Studs Terkel’s death was met with an extraordinary outpouring of praise and affection–not only full-page articles in this country’s and England’s leading newspapers but in spontaneous comments called in to his old Chicago FM station, WFMT.
It took the obituaries to remind most people how incredibly popular Studs was in the early days of TV. Having started in the 1930s as a small-time radio actor, a time remembered affectionately and very funnily in his last book, P.S., just published, he went on in 1949 to star in an early TV show, Studs’ Place, one of the great hits of what was known as the Chicago school of TV. Spontaneous and largely unscripted, it should have led to a lifelong career in this new medium. But Joe McCarthy was on the prowl, and the networks were petrified. Studs–who, as he joked, never met a petition he didn’t like–was a clear target. Forsaking the many opportunities offered him to knuckle under, Studs deliberately entered years of bare survival in the wilderness. It was still such a painful memory that when I suggested he try an oral history of those years, Studs refused. Only late in his life, with his memoir Touch and Go, was he willing to revisit that difficult time, doing so with humor and no bitterness, praising the few who, like Mahalia Jackson, had stood up for him. But the anger never left him, understandably enough.
Studs overcame the McCarthy period with his remarkable daily WFMT radio show, interviewing authors, actors and famous visitors to his city. He was so hardworking and perceptive that guests, like New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury, would say that they sounded better talking to him than in anything they’d written.
It was these brilliant interviews, published in the WFMT monthly magazine, that led me to call him. I suggested that he try a new tack, interviewing ordinary Americans in what I hoped would be a sequel to Jan Myrdal’s Report From a Chinese Village, which I had just published. The resulting book, Division Street: America (1964), became an instant bestseller and launched Studs on a new career in which, in effect, he rewrote the history of this country since the 1920s. His books on the Depression (Hard Times) and World War II (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Good War”) changed the way we saw our past. Studs showed how guilty the victims of the 1930s still felt, how innocent America’s liberators of Europe had been. And he showed how racially charged the war was, documenting racial fragging and other conflicts that none of the noted historians before him had discovered (or chosen to write about). In Race (1992), the first book I published at The New Press, Studs, who had always been engaged in the civil rights movement, discovered how much more racist the country was becoming.
Studs’s secret, often sought out, was that he approached people with utter respect. Those he talked to immediately felt this and poured their hearts out. Studs was proudest of an interview with a woman in a Chicago public housing project who, as he left, said, “I never knew I felt that way.” He never added a word, but edited with the skills he had learned in years of radio work.
In Studs’s most successful book, Working, which has sold well over a million copies, he was as surprised as I was that we could find no one to interview who actually liked his job, not even those we sought out as people who looked like they did. We finally found one man, a stonemason, who was happy in his work. But the book has resonated with so many readers precisely because Studs discovered this uncomfortable truth, not imposed it, as his right-wing critics, who deny these problems exist, would have us believe.
Ironically, two days after running a thoughtful and appreciative obituary, the New York Times published a particularly nasty attack by Edward Rothstein, who seems to be the paper’s art critic in charge of right-wing political correctness. Rothstein depicted Studs as a covert Marxist, twisting his interviews to claim that he invented an alienated populace (similar charges were made some years ago by Rebecca Sinkler, the former editor of the Times Book Review). But in addition to his predictable attack on Studs’s romantic populism, Rothstein chose to end by quoting one of Studs’s many blurbs, this one praising Bill Ayers. This borrowing from the McCain-Palin playbook, just as their tawdry political campaign was drawing to a close, was a reminder that McCarthyism has not disappeared from the American scene. Even after his death, Studs had to suffer the kind of attack that came close to ruining his life in the 1950s, not on some Internet Drudge Report but in the pages of the establishment’s leading paper (which refused to run my protest letter).
Tellingly, the only time Studs failed was when I suggested he try a book on power. The people he approached were such accomplished liars that none of them would even admit that they held power. It was the one project we had to give up.
The New Press has kept nearly all of Studs’s books in print, and the Chicago Historical Society has created a marvelous website, studsterkel.org, where you can hear many of his original tapes. There you can discover not only the oral historian but the incredibly knowledgeable musicologist who could easily compare a Mozart aria to Ravi Shankar’s or Bessie Smith’s music. You can also see what a brilliant and empathetic reader Studs was, shown in his incomparable interview with James Baldwin, published in P.S. Studs was far more than a man of the people, for which he has become understandably famous, more than the engaged political activist, more than a central figure in Chicago’s cultural life. To me, he was a close and extraordinarily loyal friend with whom it was a joy to work for more than four decades. But what matters most to us as a nation is that he was also one of the most original intellectuals of his time, whose work will help all of us to understand our country and the past century for many years to come.
It’s poignant that only a few days after Studs died, John Leonard succumbed to the lung cancer that had dogged his last years. A brilliant critic and a true friend, whose books The New Press was proud to publish, John is remembered by Nation readers as its literary editor–with his wife, Sue–and a frequent contributor over the years. When I last saw John, shortly after Studs’s death, he said, “We’re losing a lot of good people.” He was too right.