Saturday, November 1, 2008

This Studs's for you

Studs Terkel died yesterday, a writer many of you know far too little. He was a tireless champion for the little man and the subjects of his Pulitzer Prize winning essays and books were the unknown workers who make up the majority of people across our land. He was an original like no other, who would recount the pain and suffering of the Great Depression in "Hard Times" with hundreds of personal stories, each one a study in determination and the will to survive. Terkel's "oral histories" were collected as a lepidopterist might capture fleeting butterflies and mount them for display. He would conduct interview after interview, with meticulous notes and then move on. He wasn't searcing for an explanation as much as he was looking for the feelings and coping mechanisms people have when dealing with adversity or the mundane. Another of his more well known works was "Working," where the stories of America's working class were revealed in a similar fashion. "Studs Terkel's Working" became a Broadway show and later was shown on PBS, the network for whom he had many projects. He was a prince among writers who asked the right questions until he had run out of them. In talking about his PBS production "Hope Dies Last," Terkel explained in 1990 that his hopes may have diminished, but his curiosity still remained and he had already picked out his epitath: "Curiosity didn't kill this cat," he beamed. Terkel's "The Good War," for which he won his Pultizer in 1985, suggested that, not unlike the VietNam War, World War II was not necessarily a period of national solidarity and unabashed unity. He was born a New Yorker, but became a proud Chicagoan at age eight. He got the acting bug while still a young man, but didn't do much with his career. (He did appear in the movie "Eight Men Out" as a reporter.) He had his own Chicago radio program for over four decades, "The Studs Terkel Program," in which he would interview guests and make commentaries. He was a man after my own heart, favoring well-mixed martinis and chomping on cigars on a regular basis. Because of the controversial positions he held (he would probably admit he leaned towards socialism), he was blacklisted from TV during the McCarthy era. It is interesting to note that Terkel then began his writing career. He started while in his mid-40s due to his love of jazz music. His "Giants of Jazz" was released in 1956, but he wasted no time in continuing his writing and was working all the way up until his passing. As a matter of fact, his last book will be published in just another two weeks. He may be a footnote in the newspaper editions this morning, but the Chicago museum that houses many of the oral histories he donated will be forever grateful as will a nation who mourns the passing of one of its favorite sons.

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