“I want to be remembered as someone who made trouble where trouble was needed.”

Grazing the Internets this weekend is to follow intimate, overheard snippets in the shaping of a legacy. So I compile what the people are saying in a downright tsunami of link love, the hours well spent.

Studs Terkel 1912-2008

“The thing that horrifies me is the forgetfulness.”

A cigar and martini man, white-haired and elegantly rumpled in his trademark red-checkered shirts, an old rebel who never mellowed, never retired, never forgot, and “never met a picket line or petition I didn’t like.”

He won a Pulitzer Prize for listening to other people’s thoughts, fears and dreams

which he called guerrilla journalism

but writer Garry Wills described as “underdog-ism”

used his words, whether on radio or on the page, to celebrate the People with a capital “P” and to protest their oppression by the stupid and powerful

whose searching interviews with ordinary Americans helped establish oral history as a serious genre

married for 60 years to a beautiful woman named Ida

a social worker

“Ida was a far better person than I, that’s the reality of it,” Terkel wrote of Ida, who died in 1999.

Studs relied on Ida for, well, almost everything

“It was those loners — argumentative ones, deceptively quiet ones, the talkers and the walkers — who, always engaged in something outside themselves, unintentionally became my mentors,” Terkel wrote in “Touch and Go.”

When Ida grew older she refused to use a cane, “because I fall so gracefully”

he was envious that her FBI file was thicker than his own.

He chronicled the lives of almost everyone who mattered–the hundreds include Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Toni Morrison. Just as important, he chronicled the lives of those who officially didn’t matter, and in doing so made us understand they did.

He searched for the decency in everyone

illuminated America from the ground up, seeking out stories from bartenders, housewives, businessmen, artists, doctors, social workers, coal miners, farmworkers, bookmakers and convicts

coaxed extraordinary tales out of nobodies

shined a light on the kinds of people that most people look right through

the ghost-town storekeeper in Kentucky who says: “The last flicker of my life will be against something I don’t think has to be”

completely free of sociological claptrap, armchair revisionism and academic moralizing

His method was to travel the country, sometimes for years, interviewing hundreds of people about some enormous epoch or theme. Terkel essentially asked everyone a simple question: What was it like?

The result — a series of oral histories — was the poetry of ordinary people, shot through with desperation, hatred, love, dreams realized and lost

Shame about losing a job and going “on relief.” Shame about not being able to provide for one’s family. Shame about the breakdown of families and, almost, the fabric of an entire society.

police officers and convicts, nurses and loggers, former slaves and former Ku Klux Klansman — a typical crowd for Mr. Terkel

“To count is very important.”

“Who built the pyramids?” he once asked in his inimitable sweet growl. “It wasn’t the goddamn pharaohs who build the pyramids. It was the anonymous slaves.”

Terkel’s politics were liberal, vintage FDR. He would never forget the many New Deal programs from the Great Depression and worried that the country suffered from “a national Alzheimer’s disease” that made government the perceived enemy.

“How did the eight-hour day come into being? It began in Chicago and four guys got hanged for it—the Haymarket affair in 1886. What were they fighting for? The eight-hour day.”

He wrote about “the good fight” of World War II because he wanted to remind new generations of Americans that this country had once united to battle fascism.

It would be wrong to say Terkel was colorblind…he was deeply curious, deeply intrigued with all colors of the rainbow…not afraid of other cultures…the only white writer to be inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent at Chicago State University… The approval vote was unanimous.

Studs developed self-deprecatory clowning to a high art–getting into pitched battles with recording equipment, for instance — as a tactic for putting anxious interview subjects at ease. Authors on his show were almost invariably impressed by how he would enter the studio with their books scored with his scrawled notations as if he were preparing a term paper.

“It isn’t an inquisition; it’s an exploration, usually an exploration into the past,” he once said, explaining his approach. “So I think the gentlest question is the best one, and the gentlest is, ‘And what happened then?’”

As you listen, you know in your bones that each person has never told their story as cogently or as fully before and will never do so again, for that was Terkel’s art.

“He liked to tell the story of an interview with a woman in a public housing unit in Chicago. At the end of the interview, the woman said, ‘My goodness, I didn’t know I felt that way.’ That was his genius.”

He didn’t just carp at the failures of society, he was a drum major for life—a celebrant of the joy of living.

Politics was never a game for Studs. It was the work of a lifetime. He wrote brilliant books about the lives of working people not merely because their stories were fascinating but because he wanted to get a conversation started about class in America.

My friends and I would sit around the radio like it was a little fire we warmed ourselves by. He read everything. He led such an examined life. He remembered everything.

Our Boswell, our Whitman, our Sandburg

“She was really something,” Studs recalled, “with that gardenia in her hair.” Holiday once sang Willow Weep for Me for Terkel and nine other people. “We weren’t weeping for her, we were weeping for ourselves,” he later said, “That’s an artist.”

There was the time he was robbed in his house. The thief said “GIVE ME ALL YOUR MONEY” so Studs gave him all his money from his pocket. The thief turned to go and Studs said “Wait a minute! Now I’m broke! Give me twenty bucks!” The thief smiled and peeled off a twenty, then left. Classic.

People call Terkel’s business “oral history”, but it is more like the weaving of a fabulous verbal tapestry, the threads of which are human preoccupations. It is the rich art of taking the vernacular, and making it eternal. Such a process does not merely record the details that keep people’s minds busy, it gives them value. Terkel harvested not only the most complete American history of this century, but the most compassionate.

“My epitaph? My epitaph will be, ‘Curiosity did not kill this cat,’” he said. He then said that he wanted his and Ida’s ashes to be scattered in Bughouse Square, that patch of green park that so informed his first years in his adopted city.

Bughouse Square, the park across the street from the Newberry Library that was home to all manner of soap box orators.

“Scatter us there,” he said, a gleeful grin on his face. “It’s against the law. Let ‘em sue us.”

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Posted in Books, Farewells, Media, Narrative competence, Proper genius
8 comments on ““I want to be remembered as someone who made trouble where trouble was needed.”
  1. hymes says:

    I loved this man too. thank you for all the links Robin.

  2. flawedplan says:

    Hiya Hymes, you came to mind while reading him up, with fingers crossed for your pending transplant.

  3. susan says:

    Robin, this was brilliant. I was a fan of Mr. Terkel too. Thank you so very much for posting this and all the hyper links- WOW! Just making another cup of coffee so I can have it and enjoy reading all of these this morning.

    You Rock Robin.

    Alison- you are in my thoughts and prayers. Please keep us in the loop about your upcoming surgery.

    Sincerely,

    Susan S.

  4. flawedplan says:

    Hi Susan, thanks for the kudos. I must apologize in advance for the links that are messed up, since I just checked a few and they are! Oh well, it’s the thought that counts and whatnot.

  5. Darius Smith says:

    God save Studs and Ida!

  6. Stephany says:

    Oh my God Robin what a brilliant tribute.

  7. giannakali says:

    thanks for the tribute…we just bought an awesome collection on CDs of over 50 of his interviews…

    we’re planning on holding a Studs Terkel night once a week at some point!

  8. susan says:

    Robin,

    Thank you so much for the comment you left on my blog. Like I said there, you are one of the coolest women I have met in cyberspace, and I love your taste in Literature. You are about the only person I know out of school who GETS my tastes in it!

    Besides that you are a great writer yourself, and a woman with a big heart- and a cat owner. All that makes you number one in my book.

    Take care and thank you thank you for your kind words and understanding. And give those kitties a scritch behind the ears for me.

    -Susan S.

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