There is nothing like talking with a cross section of Americans to lift one's spirits about America. Just when a conversation exposes the bleakest sort of experience in the land of freedom and plenty, it opens a window on unexpected resilience and strength -- or gives way to a contrasting exchange that exemplifies the saving vigor in diversity. I have felt this exhilaration in the line of duty as a reporter. And I wonder if anyone could avoid feeling it, on balance, in the now harsh, now hopeful conversation of a hundred Americans set down by Studs Terkel, the master interviewer, in his latest book, "American Dreams: Lost and Found."
After volumes like "Hard Times" and "Working," little remains to be said about Mr. Terkel's basic technique. With the art that conceals art, he conveys a sense of people expressing their thoughts and emotions in their own words. He himself simply sets the scene and puts in a question or comment now and then. The demeanor of the speakers has to be gathered from what they say.
Mr. Terkel does go so far as to insert parenthetical actions such as "(Laughs.)" or "(Sighs.)," which help the reader to take things as they are meant. By far the most frequent is "(Laughs.)," with its various occasions adding up to a virtual analysis of the American sense of humor in good times and bad.
The one time the parenthesis switches to "(He weeps.)" comes with special force. It occurs when a North Carolinian who had been a Ku Klux Klan leader recalls how he and a black woman he had hated were able to work together for the community: "I begin to see, here we are, two people from the far ends of the fence, havin' identical problems, except hers bein' black and me bein' white. . . . I begin to love the girl, really."
This is one of the extraordinary episodes ilpitifully, or profanely in his pages.
The voices of censure, praise, or satisfaction are from rich and poor, conservative and liberal, urban and rural, minority and majority, young and old. Some are nationally known. Most are not. Here all voices are created equal. There is no pretense of consensus. Rather, appropriately enough, Mr. Terkel compares his verbal collage to the American art form of jazz, with "an attempt, of theme and improvisation, to recount dreams, lost and found, and a recognition of possibility."
Among the recurring themes are education, work, justice, competition, caring for one another. And what, to these Americans of our time, ism the American Dream?
"Really makin' things work . . . to be better off than you are . . . an avoidance of responsibility and commitment . . . people having control over their lives . . . more money every year for everybody . . . the necessity of every person to be educated . . . to be famous . . . owning a piece of land . . . for whites only . . . [that] I live happy, treat you nice, and you treat me nice, and you forget I'm black and I forget you white . . .
"That people have a right to say what they wanta say, do what they wanta do, and fashion a world into something that be great for everyone . . . a man that builds from the bottom, builds something up and makes it work . . . to maintain the prestige of the United States in the world . . . a home and security and things like that . . . to have gotten up in the morning and have clean clothes to wear and have food on the table . . . to create something of your own, to have some measure of control over your destiny."
So the American Dream means different things to different people. A young newspaper editor warns, "The American Dream becomes pernicious when it is imposed on other people." A woman born in Russia looks out from the age of 94 and finds that "The American Dream is the same the whole world over."
Is she playing the note of the future in your American jam session, Mr. Terkel? After all, jazz itself swings out from Stockholm to Budapest to Tokyo these days.