Terkel, Studs 1912–

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Terkel, Studs 1912–

[A pseudonym]

(Louis Terkel)

PERSONAL: Born May 16, 1912, in New York, NY; son of Samuel and Anna (Finkel) Terkel; married Ida Goldberg, July 2, 1939 (deceased, 1999); children: Paul. Education: University of Chicago, Ph.B., 1932, J.D., 1934.

ADDRESSES: Home—850 West Castlewood Ter., Chicago, IL 60640. Office—WFMT Radio, 5400 North St. Louis Ave., Chicago, IL 60625.

CAREER: Worked as a civil service employee in Washington, DC, and as a stage actor and movie house manager during the 1930s and 1940s; host of interview show Wax Museum on radio station WFMT, Chicago, IL, beginning 1945. Moderator of television program Studs' Place, Chicago, 1950–53. Actor in stage plays, including Detective Story, 1950, A View from the Bridge, 1958, Light up the Sky, 1959, and The Cave Dwellers, 1960. Master of ceremonies at Newport Folk Festival, 1959 and 1960, Ravinia Music Festival, Highland Park, IL, 1959, University of Chicago Folk Festival, 1961, and others. Also columnist and narrator of films.

AWARDS, HONORS: Ohio State University award, 1959, and UNESCO Prix Italia award, 1962, both for Wax Museum; University of Chicago Alumni Association Communicator of the Year award, 1969; National Book Award nominee, 1975; George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Award, 1980; Society of Midland Authors Award, 1982, for American Dreams: Lost and Found, and 1983, for best writer; Eugene V. Debs Award, 1983, for public service; Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, 1985, for "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II; Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1990; Mind Book of the Year award, 2003, for Will the Circle Be Unbroken?; Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, National Book Critics Circle, 2003.


(With Milly Hawk Daniel) Giants of Jazz, Crowell (New York, NY), 1957, revised edition, 1975.

Division Street: America, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1967, 2nd edition, New Press (New York, NY), 1993.

Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1970.

Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1974.

Envelopes of Sound: Six Practitioners Discuss the Method, Theory, and Practice of Oral History and Oral Testimony, Precedent Publishing, 1975, second edition published as Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History, 1985.

Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1977.

American Dreams: Lost and Found, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1980.

"The Good War": An Oral History of World War II, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1984.

(Author of foreword) Hollinger F. Barnard, editor, Outside the Magic Circle: Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1985.

(With Nelson Algren) The Neon Wilderness, Writers and Readers, 1986.

Chicago, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1986.

The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1988.

(Author of introduction) John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

RACE: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession, New Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1995.

My American Century, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.

The Spectator: Talk about Movies and Plays with the People Who Make Them, New Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, New Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, New Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Also author of play Amazing Grace, first produced in Ann Arbor, MI, 1967. Featured on sound recordings, including Television: The First Fifty Years, Center for Cassette Studies, 1975.

ADAPTATIONS: Working was adapted as a musical by Stephen Schwartz and produced on Broadway, 1978; American Dreams: Lost and Found was adapted for the stage by Peter Frisch, Dramatists Play Service, 1987; Talking to Myself was adapted as a play by Paul Sills and produced in Evanston, IL, 1988; The American Clock: A Vaudeville, a play by Arthur Miller, was based in part on Terkel's Hard Times, Dramatists Play Service, 1992; RACE was adapted as a play by David Schwimmer and produced in Chicago, 2003.

SIDELIGHTS: Making a career out of collecting the voice of America for much of the twentieth century, Chicago-based writer Studs Terkel, who was born Louis Terkel, has provided a sympathetic ear to the American people, devoting several of his books to their intimate, revealing, first-person narratives. Armed with his tape machine, Terkel has cris-crossed the country to get his interviews, and his subjects speak candidly on topics as distinct as the Great Depression, World War II, and their jobs, their fears, and their faith in—or frustration with—the American Dream. Some of Terkel's interviews have been with celebrities, but his most remembered—and many say his best—have been with "real people." "I celebrate the non-celebrated," the author once told Philadelphia Bulletin contributor Lewis Beale. "I've found that average people want to talk about themselves, their hopes, dreams, aspirations, provided they sense that you're interested in what they're saying." And, as Terkel once explained in a talk before the Friends of Libraries U.S.A., he has also discovered that "the average American has an indigenous intelligence, a native wit. It's only a question of piquing that intelligence."

