Why you should read … Studs Terkel

As I’ve said in many previous blogs, one of the things I love about history is that there is no one objectively “true” version of history. Yes, it can get annoying when someone tries to argue that Thatcher was the greatest PM in British history, and the less said about Holocaust deniers and their moronic ilk the better; but overall, the fact that everyone has their own opinion about “what actually happened” is what makes history, in my opinion, the most interesting subject there is.

As such, for me one of the most interesting ways to learn about history is to listen to or read the stories of the people who lived through it, and to my mind no historian was better at capturing those memories than Studs Terkel, the Chicagoan (?) broadcaster and oral historian who died in 2008. I don’t have room to list all the reasons I think Terkel is one of, if not the, best historians of the twentieth century, and I think it’s a travesty that his work isn’t far, far more well-known than it is, especially considering the prominence afforded to historians such as David Starkey. That said, I’ll try and sum up exactly why I think you should all read at least one of Terkel’s books, but before we begin, I’ll give you an overview of a typical Studs Terkel book.

Admittedly, I haven’t read all of his work, so I can only hope the books I haven’t read don’t differ too radically from the ones I have. Each of Terkel’s books concern a broad theme or topic, be they historical, such as The Good War (World War Two) or Hard Times (the Great Depression); social, such as Coming of Age (how America has changed during the twentieth century); or philosophical, such as Working (the value and meaning of work) or Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (reflections on death). These general topics are then broken down into a series of chapters each covering a theme within it (for example, the ‘Big Money’ chapter in Hard Times covers the Great Depression from the perspective of bankers and their like); and within each chapter are a series of interviews, some a paragraph long, some several pages long, with a brief introduction about the interviewee.

As you may have guessed, the first thing to say about Terkel is that the scope of his work is simply staggering. I can’t think of any other historian who has covered the range of subjects, and moreover in a manner which does them justice, than Terkel has. For me, his best books are those which focus on a philosophical or social theme rather than a specific period of history, as they allow his interviewees to draw on their entire life’s experience, rather than on a specific period of time, resulting in a more free flowing and far reaching interview.

Furthermore, all of Terkel’s books incorporate a wide variety of perspectives on each topic. Whilst Terkel himself was pretty liberal, his books contain interviews with people from a range of political, social, cultural and economic backgrounds. As a result, at no point do you ever feel that Terkel has deliberately ignored a point of view; tried to portray people with conservative, or even bigoted, views in a negative light; or manipulate the interviews to promote a certain historical narrative.

As such, not only do his books reveal some unique perspectives on the past, they also demonstrate what I argued at the beginning of this post is true, namely that everyone has their own take on history. Indeed, Terkel’s work goes one further than this, as by demonstrating the variety of perspectives, ideas and opinions about the past, it suggests not only that we will never come to a final conclusion about “what happened”, but arguably that we shouldn’t.

That third point should be elaborated upon. Obviously, all of Terkel’s books present a historical narrative to a degree. Simply by arranging the interviews into chapters and deciding what order to put them in, Terkel has created a narrative, and this is to say nothing of whether the interviews have been edited.

However, aside from this and the brief introductions at the beginning of each interview, Terkel doesn’t impose his own interpretations or perspectives on the interviews. Instead, each interview is presented in its fullest and without comment, thus allowing the interviewees to speak for themselves. The result is a narrative which is far more engaging, entertaining and honest than if Terkel had used extracts from the interviews to back up one of his own, and is a narrative structure which allows the unique voice of each interviewee to be heard.

The greatest strength of Terkel’s work, however, is that it promotes the concept of history as social justice. Not justice in an Internationale, ‘Oh comrades, come rally!” sense of the word ‘justice’, but justice in the sense that good history gives people a voice. As I’ve said in several posts, too much history focuses on the words and actions of a narrow elite, and excludes the perspectives and experiences of anyone who falls outside those narrow parameters of what constitutes a “great man”, resulting in a version of history which is both overly simplistic, and which disenfranchises huge portions of society.

As such, by giving his interviewees equal billing regardless of their backgrounds, not only does Terkel create a far richer and more nuanced historical account, but it gives many of them the opportunity to speak and to be heard where before they were ignored. As a result, Terkel’s approach to history not only inspires in people a pride in their own history, but more importantly the belief that their opinion matters, and it is this belief which forms the foundation of all successful political, social and cultural change.

So that’s why I think you should all read Studs Terkel. He was a historian who not only understood that everyone has an opinion about the past, but that allowing people the opportunity simply to talk about it gives them a sense of worth and value that, when used properly, can be the driving force of positive change in the present. I should also say that this post only covers his written material: he also conducted hundreds of interviews for radio, which can be found online at the WFMT Studs Terkel Radio Archive. With that, I’ll leave you with a quote from Terkel himself, which I think neatly encapsulates his philosophy.

 

“What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you’re listening. Because you’re listening, they feel good about talking to you. When someone tells me a thing that happened, what do I feel inside? I want to get the story out. It’s for the person who reads it to have the feeling . . . In most cases the person I encounter is not a celebrity; rather the ordinary person. “Ordinary” is a word I loathe. It has a patronizing air. I have come across ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.”

(Studs Terkel, Touch and Go: A Memoir)

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