The Studs Terkel Reader

Louis "Studs" Terkel has managed, during his remarkable ninety-five years, to combine two roles in life, seemingly disparate though in truth vitally complimentary. One is as a charming, avuncular raconteur radio host in his native Chicago, a popular home-town local celebrity, a host whose style has that rare distinction of listening to his interviewees rather than talking at them. The other is as the great unsung street-level social historian of post-war America, and one of its great hidden springs of radical consciousness also.

For well over fifty years now, Studs, an early victim of the McCarthy blacklists, has been talking to everyday people about their lives, their hopes, their fears, their personal histories and prejudices, and transcribing the results. This has resulted in twelve volumes of superlative social history, books which capture the essence of an America that otherwise rarely sees the light of day. It's certainly an America more working-class than the version which otherwise makes it to the media, but more importantly, it simply has a far greater unabashed honesty about life both high and low. This collection takes some of the best interviewees from Terkel's tomes down the years. While the most interesting narrators may have been plucked from Terkel's hundreds of interviews, the undoubted naturalism of the accounts make for both a vivid encapsulation of individual lives as they are really lived, and a broader historical vista, cinematic in scope, of US society at large over the past century.

Many tales truly warm the heart, such as that of C.P. Ellis, a dirt-poor Southerner and one time leading light in the Ku Klux Klan, who came to regard his black neighbours as genuine comrades and friends following their joining forces in a tenant housing dispute. Another is Vernon Jarrett, another Southerner, this time black himself, who grew up in still greater poverty, but who now writes for a Chicago newspaper, reflecting with wisdom on the trials of his life. Other stories, have a harder, more bitter edge. Oscar Haline weeps as he recalls how he and his fellow farm workers, protesting at their wretched living conditions during the Depression, were treated with the most vicious repression. The food-producing employers and law enforcement agencies of the South Dakota state saw them harassed, beaten and jailed. There is no comfort or "resolution" here, just testimony to injustice in a story which would otherwise have been lost.

Terkel has a radical agenda, but his politics are by no means obtrusive. The likes of Doc Graham, a former 30s gangster and still in the 60s an unapologetic racist and misogynist , and Dennis Hart, cab-driver and unreconstructed member of the far-right John Birch Society, are both given their voices, their "airtime" in just as non- judgmental manner as their more sympathetic counterparts. This just serves to underline that to give a straightforward voice to the general populace, un-spliced and un-spun, is subversive in itself. In short, the truth is radical.

In one of the impeccably written introductions to his chapters, Studs pays tribute to Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and we may need to go back to Steinbeck before we can find someone who has done more to give an authentic voice to American working life. In giving voice to normal people, in rescuing them from, in E.P Thompson's phrase, the "enormous condescension of posterity" , Terkel has provided an invaluable service over the years, and indeed continues to do so. This book is a wonderful testimony to his achievement.

[First published on Red Pepper website, 2008] Back