Born in New York City, the writer is closely associated with his years living and working in Chicago; he adopted the name Studs from another colorful Chicago character, the fictional Studs Lonigan. Trained in law, Terkel became a successful actor and broadcaster. He was also an enthusiastic liberal whose fall from favor with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s led to the early cancellation of his television talk show, Studs' Place. As Terkel explained to Lee Michael Katz in a Washington Post interview, he was never a Communist, but he "belonged to a left-wing theatre group. Basically my name appeared on many petitions. Rent control. Ending Jim Crow. Abolishing the poll tax. You know, as subversive issues as that. Coming out in favor of Social Security prematurely. You think I'm kidding? These were very controversial issues, considered commie issues." But Terkel also maintained that the blacklisting helped his career: "If it weren't for the blacklist I might have been emceeing [today] on these network TV shows and have been literally dead because … I'd have said something that would have knocked me off [the air], obviously. But I would never have done these books, I would never have gone on to the little FM station playing classical music. So, long live the blacklist!"

After his early successes Division Street: America and Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Terkel produced possibly his best-known book of interviews, Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do. His interviews are threaded through with the recurring theme of disillusionment; many of his subjects told Terkel of the lack of emotional, spiritual, and, of course, monetary fulfillment in their jobs. A compendium of several dozen interviews from Americans in all walks of life, Working was described by Washington Post Book World reviewer Bernard Weisberger as "earthy, passionate, honest, sometimes tender, sometimes crisp, juicy as reality, seasoned with experience. It is tempting to say that people are naturally interesting talkers, but that would be untrue to our memories of boredom past and ungenerous to Terkel's skill…. He has a formidable gift for evoking and recognizing articulateness in a variety of people and coaxing it from private shelters." Although Anatole Broyard in New York Times contended, "Most people gripe better than they sing, and 'Working' sometimes sounds like the Book of Job," Peter S. Prescott, reviewing the book for Newsweek, dubbed Working "an impressive achievement…. Ter-kel understands that what people need—more than sex, almost as much as food—and what they perhaps will never find, is a sympathetic ear…. This is, I think, a very valuable document, a book that would be of use to writers and sociologists if only for the vast amount of technical information it contains."

Following the success of Working, Terkel in 1977 turned his tape recorder on himself to create Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times. "This is not a personal book in the usual sense," warned Nora Ephron in New York Times Book Review. "There is nothing about Terkel's father, next to nothing about his mother, a bare smidgen about his brother, a couple of stories about his wife. What you see is what you get: Terkel's voice. Talking to himself." Indeed, the author acknowledges "an inhibition" in writing about his family; as Terkel told Katz in a Washington Post interview, "I shy away from personal stuff, I really do. In [Talking to Myself] there's stuff I haven't revealed, and it's not worth revealing." Terkel's autobiography is "a marvelous and maddening book," according to New York Times critic John Leonard. "Marvelous, because we get to know the stouthearted Terkel; maddening, because having gotten to know him, we want more, and he won't give."

Terkel's next work, American Dreams: Lost and Found, used the same approach as Working, each book containing some one hundred interviews with an assortment of Americans. Michael Leapman in the London Times noted that Terkel "does not tell us the questions he used to provoke what streams of articulate observations from his one hundred subjects. The evidence suggests that one question to them all was 'What is the American Dream?'" In a Newsweek article, Prescott stated, "Because it is not confined to a single city, or time, or particular part of the human condition, Terkel's American Dreams: Lost and Found is his most diverse." Robert Sherrill in New York Times Book Review noted in particular Terkel's interviews with people such as the grandson of a slave remembering the day he registered to vote, and a former leader in the Ku Klux Klan who became a union organizer to consolidate workers of all colors, and concluded: American Dreams "offers us an apple on every one of these pages."

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II Terkel confines his interviews to those who experienced the war firsthand, providing a kind of informal history of that time. The author says that the quotation marks in the title are deliberate in order to drive home the irony of any war being "good." "As in Terkel's previous oral histories," Jonathan Yardley noted in Washington Post Book World that "'The Good War' is a clangorous but carefully orchestrated jumble of voices." Loudon Wainwright in New York Times Book Review found that the book "gives the American experience in World War II great immediacy. Reading it, I felt a renewed connection with that slice of my own past and a surprisingly powerful kinship with the voices from it." Wainwright also wrote, "It is hard to see how any reader now or then can fail to benefit from its 600 pages. For Mr. Terkel, who in six books over the past 15 years has turned an oral history into a popular literary form, has captured an especially broad and impressive chorus of voices on his tape recorder this time."

"The Good War" drew significant critical attention due to Terkel's interviews with African-American veterans of the era who remembered segregationist rules which applied on and off the base. One interviewee describes how African-American soldiers had to ride in the back of a streetcar while German prisoners of war rode up front. "Another explains why black pilots were so good," Prescott explained. "'We had extensive training,'" Prescott quoted veteran as saying. "'In the beginning, they didn't know what to do with us, so they just kept on training and training and training us. When we went overseas, most of our fliers had three times the flying training that white pilots had.'" On the other hand, as Turkel interviewee Dempsey Travis recalls in the book, the war for many African Americans represented "a step on the first rung of the ladder." During the war, Dempsey was the manager of the first integrated post exchange or military store in Maryland.

