Give 'Em Hell, Mr. Terkel
Studs Terkel, the great journalist, raconteur and listener, turns 95 this week. He was born in New York City on May 16, 1912, to a tailor and a seamstress. He says: "I was born in the year the Titanic sank. The Titanic went down, and I came up. That tells you a little about the fairness of life."
His life's work has been to tell the stories of the working class, the down and out, the forgotten and ignored. I interviewed him in a Chicago studio, his white hair made even more unruly by the headphones he puts on to hear better. His hands leaning on his cane, Studs exclaims: "Ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things, and that's what it's all about. They must count!"
Characters pour forth as Studs spins the stories of hundreds into a coherent tapestry of this century just past. His recall is extraordinary, his store of anecdotes prodigious. Without missing a beat, Studs threads together early icons of the labor movement, from Eugene V. Debs, to anti-Vietnam War organizer David Dellinger, one of the Chicago Seven charged with organizing the famed protests in Chicago in 1968, back to legendary miser Hetty Green.
He has written a dozen books, won the Pulitzer Prize, had a play produced on Broadway, won the National Book Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, the George Polk Career Award and the presidential National Humanities Medal. He hosted a daily radio show on WFMT in Chicago from 1952 through 1997.
His parents moved to Chicago, opening a rooming house. There Studs learned of the essential dignity of work, of working people, of self-esteem. The residents worked in tool-and-die factories, on ships that plied the Great Lakes, and, sometimes, as prostitutes. He watched the devastation these folk endured when the Great Depression hit. The workers sat around then, drinking and fighting. Studs feels passionate about the New Deal, and about its Works Progress Administration, the WPA, which put people to work during the Depression. "Working class means you work!" he shouts. "With shovels and rakes. And there was work for artists!" In fact, work for him. Though he graduated from University of Chicago Law School, he was a WPA actor and writer. "There were artists and painters and dancers and singers. This was all part of the New Deal!"
He served stateside during World War II in the Army Air Corps, then went on to broadcasting. His support for the refugees from the Spanish Civil War, with the Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, earned the attention of Joe McCarthy. He lost his first TV show due to his views. Then Mahalia Jackson, the famed African-American singer, insisted that Studs be hired as the host of her show on CBS. When he refused to sign the U.S. loyalty oath demanded by CBS, Studs says Jackson told them, "Look, if you fire Studs, find another Mahalia Jackson." CBS backed off. The lesson, says Terkel: "The answer is to say 'No!' to authority when authority is wrong."
He is clear when asked about George Bush, and the war in Iraq: "What can we say, it destroyed one thing—this notion that we are an exceptional people, that we can never do wrong. We have lost the war. We lost Vietnam. How could this happen to us? We never lose! We are the city on a hill." He calls Bush "a clown" and laments sharing his alma mater, the University of Chicago, with war architect Paul Wolfowitz.
I asked Studs how he felt turning 95. "I feel like I always feel: rotten, physically, to tell you the truth," he said. "However, here I am, breathing, inhaling, exhaling. When Robert Browning wrote in his poem, 'Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be,' he was telling as much truth as George W. Bush and Karl Rove. He was lying like a rug.
"My brothers, my father and I suffered from angina. But I am alive today thanks to technology. It can do wonderful things. But it also gave us Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
With the threat of nuclear war never far from his thoughts and frequently addressed on his radio show, Terkel remains, ultimately, hopeful. As he writes in his book "My American Century": "For the next century, we've got to put together what we so carelessly tore apart with so little concern for those who were gonna follow us. ... You've got to sound off. The older you are, the freer you are, as long as you last."
His memoir, due out this fall, is titled "Touch and Go," from a line from Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood." Reading Terkel, listening to this titanic storyteller, vigorous at 95, I am reminded of another line of Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night."
Studs Terkel rages on, with wit and wisdom. Happy birthday, Studs.
© 2007 Amy Goodman