Voice of America
And free to continue capturing the plainspoken American voices that resound in his books. He has been doing it for three decades, most notably in 1974's Working and The Good War, his book about World War II that won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. "Studs is a great interviewer," says presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, "and his work is filled with practical wisdom and humanity. He's a fine historian."
Terkel's latest, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, once again enlists his signature method. More than 60 people, winnowed out from some 80 he interviewed, give first person accounts of coping with death and grief. Among the voices: those of a retired fireman, an ER doctor, a Vietnam vet and a woman who survived Hiroshima. Although the notion of group testimony about grief seems timely after Sept. 11, Terkel's project began more than two years ago. But it was the death of Ida Goldberg, his wife of 60 years, who died at 87 following heart surgery in December 1999, that gave it poignancy. Terkel, waiting outside the recovery room with their son Dan when she died, recalls, "They came out to tell me, and it was devastating. She was a scrapper." Sharing his grief with friends, says André Schiffrin, Terkel's editor, kept Studs alive in the months after Ida's death. Then, Schiffrin says, "it was like a fire bell in the night. Studs realized there was a fantastic book there."
Terkel, who believes "there's no there there" after death, nonetheless hopes others may find strength in the faith and courage voiced in Circle: "People," he says, "have remarkable ways of approaching death." His way includes keeping Ida's ashes in an urn near a vase of daisies in the home they shared for 23 years on Chicago's North Side. When he dies, he says, he wants their ashes strewn across Bughouse Square in Chicago, where, as a young man, he would stand on soapboxes to vent his leftist views. Until then he keeps Ida updated. "After giving a lecture," he says, "I'll come home and go, 'How'd I do?'.... 'You did fine.' Or something will happen, and I'll look at the urn and go, 'Well, how do you like that?'
There have been plenty of stories for Louis "Studs" Terkel, who grew up in Chicago, where his parents, Samuel and Anna, ran a hotel for itinerant laborers. It was a milieu that shaped his love of working-stiff grit and working-class politics. (He took his nickname from Studs Lonigan, the doomed Chicago street kid in novelist James T. Farrell's 1930s trilogy.) Never using his University of Chicago law degree, Terkel instead became a theater and radio actor and jazz deejay. He married social worker Ida in 1939. "I was making $85 a month; she was making $125," he says, "so I married money." Terkel starred as a bartender in his early-'50s NBC television drama Studs' Place, but his radio show, which fused blues, folk and jazz with interviews of big-name guests (Marlon Brando, Carl Sand-berg), made him a Chicago icon. (The show ran for 45 years, until 1999.) Then Division Street: America, in 1967, and Hard Times, in 1970, established Terkel as America's foremost oral historian. "The entire world is Studs's canvas," says Schiffrin. "He's engaged, he's fascinated by just about everything." Says Terkel: "I'm like a prospector who digs and digs, and out of this comes tons of ore. Then he sifts—and he's got a handful of gold dust."
Terkel has begun interviewing people for a book about hope—a brave move for a man whose next birthday will be his 90th. Says his friend Carlos Cortez, a Chicago poet and political activist: "He'll go till he drops. No life-support tubes for Studs. For an old dude he's a dynamo." Every day Terkel smokes two cigars and downs two martinis, all the while railing against everything from golf ("Loathe it") to bin Laden ("Bring this madman to book"). And every day he writes. "Odds are, I won't finish the book," he says. "The destination—I know it pretty well. But I like the journey. It makes the day go faster."