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Studs Terkel's My American Century

By Blake de Pastino

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  I've only seen one photograph of Studs Terkel, but judging from what I know of his writing, it seemed to fit him pretty well. There he was on the back of one of his history books, standing outside in a suit and tie, leaning against what looks like a weathered barn door--probably, I figured, somewhere in his native Illinois. He looked hale and stocky, his face meaty and wrinkled like a fist. And he was wiping his nose with the back of his hand--eyes cinched up tight, mouth wrenched open, looking something like my grandfather before he'd hawk a loogie on the sidewalk. It was without doubt the most unphotogenic author photo I'd ever seen. But accurate. If you're at all familiar with Studs Terkel, you know that that's what his writing is all about--capturing people when they are most elaborately and most gruesomely themselves.

For the past three decades, Studs Terkel has been documenting everyday, unhandsome people and making them into the heroes of history. Specifically, he has been America's champion of oral history--wandering the country with tape recorder in tow, interviewing thousands of ordinary front-porch folks about their experiences. Word by word, he has recorded a sort of folk gospel--an account of America that flies in the face of everything that orthodox, horn-rimmed historians hold dear: not history as it is analyzed, but history as it is remembered. So while most historians are busy arguing over who's conservative and who's revisionist, Terkel has managed to write history for the rest of us. And now his life's work has been anthologized in one volume, My American Century. To put it in the most efficient terms possible, it is--both literally and figuratively--vintage Terkel.

Here we see the whole crazy quilt of Terkel's career--more than 50 interviews from all eight of his books, covering topics as broad as what people mean by "The American Dream" and as specific as where they were when the stock market crashed. Along the way, we meet folks whose memories and anecdotes--whose mere survival of history--seem almost epic. In an excerpt from the book Working, for example, we find Dolores Dante, who has waited tables in the same restaurant for 23 years: "I became a waitress because I needed money fast," she says. Or Joseph Lattimore, a black insurance salesman: "In 1954, when the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, it felt like Christmas was coming." Or Peggy Terry, who served the war effort in a Kentucky munitions plant and followed a particularly masculine fashion of the time: "When I went to the hospital to have my baby ... I was ashamed of my tattoo. So I put two Band-Aids over it." As seen through the lives of these people, the effects of history seem at least as interesting as the causes.

If all this sounds kind of corny, I'll have to admit that it is. But it seems fair to say that if sentimentality is Terkel's most dogged liability, it's also his greatest asset. At 85, after all, Studs Terkel is one of the few remaining writers who was whelped in the tradition of what we now call the Old Left. The left that spoke with reverence about "the working man," that believed in "the power of the people," that sometimes mistook poverty for a sign of nobility. Those of us under the age of 40 may look upon Terkel's ideals as idyllic, arcane, maybe a little naive. But at least My American Century is wise enough to make space for that judgment. In his introduction, author and colleague Robert Coles is quick to remind us that Terkel belongs to his own "cultural and intellectual tradition."

Once you make that realization--that the historian himself is something of an artifact--My American Century takes on a new, satisfying dimension. Suddenly it seems less like a rehash of Terkel's work and more like a much-needed account of Terkel himself. A portrait of the portraitist, if you will. It may be funny or ungainly at times, but it's no less telling than the portraits we get of all the other subjects in this book--the factory worker, the roundheel, the housewife, the historian. It's an unstudied and unaffected rendering of one of our most valuable historical writers. And as such, it's entirely fitting. (The New Press, cloth, $25)

--Blake de Pastino

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