Terkel takes a contemporary look at class inequity in The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream, which follows his formula of interviewing and compiling anecdotes from some one hundred people. This work, however, deals with economics rather than ideology, commenting on standards of living and the way society's definitions of the poor have shifted. "Once, the poor were 'victims'; now, they are 'losers,'" related Richard Eder in Los Angeles Times Book Review. "The dimensions of our social problems, the gulf between those who are making it and those who aren't, is as wide as ever, [Terkel] writes." However, "not everyone speaks of failed visions," such as the successful stockbroker Terkel interviewed, Stefan Kanfer commented in Time. Yet, "Americans should weep, for this is a book about the moral effects" the economic prosperity of the 1980s, "the loss of memory and community, the dumbing and numbing of America," insisted Nation contributor Bharati Mukherjee.

Harking back to the issue of race addressed in "The Good War," Terkel compiled an entire work on the subject in 1992. RACE: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession is, like his other volumes, a collection of voices from nearly one hundred people of varying ethnicity, some famous, most not. This time they are speaking with Terkel on the subject of racial relations in America. Juan Williams, writing for Washington Post Book World maintained, "The strength of Terkel's book is its documentation of how race obsesses the national mind." In Village Voice, Michael Tomasky observed, "Terkel reminds us that race is not just a debate about a set of policies, but a web of contradictory feelings and impulses inside all of us, and any mill worker or teacher or cop is capable of both meanness and generosity of spirit, often at the same time."

At the age of eighty-three, Terkel turned his interviewer's eye to a subject close to home. Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It is a compilation of his conversations with around seventy men and women, ages seventy and older. While he includes several famous seniors, such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Katherine Dunham, and Uta Hagen, the majority of Terkel's interviewees are plain folks. John Espey drily noted in Washington Post Book World, "Most of them are unreconstructed Old Lefties, followed in number by enlightened moderates, the mix leavened with an occasional innocent." Despite the somewhat slanted view that results from this distribution, Espey explained, "What becomes clear as one reads on is the importance of the individual conviction of rightness, of carrying on." Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, writing for New York Times Book Review, commented that while the author "aims higher than the old-codger interview … Terkel's interviews don't soar. He seems to have asked all his subjects a series of unimaginative questions … [that] elicit banal answers." However, Sinkler added, "the language and imagery in other interviews is inspired." Judith Dunford in Chicago's Tribune Books reported, "For all its appeal, Coming of Age has real problems. One is the steady, nearly unvarying voice of the replies, which have been edited half to death." The other, she asserted, is "the uneasy sense … that Terkel believes the '30s were the decade that matters, that … nothing else is." Dunford concluded that the book is "best read as a remarkable storybook…. It's like sitting at the feet of dozens of engaging elders."

Political and community activism and civic involvement is the subject of Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, which Terkel published in 2003. In a work that Book contributor Eric Wargo dubbed "refreshing" and "uplifting" Terkel tracks down a host of what Donna Seaman in Booklist referred to as "objectors, dissenters, observers, protestors, and do-gooders," some well known—Pete Seeger, John Kenneth Gal-braith, Tom Hayden, Dennis Kucinich—and some from the grassroots, to hear their opinions about how one finds hope in pessimistic times. Hayden speaks for many when he tells Terkel: "I live now with one goal: to try to learn to be the kind of elder who was missing when I was a kid." Praising Terkel as a "master oral historian, indefatigable humanist, and charming raconteur," Seaman praised the collection, joining other reviewers who roundly praised Hope Dies Last as inspiring.

"Terkel is an impassioned, humane, and remarkably energetic … Chicago broadcaster and writer who owes his status as a living legend and national treasure to his skill at what he calls 'prowling and stalking,'" Jane Howard quipped in a Washington Post Book World piece. "He prowls and stalks with a tape recorder, tracking down the ideas of his fellow Americans, and he sure is good at what he does." "Terkel can be justly charged with employing a formula," according to Kanfer in Time. "Still, it is his formula, sedulously aped but never accurately reproduced." Tribune Books contributor Willie Morris asserted, "Terkel's books have touched profoundly upon our lives."

In 2002 Terkel endowed the Studs and Ida Terkel Author Fund to support "promising authors in a range of fields who share Terkel's fascination with everyday life in America." Terkel's publisher, the New Press, agreed to commission three to five new books a year through the fund.



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