remains a real eye-opener. It showed dead end jobs. It also showed jobs that were well compensated yet daily death.

It showed people qualified for better jobs but excluded from them. It showed that some people are perfectly satisfied with jobs that might bore me to tears. It showed that some jobs are just shit. It showed that many jobs are, but didn't have to be.

It showed people making the best of their jobs and people making the worst of them. It showed people in denial about work life and people in touch with the reality for better or worse.

Perhaps most of all, it showed the few who have control over their work life and the many who have little control.

A giant has passed.

I have a copy of Hard Times on my nightstand as we speak. On several occasions, my family has dined next to Studs Terkel in Chicago family restaurants.

People in my profession have a lot of trouble with the idea of the "authentic," but there was an aura of the authentic that surrounded the man. He will definitely be missed.

There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.
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