Studs Terkel

Let’s presume that before he went, Studs Terkel had the satisfaction of knowing that a Chicagoan was very likely to be the next president. “The man on the street” interview is a kind of journalism that can get abused, and sometimes leads to the celebrity of a Joe the Plumber. Still, Terkel’s many books of oral histories are essential reading about the last century. The Good War, his Pulitzer Prize winner of 1985, is one of the very best books about World War II. In it, Terkel interviewed 121 people who had fought in or were touched by the war; not just officers or munitions plant workers, but figures like Maxine Andrews. I’ve respected the Andrews Sisters ever since. Far from celebrating “the goodness” of the war, it reminded us of the cost. It was a price usually not paid by the men at the top, and I have a feeling that some politicians never got past the book’s title. Also recommended are Terkel’s Hard Times about the Depression, and Division Street USA about racism. Anthem, a charming documentary from 1997 shows the man at home being interviewed by a pair of female travelers who were out to meet all of their heroes. We saw Terkel as he was during the killer Chicago heatwave of 1995; hard-of-hearing, slightly irascible, but still in full possession of his marbles. For what it’s worth, I used to call my old Toyota “Studs Tercel”; it made 185,000 miles and was thus worthy of its brave and indefatigable namesake.

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