La Bella and I play a game where we try to scare each other with the worst names for our baby—she’s not pregnant; it’s just make-believe at this point—and, by corollary, try to tease out which names the other one might like or at least tolerate.
“Baby, that sounds so much like a porn star’s name that our poor boy will hate us from birth on,” I said. “But Louis might not be so bad.”
I fell in love with Chicago because of Studs Terkel.
Some people have Saul Bellow to thank or blame for that, but Terkel—with his high-pitched rasp, leftist politics that were as humane as they were committed, his attentive listening, his ear for jolting dialogue and conversational turning points, his meandering but precise prose structures, his acute intellect and bullshit detectors, and his courtliness—brought the city home to me. In his jazzy and digressive oral histories/narratives, Terkel made connections between Chicago’s doctors and switchboard operators, mayors and community activists, down-and-outs and up-and-comings. In each book, he filtered the city—and the America he saw reflected and expanded in it—through a particular subject: death, work, hope, popular entertainment, World War II.
By doing so, he constructed a basic thematic riff (the book’s theme) on top of a strong foundation (Chicago), and then weaved and snapped his interviews through what felt like improvisations, newly-uncovered but previously unconsidered subjects, and interesting people. Most of them weren’t famous. The ones who were gave insights and forthrightness that they rarely broadcast otherwise.
By silently omitting his questions, the chapters and sections often came across as monologues that somehow fell into place with other monologues, so that the text wasn’t repetitive. Each conversation built on the previous one. The books were built sturdily on honest and contentious talk, not just chatter. Their fluid natures, and witty and sharply political arguments about life, come through clearly, even though Terkel’s presence initially seems muted. Yet masterpieces such as Working, Hard Times and Hope Dies Last (my personal favorite) are cleanly constructed, vivid and shot through one man’s particular sensibility, even though they’re built around the voices of at least 50 different people.
Though Terkel interviewed people from all over America and abroad, the narrative structures and roots were based in Chicago. Chicago becomes a microcosm of America. In itself, this was revolutionary. In terms of cultural capital, New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco were the intellectual/political centers of our country when he began publishing. The political philosophy that his hometown was most noted for—the University of Chicago School of Economics—is decidedly at odds with Studs’s working-class Left roots. Studs stuck it out, defiantly digging into the history, literature, arts, and people of Big Shoulders. The culture that arose from Terkel’s Chicago was slangy, conversational, quick-witted, intellectual, and poignantly grassroots. It’s culturally far off from A.J. Liebling’s New York but just as intellectually rich.
Terkel differed from his peers in other ways, too. He was as well-read, versed in pop culture, and brainy as other Jewish writers who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s—Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Isaac Bachevis Singer. But Terkel never condescended to those darker than him. His love of African American culture extended to the people who, you know, actually made it. (I never quite got that sense from Bellow, who seemed aloof from black folks, or Mailer, who seemed to be trying too hard to “get” blackness.)
Also, Terkel genuinely liked women. He put them at center stage in his narratives. He reveled in learning from them, and gently assumed that they were as smart and talented (or more so) than he was. That simple truth differentiated him from his Jewish peers.
His talky, passionate, deeply informed books brought the pungency and freshness of Chicago to my nose and heart, but his books aren’t travelogues. They don’t reek of tourism. Studs was interested in deeper, universal truths, in views of the city that didn’t come from the top floor of the Sears Tower. His books, including his more straightforward memoirs Touch and Go and Talking to Myself, take pleasure in back alleys, cornershops, stevedores, delicatessens, public school teachers, and all of the quotidian. The everyday accumulates into portraits of contemporary America that are as ambitious in scope and wide-ranging in the multitude of voices as any postmodern fiction circa 1975. He ranks alongside Thomas Pynchon, Ralph Ellison, and Don DeLillo as a great chronicler of America, only he did it (mostly) with other people’s voices and visions.
Studs Terkel was an American hero and a personal hero. You don’t know how hard it was to write that last sentence in the past tense.
Roger Ebert posts a lovely tribute to the man.