BOB GARFIELD: In June of 2001, author Studs Terkel was interviewed by Sydney Lewis for Transom.org. STUDS TURKEL: And one day I got a call from a listener, a woman. She said, you should do more of those. More of what? Interviewing people. You see, yours are different from others. Well, in what way? Well, it’s as though I'm eavesdropping on a conversation. See, the others are all processed or cut and dried, but this is actual. BOB GARFIELD: Terkel, who died recently at the age of 96, spent the majority of his life documenting the lives of others, very often everyday working class people he believed were, quote, “uncelebrated and unsung.”
It was “their sense of anonymity and lack of self-indulgence,” wrote Terkel, that made them the ideal oral historians. From coal miners and sharecroppers to gangsters and prostitutes, every American had a story to tell, and Terkel wanted to hear it.
His longtime collaborator and editor was Andre Schiffrin, who gave Terkel the idea for one of his earliest breakthroughs in oral history, the 1967 book, Division Street: America. ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: We had just published at that time at Pantheon – this is over 40 years ago – a book called Report from a Chinese Village by a Swedish author called Jan Myrdal, which was a documentation of the lives of ordinary people during the Chinese Revolution. And I thought it would be interesting to try and do this in other places, and I suggested to Studs that he try and do that in Chicago.
He thought a New Yorker seeing Chicago as a potential village was very funny, but he managed to find a cross section. And he began to interview people about the lives they had led, not just in Chicago but coming up from Appalachia, from the South, and he created a kind of history of Chicago that people hadn't really known until then. BOB GARFIELD: Now, having conducted an interview or two in my life, I can say that when you’re interviewing so-called “ordinary people” there’s a lot of ore there but it’s kind of hard to get the gold out. What was his secret for getting the precious metal from the ore? ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, I don't want to criticize your techniques, but you’re not alone. I mean, endless people have tried to do what Studs has done, and none of them have succeeded so far. And the secret was that Studs really had a basic underlying interest in the people he interviewed and a respect for them, and they felt that. And even though at the beginning they might be inarticulate – and we did a lot of editing – by the end of the interview, Studs had really gotten to the center of their life.
And he was very proud of a black woman in a Chicago housing project. STUDS TURKEL: It was a public housing project, and it was integrated – well, all poor. She was pretty. I remember she was pretty, skinny, had about four little kids running around. And the tape recorder was not the ubiquitous tool it is today. It was new, and she'd never been interviewed before. And the kids are hollering, I want to hear Mama. So I say, okay, just a minute. So I play it back, and as she hears her voice, she put her hand to her mouth - says, oh, my God.
Well, what is it? She says, I never knew I felt that way before. Bingo! ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: And that was what he was able to do. BOB GARFIELD: After Division Street came Hard Times. Tell me about that book. ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, that was the second installment in this American history that we're talking about. In other words, Division Street, though it was based on Chicago in the '60s, went back to the '20s, went back to the great migration northwards to Chicago. And the next step was the obvious one, was to do the Depression and also to find out how people had actually lived through it, because most people had been in denial.
MAN: I guess there must have been ten white families within 50 feet of us. STUDS TURKEL: Mm-hmm. MAN: I remember feeding them, I remember my parents feeding little black kids. I remember when the times got so hard the sheriff pawned a radio to my father for ten dollars. This was a white sheriff who had to come to a black man to get ten dollars. BOB GARFIELD: In the '70s came Terkel’s most famous book, and, I'm sure, the bestseller among them, called Working. I've read that this oral history of people and their relationship with their jobs, the idea came from a children’s book?
ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, there was a famous children’s book called, What Do People Do All Day? And I thought it would be interesting to have Studs ask that question for adults. It was really an attempt to show what ordinary people did in a range of jobs throughout the whole of society.
So it went from a checkout person to a waitress to a whore to a hockey player, and many of them are still memorable in their own right because they tell you things that you simply never guessed about the way people felt about their work. BOB GARFIELD: Whatever people did along the vast array of employment opportunities that this country has to offer, most of us don't actually like our jobs. ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: I'm afraid that’s the case. And it's interesting to see that there was a really nasty attack on Studs in The New York Times earlier this week, which tried to suggest that Studs was a covert Marxist trying to show people were alienated. The point was that Studs actually wanted to see what people really thought. And what happens is that very often conservatives don't like what he heard, and so they blame the messenger. BOB GARFIELD: Now, Terkel was not an anthropologist, he wasn't a sociologist, and yet, his books were able to reveal things about our society that perhaps eluded even the social science experts. Can you give me some examples? ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, the book Race is obviously the best example of that because this is a book in which, for the first time, we began to have ordinary people saying, you know, maybe I am a racist or maybe I do harbor these racist feelings, which until then people wouldn't have been willing to talk about.
And, of course, in the last electoral campaign we can see how absolutely important the factor of race still was and how McCain/Palin thought they would win the election by playing on it.
And, interestingly enough, none of the social scientists, who often feel that they were superior to Studs, have ever asked to look at the unedited manuscripts of the interviews, which are an absolute goldmine and are all now at the Chicago Historical Society. WOMAN: My nephew, not so long ago said to me, in regards to the Negro problem, ah, if they want a job they can get it. I said, if you ever say that again, I don't care if you are damn near 40 years old, I'll slap you. I said, your father couldn't get a job during the Depression, and he wanted one. ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: In the book on World War II, he talked about racial conflicts, which none of the historians had talked about, the fact that black soldiers were actually shooting their white officers in the back – real, shocking revelations which came from talking to black soldiers about what had happened, again, something that none of the historians or social scientists had done. BOB GARFIELD: Was his work inflected politically or ideologically in any way?
ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: He was always on the left. He was proud of it. Since the '30s on, he used to joke that he'd never met a petition he hadn't liked. And, of course, this cost him dearly in the McCarthy period. Studs had been running a show called Studs’ Place on television, which had become one of the most popular of the early TV shows.
There was something called the Chicago School of Television which was sort of a spontaneous, unscripted, very enjoyable kind of program, and Studs was going to become one of the great stars of television.
The McCarthy period came in. He was offered many an opportunity to renege on his previous signatures and to turn in his buddies, and, of course, he refused to do so. So he lost his jobs completely. He was totally marginalized. He was plunged into poverty. He lived off his wife’s earnings as a social worker. It was very, very hard.
And it’s only in the very end of his life, in the memoir Touch and Go, that he actually talks about that, though he does so with, as usual, great humor and no bitterness. BOB GARFIELD: How should we remember Studs Terkel and his work? ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: You can say that Studs was really the first person in the U.S. to know how to listen to ordinary people, to write down what they thought, to give us a different view of our society, and to give us an accurate view, which many other people had failed to do.
BOB GARFIELD: Andre, thank you so much. ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Not at all, a pleasure to be with you. BOB GARFIELD: Andre Schiffrin is the founder of The New Press. He was Studs Terkel’s editor for more than 40 years. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, before we go, I have to say Bob made a prediction last week and he actually got it right. Not the election – we don't do that. It was this: BOB GARFIELD: Watch out. We're about to hear a lot more about missing blondes and the war on Christmas. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And here’s Bill O’Reilly this week.
BILL O’REILLY: In addition, we will give you this tremendous “We Say Merry Christmas” bumper sticker free, so if you say “Merry Christmas,” you can let everybody know. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Congrats, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Aw, shucks, it wasn't nothin'. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani and Michael Bernstein, and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh and John DeLore. We also had help from Deena Prichep and Andy Lancet. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.