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Louis Terkel

Louis Terkel

The radio personality and author Louis Terkel (born 1912) was best known for his oral histories of ordinary Americans. These anthologies of interviews show how people felt about key historical events and everyday struggles and dreams.

Initially a Chicago radio personality, in mid-career Studs Terkel acquired a national reputation as a people's historian through a series of books that relied on taped interviews to document the experiences, memories, dreams, and fears of a wide cross-section of Americans. On radio he was an entertaining and opinionated speaker, but in the collections of personal accounts he demonstrated equal ability as a skilled listener.

Louis Terkel was born on May 16, 1912, in the Bronx, New York, the third son of Russian-Jewish parents, Samuel and Anna Terkel. His father was a tailor and craftsman. In 1923 the family moved to Chicago, where his mother managed a hotel for blue-collar and skilled workers.

After graduating from high school in 1928, Terkel attended college and earned a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1934. Failing the bar exam, he took a civil service job doing statistical research for the federal government, first in Nebraska and then in Washington, D.C.

Returning to Chicago in 1935, he began his career in radio, producing weekly shows for the Federal Writers Project and appearing on radio soap operas, often as a gangster. He also was involved with the Chicago Repertory Theatre. During the Great Depression he changed his name to "Studs" after the character in James T. Farrell's proletarian novels, Studs Lonnigan.

By the early 1940s he was a well-established radio voice as a news commentator, sportscaster, and disc jockey. In 1945 he created his first program for the small fine arts FM station WFMT. From 1949 to 1953 he produced a television program called "Studs' Place, " which featured Terkel as the bartender-host of a barbecue restaurant. A clash with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Joseph McCarthy era over his political involvement and beliefs led to his blacklisting and the cancellation of his show.

Throughout the 1950s he was active with the arts in several capacities. He acted in the theater, including such plays as "Of Mice and Men, " and in 1959 he wrote a play, "Amazing Grace, " based on his family's experience with an urban hotel in the Depression. (It didn't get performed until 1967.) He wrote a jazz column for the Chicago Sun-Times, which led to his first book, the Giants of Jazz (1957). In 1959 and 1960 he hosted the Newport Folk Festival and other festivals around Chicago. In 1958 he began his long-running daily radio program on WFMT, the Studs Terkel Show.

Terkel was 55 when he published Division Street: America (1967), his first book that was based on edited transcripts of oral histories. It presented a vivid and poignant view of urban life as seen by 70 people living in or near Chicago, including steelworkers, executives, window washers, and racketeers.

In his books Terkel examined history and society from the bottom up, providing an anecdotal account of events and attitudes. He viewed himself less as a historian, sociologist, or reporter than as a "guerrilla" journalist with a tape recorder. He preferred the stories of anonymous but spirited people who were not practiced at voicing their opinions.

In 1970 he published Hard Times, which featured interviews with a hundred Americans presenting personal memories of the Great Depression, especially the guilt and sense of failure that often accompanied the hardship. His next project, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974), a best seller for 17 weeks, revealed the lack of satisfaction most people receive from their jobs. He gave special attention to the many aspects of the automotive industry.

Terkel then directed the tape recorder at himself, publishing a memoir, Talking to Myself (1977). It included impressions of many incidents and periods in his life but revealed little about him or his family.

In 1980 he published American Dreams: Lost and Found, presenting the familiar spectrum of people sharing their disappointments in the past and their search for a sense of purpose in the future. He returned to the same subject in 1988 with The Great Divide.

Terkel's personal involvement with World War II had been limited. He joined the Army, but a perforated eardrum kept him from serving. When he tried to go overseas by joining the Red Cross, he was rejected (as he later learned through the Freedom of Information Act) because of his previous political activity.

However, his best-selling oral history of the war, "The Good War" (1984), became his most highly-praised book, receiving the Pulitzer Prize. It wove a compelling record of experiences and memories into a powerful document that possesses the grace of literature and the authority of history.

In 1992 Terkel published Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, which showed how race relations and attitudes became more complicated and bitter after the hopeful years of the civil rights movement. The book probes the U.S. obsession about race through the observations of a large collection of citizens from all walks of life and identity categories. The book exposed the complexity and pervasiveness of the issue and its ability to evoke opposite and conflicted feelings even within individuals.

Terkel's Coming of Age (1995) examined the attitudes of older Americans about growing older. The book was a tribute and platform for the generation formed by the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. It demonstrated particularly well the often unnoticed fighting spirit and passionate personal and public committments of many of his interviewees.

Terkel's personal voice was almost missing from his books, but as a social critic on radio or as a speaker he protested what he regarded as the trivialization of public life and debate. Entering his eighties, Terkel continued to be active as the host of his hour-long, nationally-syndicated morning talk show on WFMT in which he talked, conducted interviews, read stories, or played music as his mood dictated.

He was married in 1939 to Ida Goldberg, whom he met while working at the Chicago Repertory Theatre, and they had one son, Paul.

Further Reading

Terkel's own books provide the best understanding of his style and subjects. They are all mentioned above, but the most well known are Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), "The Good War" (1984), Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992), and Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It (1995). For a glimpse of Terkel's personal life, though not a complete autobiography, see his Talking to Myself (1977). Tony Parker's Studs Terkel: A Life in Words (1996) turns Terkel's interview method on the subject himself, offering a warm portrait of Terkel from the comments of friends and colleagues as well as from Terkel himself. Individual book reviews offer some insight into his life and personality. □

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