Giants of Jazz, 1957, revised 1975
Division Street: America, 1967
Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, 1970
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, 1974
Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times, 1977
American Dreams: Lost and Found, 1980
“The Good War”: An Oral History of World War Two, 1984
The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream, 1988
Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, 1992
Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who Have Lived It, 1995
My American Century, 1997
The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays with the People Who Make Them, 1999
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, 2001
Amazing Grace, pr. 1967
Louis “Studs” Terkel (TUR-kuhl) was a broadcast journalist and author of several books. His father, tailor Samuel Terkel, and mother, seamstress Anna (Finkel) Terkel, emigrated from Bialystok, Poland, to the Bronx, where Louis, the youngest of three boys, was born and grew up with people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds.
When Terkel was nine, his family moved to Chicago, where his parents ran a rooming house. He enjoyed observing and conversing with the renters there, and he credited his career as an interviewer in part to his interaction with those guests. Terkel acquired his nickname from his fascination with novelist James T. Farrell’s character Studs Lonigan in Young Lonigan (1932). “Naturally I identified with (Lonigan) because we had nothing in common,” he said. He spoke constantly of Lonigan to his friends, who consequently dubbed him Studs.
In 1939 Terkel married Ida Goldberg, a social worker of Ukrainian descent who was raised in Wisconsin. The two met through a theater group and discovered their common interest in progressive politics and similarities in other areas of their lives. They had one son, Paul.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1932 and a J.D. from its law school two years later, Terkel realized his career was not going to be as glamorous as that of his lawyer-hero, Clarence Darrow, so Terkel began seeking work elsewhere: in the civil service; as an actor in Chicago; in the radio division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Writers Project; and, because a perforated eardrum prevented him from serving in combat when he was called up for military duty, as an entertainer for the military.
In the 1940’s he began working with radio, doing radio commentary and later hosting Studs Terkel’s Wax Museum. In 1950 he began his own television show, Studs’ Place, featuring himself as the manager of a small café, three actors as café workers, and different people as guests each week. The program’s dialogue was spontaneous and informal, and the show helped define the genre of Chicago-style television.
Then in 1953, Terkel’s liberal political views caused him to be viewed with suspicion by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and he was subsequently blacklisted. The television station dropped Studs’ Place, and no one else would employ him. Then Chicago radio station WFMT offered him work as a disc jockey, later giving him his own show, The Studs Terkel Program.
His radio broadcasts included interviews with people from all walks of life, from the local community activist to the internationally known orchestra conductor. Terkel liked to do programs with unusual twists, such as discussing the opening of an art show by playing pieces of music which people said reminded them of that artist’s work.
Terkel saw himself primarily as a radio interviewer. In 1957 he wrote a book on jazz musicians, thirteen giants of a musical genre he loved. Several years later his publisher and an actress friend saw a book of interviews–anthropologist Jan Myrdal’s Report from a Chinese Village (1965)–and encouraged Terkel to write a similar book about an American city. He finally accepted the challenge, interviewed a cross-section of Chicago residents, and produced Division Street: America.
He described his books as memory books, not history books. In them he used his skills as interviewer to encourage the subjects to speak, and as editor, to allow them to speak for themselves. Aside from a prologue to the book and brief descriptions of each interviewee, the text of many of his books consists solely of interviews edited to read as monologues.
His books featured the opinions of those others had overlooked: the common man who went about his business, not necessarily making headline news but having an interesting story nonetheless. Terkel commented that he wrote Working to “do something in the present that would have been terrific if other people had done it for their own times in the past,” that is, to have interviewed the workers building the pyramids–the ones who gave the sweat while the pharaohs got the glory.
His 2001 book on life and death, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, helped him cope with the 1999 death of his wife of sixty years. He found comfort in talking with the subjects of his book. With this work, as with many of his others, he left his personal views out. However, he described himself as “an agnostic, which is what someone once told me is a cowardly atheist.”
Terkel encouraged his interviewees to talk to him by putting them at ease and showing genuine interest in what they had to say. He avoided discussing the very private aspects of their lives, stating that as he did not like people invading his personal space, he tried not to invade theirs.
In 1998, he became Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Chicago Historical Society, and in 2002 he founded the Studs and Ida Terkel Author Fund “to support promising authors in a range of fields who share [his] fascination with everyday life in America.” Terkel died at his home in Chicago on October 31, 2008. He was 96.
Terkel carved out his niche in the broadcasting world by “celebrating the uncelebrated people of the world . . . giving voice to the voices of those we never hear.” He preserved for posterity a slice of Americana often overlooked–the opinions, hopes, and dreams of the ordinary person.