Monday, November 3, 2008

Studs Terkel, RIP

In the midst of this campaign, I have not had the opportunity to give proper respects to a recently passed man who had an immense impact on me growing up. I never met Studs Terkel, but I read and admired his books. He was my dad's favorite author. My father did not trust most political histories, except what he cared about (as a union man), but he enjoyed Terkel's Working and had me read it when I was about 11. I paid close attention to the news then, read newspapers and numerous political magazines (back when you had to go to the library to get the newest issue of The Progressive), but reading Terkel was an eye opening event. Not because of his prose or style. It was his approach to history and daily life.

For those reared on the "great man" historians who fawn over the Carnegies and Rockefellers (i.e., the David McColloughs of the world), Terkel's methodology was that of oral histories and from the viewpoint of the average man and woman (and periodic executive and general). Needless to say, it was a welcomed departure. Even though Working had been published several years before I was able to read it, I made sure to get a copy of The Good War as soon as it came out. This book not only challenged the haloed view of World War Two as a pristine conflict, but it did so while respecting the perspectives of each person interviewed. I will never forget the story of the young African German in the '30s trying to join the Nazi youth. His likeness for his subjects and getting them to reveal their lives, from their perspectives, and using that illumination to allow the reader to see things for as they are, always attracted me more than those who used the hackneyed stories of interview subjects to support a perspective. If you read Terkel's books, you arrived at things from a progressive point of view naturally. More importantly, when you read Terkel, you realized that most people deep down have similar thoughts and desires, and are not far removed politically from common causes. I especially felt this from reading Working and Hard Times. He is one of the few historians who ever had that effect on me.

Of course, Studs was his own person, with a life more fulfilling than the average author. His near five decade-long radio show was a smorgasbord of Chicago personalities (Studs' adopted hometown), political activists, artists, musicians, journalists (I will always recall his interview with William Shirer), as well as other authors, everyday people and intellectuals. Back before the internet, reading a Studs Terkel book was like for many 20-somethings of today reading the Daily Kos, except better because it was not in a shortened blog-style format (as this site is), but more extensive and personal descriptions from people worth knowing. Besides his regular longtime radio interview show, Studs was also a radio personality going back to the days of the WPA, his involvement of which would later get him in trouble during the McCarthy era (just when his television career was starting to take off).

And unlike so many of the '60s New Left radicals who, after splintering into a million different movements (following their failed campaigns on our college campuses), later went on to became the yuppie Republicans of the '80s and libertarian rejects of today, Studs always stayed where his principles rested. In that sense, he represented the best of the Old Left--class-oriented, labor union-centric, but at the same time open to newer movements (not just to the exclusion or separation from his own). His life and example is a lesson that many baby boomer liberals could learn from. I certainly learned from him. RIP, Studs. You will be missed.

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