Studs Terkel died on October 31, 2008. He was and still is one of the most influential writer/historians I’ve come across, and I’d like to pay him a short tribute here.
With his gently probing questions, Terkel was able to get the story behind the story – he used everyday people’s experiences and thoughts to connect with the larger questions in history. A brilliant journalist, he made his interview subject much more than just a regurgitator of facts or numbers. The people he interviewed became a part of history, which allowed the reader to share in history, too.
I find Terkel’s works not just fascinating and informative, but inspriring as well. My favorite of his compilations is “Working,” in which he interviewed people about the work they do. He interviewed preachers, teachers, executives, miners, shop keepers, bookbinders, hookers, police men, pharmacists, and college professors, among so many more. Their thoughts on the nature of work provided much needed introspection to me. They spoke about good work, or just survival work, work that has meaning, work that is soul crushing… they taught me that work is so necessary, yet not necessarily so encompassing that it negates human interaction and truth. I believe that American culture is always striving towards perfection, much to our detriment. If we don’t obtain perfection, we feel as if we’ve lost the game. Thus, we look for the “perfect love” and the “perfect career,” regardless what our needs and desires really are. “Working” sheds light on this cultural dilemma. It is a completely different kind of labor history, one that is personal yet universal.
Another favorite of mine is the compilation, “American Dreams Lost and Found.” In these interviews, Terkel asks a variety of people from all walks of life what the so-called “American Dream” means to them. The answers are astoundingly insightful, turning the very idea of the “American Dream” up on its head. For many, the dream is not a house, a car, a happy family, and a good job – for almost all the interviewees, the dream is deeper and decidedly more profound. The dream is having a sense of belonging, of doing something that will make a difference, of moving outside of one’s own comfort zone. The answers that Terkel compiled are almost life-chaning, in a way, because the reader ends up comparing his or her own idea of the “American dream” to the versions in the book. I know that’s what I did – I started asking myself what the dream meant to me, and the answers were so different from the standard.
I stress to my students who are interested in genealogy that the best kind of oral history is the kind that Studs Terkel engaged in. It’s not enough to just ask the a grandmother or grandfather only about birth and death dates, funny anecdotes, and assorted trivia. The real story is what occurred behind the scenes, in the hopes, dreams, and realities of an ancestor’s everyday life. Terkel transcended the mere question-answer interview into something more profound, asking questions we should ask each other and ourselves. Studs Terkel was a true American original, and I wish him godspeed.