Talking to Himself

The oral historian Studs Terkel now tells his life's story. Scott McLemee listens to a puzzling silence in the tale.

November 14, 2007

Studs Terkel, whose new book Touch and Go: A Memoir (The New Press) appears just a few months after his 95th birthday, has often been called an oral historian for his collections of interviews with “ordinary people,” to use a term he despises for its implicit condescension. I take it from a look through JSTOR that some of the oral historians in academe dispute that label. They have their methods, while Terkel has his.

Terkel works the transcripts of his conversations over so that they become narratives -- soliloquies of life in the United States during the 20th century, as seen “from below.” Whether or not they meet certain demands of the oral historians, his books qualify as a kind of literature, drawing from a tradition in American letters beginning no later than Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. That Terkel has lived most of his life in Chicago, where James T. Farrell and Richard Wright made their start as authors, seems like no coincidence. He also shares in the spirit of a collection of poems by another resident of the windy city, a guy who did the grunt work as a partner in Clarence Darrow’s law firm: Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. But where Masters wrote epitaphs for the dead in an imaginary small town in the Midwest, Terkel’s books are full of real people, stopping to tell their stories in the middle of real life. His works transfigure the ordinary, which is one definition of what literature can do.

Touch and Go was “written directly by Studs on his old typewriter,” according to an introductory note by André Schiffrin, his longtime editor and publisher. The image of the author banging away at his predigital keyboard is perhaps the main thing distinguishing Touch and Go from Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times (1977), an autobiographical volume based on tape-recorded “interviews” Terkel conducted with himself. A few passages from Talking to Myself are incorporated directly into the new book, and other parts of it simply retell stories from the earlier memoir in slightly different ways.

Well, you only get one life, so a certain amount of repetition is to be expected. But a memoirist can, when plowing the same ground, sometimes cut a little deeper while making the second pass.That is not the case here, unfortunately. Terkel is clearly a gifted raconteur, but he seems averse to introspection, and careful about how much of himself he reveals.

In his first autobiography, Terkel noted that he had concealed some things. "There is a private domain on which I’ll not trespass," as he put it 30 years ago, "nor does it, I feel, matter very much to others.” But the problem with either of his tellings of his own story is that the reader is rushed past some very important matters in his public life. I will come back to that narrative blindspot in due course. But first, a quick look at the broad contours of his life’s story as it is told in both books.

He was born to a middle-class Jewish family in 1912 – three weeks after the sinking of the Titanic, as he notes in each book. The name on his birth certificate was Louis. Growing up, he worked at the family hotel in Chicago, which was managed by his mother after his parents divorced. She had an appreciation for wealth and status that clearly did not get passed down to her son.

He did go to law school at the University of Chicago, however, and graduated in the early part of the Depression. But he never practiced. Instead, he worked for the Federal Writers Project during the Depression, helping to prepare radio scripts. He acted in plays such as Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, and worked with the Living Newspaper – a multimedia theatrical revue covering topics ripped from the headlines.

Terkel also got parts in radio dramas, usually playing gangsters, his voice having taken on the right accent and timbre of a wiseguy. And he was a disk jockey – though that expression was not used at the time – thanks to a familiarity with both classical music and popular forms such as jazz and the blues. By the early 1950s, Terkel was appearing on television in a Chicago program called “Stud’s Place” – a slice-of-life neighborhood drama set in a restaurant owned by the title character. It might well have gone national, and be remembered as a full-fledged part of the Golden Age of Television.

But Terkel found himself blacklisted. His name had appeared on certain petitions, for which he would not apologize; and so he went back to doing a little of this, a little of that. He got a radio program. He had a column about popular music in a Chicago newspaper. He published a volume of biographical sketches of great jazzmen. The skills he developed while interviewing people for his show fed into another book, Division Street: America, published in 1965. And the rest, so to speak, is oral history.

Terkel is a good storyteller, and it is a life full of raw material.. But there are points when his gifts as a performer (to use a word that subsumes his activity in front of the typewriter as well as the microphone) permit him to avoid as much as he expresses. When Talking to Myself appeared 30 years ago, Terkel’s way of discussing McCarthyism was rather jaunty. C’est la vie! How how lucky he was to have been blacklisted! Otherwise, think of the wonderful opportunities he might have missed. He might have ended up respectable and dull.

As the critic John Leonard pointed out at the time, however, that element of jokiness rang false. It seemed to be avoiding engagement with memories of what to have been a painful experience. In the new memoir, it sounds as if Terkel halfway concedes the validity of that point. Almost in so many words:

"I was fading fast," he recalls. "During the blacklist, you’re not working for a time, you start thinking maybe you ain’t got something you thought you had. I knew my work troubles were for political reasons, but the situation seemed somewhat hopeless. There’s something that’s interesting psychologically, moments when you feel self-doubt: that is, was your talent there to begin with? Maybe you’re not that good...."

