Tape-recording the crisis of the American soul


New York: Pantheon Books. 439 pp. $18.95

MEMO to George Bush and Michael Dukakis:

Forget the focus groups. Ignore the political analysts. And never mind those public opinion polls with their faceless statistics and margins of error. If you really want to identify the issues and understand the great longings and frustrations of the American people, talk to Studs Terkel, the country's reigning oral historian and champion of the common man (and sometimes woman).

Or at least read his new book, a collection of interviews with nearly 100 mostly unknown Americans who offer a fascinating, if sobering, glimpse into the mind and heart of the nation - or at least its heartland. As these farmers, stockbrokers, homemakers, steelworkers, students, and assorted activists speak into the Terkel tape recorder, pouring out their hopes and fears and political views (a majority voted for Reagan), they offer little evidence that it is still morning in America. Dusk would be more like it.

Terkel sums up the book's prevailing mood in a simple sentence, buried deep in his introduction: ``Something is indubitably wrong somewhere.'' That something, he argues, manifests itself in what he calls the Great Divide - ``the breach that has cut off past from present,'' the split that shows up in such social, philosophical, and economic rifts as racism, religious conflicts, and growing divisions between the haves and the have-nots.

Gone, according to Terkel's assembled chorus, are the days when children could expect to do better than their parents. ``I'm workin' harder, makin' less money, got less of a future,'' complains a boilermaker. ``I think the American dream for most people today is just survival,'' adds a suburban mother who owns a cleaning service.

Gone, too, at least for the moment, is progress for blacks. ``I think [the] door is closed,'' a black correspondent for Newsweek observes. And fading fast is hope for the family farmer. By far the most haunting, heartbreaking voices in the book belong to keepers of the soil, who alternate between grief and anger as they worry about corporate megafarms that threaten to turn them into hired hands on their own land.

Terkel's Great Divide also assumes less tangible forms, surfacing as a lack of hopefulness, commitment, and concern. ``It's hard to get the energy to care,'' confesses a young woman who works as an advertising copywriter. A commodities broker puts it more baldly: ``We've been anaesthetized.''

Perhaps. Yet there is something slightly contrived and not always convincing about this Great Divide scenario. Terkel sometimes juxtaposes interviews for maximum shock effect - a commodities trader worth $400 million follows a nearly bankrupt farmer, for instance, and a pro-life feminist immediately precedes a pro-choice Roman Catholic obstetrician. Terkel also makes no pretense to objectivity, arguing that ``there ain't no such animal, though we play at the hunt.''

It is a wise disclaimer. For despite a seemingly wide-ranging cast of characters, his chosen voices are predominantly Midwestern and blue-collar. His American family portrait includes no Asians and just two Hispanics. It also underrepresents women, who account for only two-fifths of the 96 interviews. Although various voices give passing recognition to the cataclysmic changes in women's lives during the past quarter-century, Terkel largely ignores the divide that now pits homemakers against working women and separates traditional mothers from their career-minded daughters.

Despite scattered success stories and occasional glimmers of optimism, ``The Great Divide'' remains a gloomy book, full of failed dreams, diminished expectations, and dark prophecies.

``You can't predict the day, you can't predict the hour, but a dream deferred is inevitably going to explode sometime,'' warns a history teacher in a black high school in Chicago. And a 32-year-old composer from Berkeley, Calif., adds, ``I have a feeling that the '90s is going to be a very turbulent decade.''

Yet Terkel is clever enough - or hopeful enough - not to leave it at that. He gives the last word to Jean Gump, a grandmother-activist serving a six-year term at a federal penitentiary for damaging a missile on Good Friday, 1986. Explaining that she feels ``very much at peace'' in her prison home, Mrs. Gump says, ``I have a tremendous hope. I figure if somebody like me can put aside her selfish interests and do something, anybody in the United States can.''

Recently Terkel told an interviewer, ``I generally root for the losing team.'' By his own measure, the losing team in America is adding players - like Gump - every day. But if, as he argues, ``something is indubitably wrong somewhere,'' something is indubitably right, too. The tape recorder, not Terkel, has the final word. The aching honesty and down-home wisdom he records testify to the courage and abiding goodwill of ordinary people leading everyday lives. They may be disillusioned, but most of them are not cynical. They may be tired, but few of them are beaten.

The ongoing crisis of the American soul has been reported (without tape recorders) by earlier observers than Terkel, from Tocqueville on. The outcome has always been in doubt - no wonder it still is. As we say in the age of the tape recorder, stay tuned.

Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor staff.

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