One day in 1974, I got a call from my agent.
“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “What if you did a book of interviews on unemployment, like Studs Terkel’s Working, only with people out of a job?” So I bought a tape recorder, tried my hand at “oral history” and found I loved the interview crucible, the savor of creating in collaboration as a long conversation clicks. I traveled around the country, and after some vicissitudes, Not Working was published in 1979. I stole not only Studs’s technique and format but also his title. Whereupon he called me up and asked me to appear on his radio show.
Soon there we were, across a table in the WFMT studio, the celebrated author of Working interviewing the rookie author of Not Working, Studs voluble, fizzy with energy. He quickly zeroed in on something I had remarked upon: that no matter how people lose their job, even if they have been laid off with hundreds or thousands of others, they usually feel a sense of failure and shame, that somehow it is their fault. Studs saw the suffering in that, and saw that it stems, at least in part, from the American every-man-for-himself ethos we breathe in from the cradle. That fit with what I knew about Studs from reading his books and what comes through so strongly in his latest, the memoir Touch and Go: instinctive empathy wedded to a blazing sense of right and wrong.
My next book was an oral history of the American involvement in Vietnam. Studs reviewed it and again invited me on his show. This time what interested him most, in a 600-page tome, were the first few interviews, with soldiers and journalists and diplomats who worked in Vietnam between 1945 and 1954, from the last months of World War II to the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Some of them vainly urged Washington to back Ho Chi Minh’s plea for independence and oppose France’s war to reclaim its colony. Studs was fascinated by those present at that turning point, who tried to shift their country from a course they sensed would bring catastrophe.
I should have guessed those particular interviews would grab Studs. His great subject has always been the individual immersed in, and striving to turn, the currents of history. Maybe that’s because he has lived so much history himself. First his own domestic history: growing up in a low-end Chicago hotel managed by his parents, listening to the boarders talk of politics and their lives. Then the history of most of the twentieth century, which at 95 he not only remembers but was often fiercely engaged in. And the history that inflames Studs is not confined to what he witnessed. His pages in Touch and Go on the Haymarket riot, which occurred in Chicago in 1886 and resulted in a farcical trial and the hanging of four innocents, radiate the same outrage he feels at, say, the beating of Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.
If the individual in history is Studs’s theme, his central preoccupation–his métier, one could say–is memory. He quotes (twice) the famous James Baldwin passage from The Fire Next Time: “History does not refer merely…to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” The unconsciousness Baldwin refers to drives Studs crazy. “Forgetfulness,” he says. “That is what haunts me at the moment.” The truth is that historical amnesia has always obsessed him. My favorite story from Touch and Go concerns a well-dressed young couple Studs encounters repeatedly at his bus stop. He’s irritated by their refusal to engage with him. Finally he provokes them by saying something about Labor Day, and the man sniffs, “We despise unions.” Studs asks how many hours a day he works. Eight, comes the answer. Studs wades in, invoking Haymarket: “How come you only work the eight-hour day? Four guys got hanged fighting for the eight-hour day for you.”
So the touchstone is memory, and the material, the stuff of which Studs’s art is made, is speech. “I like to hear conversation,” he writes, which is like Tiger Woods saying, “I like to play golf.” Studs has spent his long life listening–that is, the part of his life when he wasn’t being a law student, actor, script writer, disc jockey, jazz critic and activist, the part of his life when he wasn’t turning his zillion tapes into, impossibly, seventeen books. Among the first of those, Division Street: America and Hard Times, perfected a form that has since been taken up by hundreds of writers, all of us, for better or worse, Studs’s offspring. But few oral histories can match Studs’s own, because few of us bring what he does to the interviewing table.
The dirty little secret of oral history–well, maybe it’s not such a secret–is that it’s not just about listening. It’s about connection (Studs says people open up to him because he makes them “feel needed”), about dialogue, about who-I-am meeting who-you-are. By daring to ask the scary question, by revealing what moves him or her, the interviewer nudges, or downright shunts, the talk in a certain direction. Here Studs excels because his singularity is so strong, his passions legion and unabashed and his judgments held in check. And then there’s the matter of editing. Studs has an ear for the eloquence of just folks, the people he likes to call “the et ceteras.” But few subjects are eloquent unedited. Once Studs has the raw stuff on tape, he knows how to craft it so the eloquence comes through.
In August 1963 Studs and his wife, Ida, rode a special train to the March on Washington. Studs naturally packed his tape recorder and spent the ride interviewing. He quotes a man named Simpson: “My wife and my grandchildren, they say, ‘Why you going? You can see it on television.’ [I] said, ‘I don’t want to see it, I wants to be in it.'” Then Studs writes, “That was the thing I remember most strongly, the voices of people wanting to make a difference.” By giving us their voices, and teaching many others to do the same, Studs has made an incalculable difference.