Lewis “Studs” Terkel (1912–2008), writer, broadcaster, oral historian, and social critic, authored 18 books chronicling the experiences of work and working in America throughout the 20th century. Terkel was born to Russian immigrant parents and grew up in Chicago. He loved music and theater, and his first book (Giants of Jazz, 1956) was based on interviews with blues and jazz musicians. Terkel's interviews with a broader cross-section of workers followed in other books. One of the best known was Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974), which was also developed into a popular theatrical musical that has been performed around the world.
After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1934, Terkel joined the Federal Writers Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He also worked in radio drama, where his role in the play Studs Lonigan generated his lifelong nickname “Studs.” Terkel's continuing work in radio (and later television) broadcasting led to a popular daily hour-long interview program on a Chicago fine arts station, which began in 1958 and continued for the next 45 years. A valuable library of over 8,000 recorded interviews with artists, musicians, social activists, politicians (on all sides), workers, and celebrities is preserved and available through the Chicago Historical Society.
In addition to their admiration for his insights and interviews in Working, sociologists have also paid special attention to Terkel's Division Street: America (1967), which chronicled the views of a wide cross-section of urban residents on a variety of social issues. Topics they addressed ranged from civil rights, white flight, and the war in Vietnam to Latin immigration and the decline of manual labor and factory jobs.
Terkel described his writing as a bottom-up history of ordinary people who have something real to say about themselves and whose “dammed up hurts and dreams” are too often ignored. He told this writer, “I call it Division Street America ‘cause that's a metaphor. There is a Division Street in Chicago. … It could be any city, just a large city … I meant ‘division street’ as in separating us.”
During the Great Depression, Terkel witnessed the downward mobility of multiple generations, attacks on the union movement, and continued hostility toward immigrants, problems he remained committed to addressing and opposing for the rest of his life. In the book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), his interviewees recounted the experience of so many losing or seeking work during this period, and how they were impacted. As noted by Anthony Trendl in his review, Terkel managed “to connect with each interviewee, and allow them to do the talking … Some of the people are cops. Others are teachers, cabbies and nuns. There are even a couple of CEOs and advertising guys. …” Terkel also retained great interest in soldiers’ experiences during and after World War II. He chronicled and recounted these in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (1984).
During the post-World War II years, sociologists C. Wright Mills, Reinhardt Bendix, and S. M. Lipset articulated concerns for many of the same issues for which Terkel provided vivid expressions and oral histories. His sensibility for social criticism and commentary popularized some of the concerns they shared over the fate of workers and unions and their place and treatment in American society. On his interview programs, Terkel routinely included discussion of these issues with such leading scholars as Douglas Massey and Kenneth Clarke. He enjoyed noting how much information and how many interviews he had recorded, in such observations as: “The only other person who used a tape recorder as much as I did is Richard Nixon (albeit for different purposes).” When Terkel passed away in 2008, a tribute in the Manchester Guardian (November 1, 2008) read as follows: Studs Terkel—master chronicler of American life in the 20th century, veteran radical and vibrant soul of the Midwestern capital of Chicago—has died, aged 96. To register him as “writer and broadcaster” would be like calling Louis Armstrong a “trumpeter” or the Empire State Building an office block. Strictly and sparsely speaking, it is true.
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