'P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening'

Popular oral historian died last month at 96

Posted: Friday, November 14, 2008

Studs Terkel, who died last month at the age of 96, was America's most popular oral historian.

Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune
Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune

Although never a "writer" of the first rank, he nevertheless was a unique contributor to American letters and a vital link to the current of idealistic indigenous radicalism that once enlivened it. "P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening" is, as the title suggests, a bit of an afterthought in a long career heavy with well-deserved honors that included a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for the iconoclastic "The Good War" and a definitive popular history of the Great Depression, "Hard Times."

This posthumously published collection is what might be called in conventional terms a miscellany, which, the author says in a characteristically charming preface, was culled by his son, assistant and "caretaker" (his wife of 60 years, Ida Goldberg, died in 1999) from fragments in his workroom. It includes a bang-up interview with James Baldwin, conducted shortly after the writer's return to the United States from long exile in France; another standout conversation with songwriter Yip Harburg ("Brother Can You Spare a Dime"); a couple of transcripts of key radio broadcasts; and sketches, most autobiographical, done for the magazine published by the radio station on which his interview program aired five days a week for more than 40 years.

The interesting thing about the oral history that elevated Terkel from a local, albeit well-loved, radio personality to bestselling author and national literary celebrity is that he came rather late to the game - and it wasn't his idea. It's hard to recall, now that nearly every research library and university in the United States and Britain has one or more oral history projects in process and the genre's techniques have been codified, that the term "oral history" first appeared in 1948 in a New Yorker profile. The subject was a fixture of Manhattan's literary bohemia by the name of Joe Gould, who claimed to be writing the world's longest book, a history of the contemporary world told through the voices of ordinary people. In fact, Gould's book never was published, and it's doubtful a manuscript ever existed.

The term, however, caught on, and the concept exploded in the 1960s, when fashionable left-wing politics suddenly led historians to realize that the human story had a "Rashomon" structure and could be told as relevantly from below as above. (Or, to borrow the sentiment from Rainsborough, one of the proto-republicans in Cromwell's army, "The poorest He in England hath a life to lead as the greatest He." It is the habit of obvious truths to hide in plain sight, awaiting "discovery." Jan Myrdal's "Report From a Chinese Village" piqued the interest of Andre Schiffrin, Pantheon Books' legendary publisher and editor-in-chief, and he prodded Terkel to undertake a similar project from the streets of Chicago.

Schiffrin made a shrewd choice in Terkel. He had a decent man's interest in the lives of others, a probing but gentle curiosity and an intuitive grasp of what psychotherapists would come to call "active listening."

Terkel was blacklisted in the early 1950s and emerged from the experience unbowed and un-embittered. His radicalism was of the old native sort. It did not flirt with notions of creating new men to inhabit worlds reformed into perfection; it simply asked the American nation to live up to its ideals, so that its people might express their goodness.

As Terkel once told an interviewer: "I've always felt, in all my books, that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence - providing they have the facts, providing they have the information."

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