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.