The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and oral historian Studs Terkel that he "is more than a writer; he is a national resource." But Terkel saw himself as a teller of stories – the stories of others.
Terkel died on Friday in Chicago at the age of 96. He leaves behind him a rich legacy of American stories, told both in print and on the air. Among his numerous books some titles stand out: "Hard Times" published in 1970, "Working" (1974), "American Dreams: Lost and Found" (1980), and "The Good War" (1984) for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.
"The Good War" recorded oral histories from World War II veterans. In reviewing it for the Monitor, James Kaufman wrote that, "Like [Terkel's] earlier oral histories, 'The Good War' is alive with the feeling of history rather than fact.... The difference between regular history and Terkel's oral history is like the difference between reading a box score and actually seeing the game. There is life here, not statistics."
"American Dreams" allowed a cross section of Americans to tell their own stories. Monitor reviewer Roderick Nordell wrote of Terkel's technique on display in this work, "With the art that conceals art, he conveys a sense of people expressing their thoughts and emotions in their own words."
Terkel also did a radio interview show in Chicago and was a fixture of the broadcasting scene there from 1952 until 1997.
He was born Louis Terkel in New York in 1912. (He used to say that 1912 was "the year the Titanic went down and I came up.'') His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. When he was 11, his family moved to Chicago. Due to his father's illness, he was raised by his mother who ran a boarding house. Terkel often said that listening to the conversation there gave him an ear for the stories of others.
The young Terkel was also a voracious reader, devouring both the classics and less exalted forms of fiction.
As a young man he graduated from the University of Chicago but after failing the bar exam he worked at various other professions, including statistical research and acting, in Omaha and Washington, D.C. But it was upon returning to Chicago to join that the Federal Writers Project that he found his calling.
In 1983, Monitor correspondent Stewart McBride met with Terkel. He wrote, "If you can imagine Walt Whitman hosting a Midwest radio talk show, wearing a checkered shirt and drawling like a movie gangster, you've conjured up America's greatest oral historian."
Speaking of his work as a documentarian gathering American stories, Terkel told McBride, "Ordinary people are more exciting to talk to. With celebrities, you always know what they are going to say. With somebody who's never been interviewed before, it's unexplored territory – like Columbus hitting new shores, discovering new lands.''
(Although McBride noted that Terkel did also interview celebrities including, "Joan Crawford, Bertrand Russell, Federico Fellini, Billie Holiday, and other glitterati spanning numerous continents and fields of interests.")
But in words that make a lovely tribute to Terkel's work, McBride wrote, "Terkel, a radical democrat with a small 'd,' prefers, however, the quiet company and modest wisdom of the hoi polloi - rednecks and loggers; nurses and strip miners; cab drivers, waitresses, and switchboard operators - the nation's unsung working-class 'heroes and heroines,' he says. They rarely make the headlines; they will always make America."