Terkel also admits that having the FBI show up at your door was hardly very pleasant. And then the jokey tone returns.Why, he's afraid that his wife may have been rude to the agents, at times -- and that could be embarrassing.....

So the wall of reserve comes down, for a moment, only to go right back up again. No doubt this is a matter of both generational style and personal temperament – of being the product of an era when discussing your troubles was considered bad form, especially for a man. Let alone one whose nickname reflected an enthusiasm for James T. Farrell’s trilogy of novels about a tough Irish working-class kid named Studs Lonigan.

But the reticence goes deeper than that. To get some perspective, we might have a look at an incident in the life of Terkel’s fictional namesake. I'm thinking of a scene near the end of the final novel in Farrell’s series. Studs Lonigan is close to the end of his days -- about to succumb, at an early age, to illness and a hard life. It is the early part of the Depression. He’s hanging out with some friends when they see a demonstration. They watch people march by, carrying banners and placards with slogans:

We Want Bread Not Bullets

The sight of a Communist rally has a complicated effect on Lonigan. He barely has words to express it. He has a sense of his own life being deep in a rut -- indeed, almost over -- while the lyrics of their revolutionary anthem proclaims that "a better world's in birth." They seem not just angry but happy. It is a strangely affecting moment, perhaps charged with the author's own complex feelings. (Farrell himself did not join the party, but was sympathetic to it through the mid-1930s, after which he switched allegiance to Leon Trotsky’s following for a dozen years before settling into a kind of Cold War liberalism.)

So a reader of the novel gets a sense of the ambivalence that one guy named Studs feels upon encountering the Communist movement. But anyone looking for a comparable moment of insight in Terkel’s memoirs will have no such luck.

Now, it is possible that Studs Terkel was never a member of the Communist Party. But someone who mentions, as Terkel does, that he worked in left-wing theater groups, raised money for the Soviet-American Friendship Committee, and supported Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1948 (the last gasp of any serious Communist influence in American political life) was fully integrated into its support network.

He had a relationship of some kind with the party – even if, for whatever reason, he was not a member. Most people who joined in the 1930s and ‘40s were in and out within a few weeks. (The problem of retention was a source of much grief to Communist leaders.) But Terkel’s references suggest a serious and long-term involvement, whatever his formal status may have been.

All things considered, it’s perhaps surprising that he is even as candid as he allows himself to be about his activism. But the lack of any clear sense of when he became affiliated with the movement, and why (and when he parted ways with it, and why) leaves the reader with only a vague sense of what must have been a profound fact of the man’s life.

At one point, Touch and Go quotes the journalist Nicholas von Hoffman: “Once a person joins a group, a demonstration, or a union, they’re a different person.” Terkel endorses the sentiment. “You become stronger as a result,” he adds, “no matter what the outcome.” Unfortunately Terkel leaves this only at the level of general advice, rather than showing how it applied in his own experience.

Over the years, Terkel has crafted the persona of an avuncular Everyman – one who somehow becomes bigger than life while also being self-deprecating. In Touch and Go, he explains that one of his methods as an interviewer is to make sure his subjects know he is not that comfortable with the tape recorder himself. Going over the transcripts later, he edits his own questions out of the text as much as possible. And so it is that he can make art out of seemingly artless encounters.

In telling his own story, Terkel does the same thing, if in a rather more paradoxical way. One part of him helps another part tell his life’s story – but can only do so by erasing aspects of his experience.

This is not a matter of deception. It is simply what writers and performers must do, sometimes. It is an aspect of craft. But the process has, in this case, made it harder for readers to appreciate one of Terkel’s really remarkable achievements.

Terkel was close to the Communist movement during the phase known as the Popular Front – when it abandoned the preposterously belligerent slogan “Towards a Soviet America” for the altogether more palatable catchphrase “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” Its artists and writers and musicians tried to work in popular idioms. As good disciplined cadres, they would still read Stalin’s pamphlets; but they knew that radical doctrine, as such, would only get you just so far. They wanted to make contact with how real people felt, and spoke, and what their hopes were for the future.

The degree to which the Popular Front succeeded in this is very much open to question. The product was often a kind of sentimental kitsch -- ideological principles translated into some hack’s idea of how the Voice of the People ought to sound.

Studs Terkel is one of the greatest products of the Popular Front era. He shared its yearnings, but transcended its limitations; for Terkel could hear except that “the people” have, in fact, many voices. What he took from the history and the organizations he himself passed through -- how he absorbed influences, and broke with them, and transformed them -- merits a book. It is a story worth telling. But this late in the day, some other author will probably need to tell it.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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