Studs Terkel

Written by  //  October 31, 2008  //  Arts and culture, Media, Rights & Social justice, U.S.  //  No comments


Studs Terkel: He’ll Never Be Silenced
Remembering the original guerrilla journalist
By Jeff Cohen, director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.
The irrepressible Louis “Studs” Terkel was many things – oral historian, radio and TV host, actor, activist, Bronx-born icon of Chicago, the “great listener” who was hard of hearing, Pulitzer Prize-winner. But most of all he was an inspiration. He inspired every younger activist or independent journalist who ever met him. And who among us wasn’t younger than Studs.
The self-described “guerrilla journalist” died Friday at 96. Shortly before his death, Studs spoke of an Obama presidency in a fascinating interview with blogger Edward Lifson.
Studs was almost 70 when I first met him, more than twice my age. But I couldn’t keep up.
… With his legacy of best-selling books and historic recorded interviews, Studs will no more be silenced by death than Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill was by a Utah firing squad. If Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History, Studs developed “A People’s Journalism” – putting the stories and wisdom of poor and working class Americans on tape and the printed page.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Studs Terkel Dies (AP)
Studs Terkel, the ageless master of listening and speaking, a broadcaster, activist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose best-selling oral histories celebrated the common people he liked to call the “non-celebrated,” died Friday. He was 96. He was an old rebel who never mellowed, never retired, never forgot, and “never met a picket line or petition I didn’t like.” NYT: The voice is unforgettable, as if each phrase scraped the ear with a scoopful of gravel. What remains in the memory too is the earnestness that could turn both fervent and sentimental. USAT: Terkel had the listening skills of a psychologist, the timing of a comic, the curiosity of a scholar, and the gravelly voice of a boxing promoter. CSM: If you can imagine Walt Whitman hosting a Midwest radio talk show, wearing a checkered shirt and drawling like a movie gangster, you’ve conjured up America’s greatest oral historian. Times of London: Terkel’s political sympathies almost killed his career during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crackdown of the 1950s. He was dumped from an early radio show when he refused to distance himself from liberal causes. Chicago Tribune: He took the obscure academic exercise known as oral history and turned it into literature. In transcribing the words and hopes of ordinary people, he gave voice to the voiceless. WaPo: Reporters and priests and psychologists know it takes a certain kind of personality to get a certain kind of person to speak honestly. Terkel’s gift — displayed on his syndicated radio program for decades, as well as in print — was just this.

He Gave Voice to Many, Among Them Himself
without Mr. Terkel’s radio program, which was broadcast daily between 1952 and 1997, and without his books of oral history — including one that won him the Pulitzer Prize — it is difficult to imagine that National Public Radio would have evolved in the way it did, or that Ken Burns could have made oral history into a cinematic tradition. Just dip into some of the imposing volumes of oral history, in which Mr. Terkel took on the social world of the 20th century — “Hard Times,” “The Good War” or “Working” — and you are amazed at the range of people who spoke with him about the Depression, the Second World War or the world of the workplace: the bookmaker and the stockbroker, the carpenter and the washroom attendant, the mayor and the supermarket cashier. Mr. Terkel anticipated the academic movement of recent decades to tell history from below — not from the perspective of the makers of history but from the perspective of those who have been shaped by it. He once said he was interested in the masons who might have built the Chinese Wall, or the cooks in Caesar’s army. That is also one of oral history’s implicit ambitions: using a populist style to tell populist history. The oral historian does little more than hold up a mirror, just making sure the glass is clean. The practice claims to be self-effacing and world-revealing. How can a collection of interviews be anything else?

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