A Microphone for Eternity

A Microphone for Eternity

A review of Studs Terkel's Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for Faith.


At the age of 88, Studs Terkel has created an inspirational and philosophical book. Its universal theme is summed up in the subtitle: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. Despite the apparently grim subject, Terkel succeeds again in capturing large truths from many individual voices and making the ordinary sound extraordinary.

The death in 1999 of Ida, his wife and companion for sixty years, caused the author to share his grief with friends and strangers in various walks of life. Terkel discovered that everybody had similar feelings about deceased loved ones. As his main title–Will the Circle Be Unbroken?–indicates, he began to wonder about the hereafter and what remains for the living.

Terkel himself has known how a serious illness can affect one's lifestyle. Several years ago, he had a quintuple bypass. How did he handle it? First, by continuing to obtain the best medical treatment and, second, by not giving in to fear and depression and continuing to work at his profession–broadcasting and writing books. He maintained his interest in all the arts–especially music. And to stay young, he kept old friendships and developed new ones with young people. He was a fixture at Riccardo's, a newspaperman's hangout, and visitors to Chicago, his hometown, always seemed to bump into him. He was easily spotted, wearing his checked red shirt and walking the streets as if he owned the town, greeting and being greeted by acquaintances and strangers, barflies and big shots.

His modest, self-prescribed Rx for life emerges in this and in his other oral histories: Keep going, expose hypocrisy, especially in government, and be an outspoken advocate of truth and progressive ideas.

In a lively introduction that reveals his literary knowledge, Terkel writes that some thirty years ago, Gore Vidal suggested death as a subject for a book. "I stared into my drink. No bells rang. My works had been concerned with life and its uncertainties rather than death and its indubitable certainty."

And Terkel goes on to explain what he has aimed to do in his series of oral histories:


In all my books, my informants–mostly the uncelebrated, heroes of the "ordinary"–had recounted, in their own words, the lives they had lived, the epochs they had survived. How did it feel to be a certain person in a certain circumstance at a certain time in our country's twentieth century? During the Great American Depression, what was it like to be that 12-year-old boy seeing his father trudge home at eleven in the morning with his toolchest over his shoulder only to become an idler for the next ten years? During World War II, what was it like to be the mama's boy sitting tight in that landing craft crossing the English Channel, heading for Normandy?… These were challenges I could handle, for better or worse.


His new book includes stories by a cross section of Americans: doctors, emergency-room nurses, a homicide detective, a former death-row inmate, a Hiroshima victim, a Vietnam veteran, a pastor, a priest, a rabbi, a lawyer, a church worker, a teacher, a journalist, a musician, a folk singer, fathers, mothers, sons–survivors and mourners. Only a few of the people have familiar names: Kurt Vonnegut, fellow author; Uta Hagen, actress; William Warfield, singer; Haskell Wexler, cinematographer; Vine Deloria, writer and teacher.

After providing facts about his family roots, Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five–a novel inspired by his experience as an American POW in Dresden during the Allied bombing–says, with a laugh, "I wish I'd died on D-day, it would have saved a lot of trouble."

In his friendly, reportorial style, Terkel fashions each of the individuals into sympathetic personalities. At the same time that they talk about death and the next world, they reveal much about life in the United States. A number of these interviews add up to mini-biographies of the people next door, whose doorbells the reader has never bothered to push. In this respect, Terkel is a wonderful neighbor and teacher.

The book is replete with Terkel anecdotes and shared memories, which he often recalls before falling asleep. My favorite goes: "Have you heard the one about the old sport who married a much younger woman? It worked for a couple of years. One day, a mutual friend encounters him. The old boy informs him that they've split up. 'She didn't know the songs," the old sport explains. Studs adds: "I have a good number of young friends, who are delightful company…. They do my heart good every time I see them, but they don't know the songs."

The heart of this book is found in an inspirational and consoling section for the bereaved called "God's Shepherds." Here, Terkel talks to religious leaders–or, rather, listens to them talk, since he's the best listener in the business of historical journalism (which I define as journalism that doesn't disappear overnight but survives forever in book form as history). The author's genial manner enables his subjects to open up; it's impossible to find a mean question in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? or in any of his other oral histories.

Rabbi Robert Marx, a Reform rabbi in Glencoe, Illinois, says: "I don't see a physical Hell any more than I see a physical Heaven. My Heaven is metaphysical. It is a place where spirits are. I know this is so illogical, but I accept the discontinuity. I believe in some sort of ideal Heavenly time frame in which the people I love exist eternally."

The Rev. Willie T. Barrow is chairwoman of the board of Operation PUSH, founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in Chicago. She says: "I talk out loud. I just talk to the Lord. And then I share a lot with my friends. I have friends who [also] have lost children and who have lost husbands. So we share with each other."

Father Leonard Dubi is pastor of St. Anne's, a Catholic church in Hazel Crest, a Chicago suburb. It is a lower-middle-class congregation of white and black parishioners. Father Dubi says: "I've been involved in social justice most of [my] years and believe that that's the central way that we worship God in our world…in the action. That's the action for justice…. If we want to go to the otherworldly part, we gotta do [the] this-worldly part: helping people in very concrete ways."

Pastor Tom Kok leads the Peace Christian Reform Church in South Holland, a Chicago suburb. He says: "Death is the great unknown. It's something none of us has experienced but all of us will. I will fear death when it comes, but that fear is not going to be the overwhelming emotion that I experience. I believe that, at that time, my childhood faith, that faith that lives in me now as I go from here to there, that Jesus Christ is going to be with me, He's going to hold my hand, and He's going to walk with me through that valley of the shadow…. When I talk about God I talk about Him as a friend of mine, because He is a friend of mine."

In such outstanding books as Working and The Good War, Studs Terkel has been a trailblazer in a relatively new form of reportage–the tape-recorded interview that's played back, transcribed, then reconstructed and arranged for clarity and (I strongly believe) lasting literature. To be sure, Terkel does much more than serve as a stenographer or a correspondent listening to talking heads. If it were that easy, there would be many authors doing what he does so gracefully. But he is always his own man in his books–first, in finding an important theme; second, in finding the right people to interview; finally, in panning for gold, in an interviewee's scattered ideas and words.

When interviewed himself, Terkel cautiously attempts to explain his magic:


I'm a little self-conscious about being called an oral historian because I'm neither an historian nor an academician. What I do is more like oral journalism–I'm a recorder of oral messages. But whatever you call what I do, it's history with a point of view. I think of it as bottom-up history. I seek out ordinary people who have something to say about themselves. I've probably interviewed more secretaries than generals or admirals. The tape recorder can be used to capture the voice of a celebrity whose answers are prepared in advance, but I've yet to be astonished by one. But it can also be used to capture the thoughts of the noncelebrity. I'm constantly surprised at how people with buried grievances and unexpressed dreams want to let go, to let things out. I give them a chance to open up.


Now, in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Studs Terkel has taken on his most challenging theme–and produced his most important book.

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