Publisher's Note — February 13, 2009, 3:13 pm

Studs Terkel: “Radical conservative”

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the February 13, 2009 Providence Journal.

Killing time before the Studs Terkel memorial celebration in Chicago on January 30, I glanced up at the magnificent Tiffany dome of the Chicago Cultural Center and noticed it was ringed with a quotation from Joseph Addison: “Books are the legacies that a great genius leaves to mankind, which are delivered down from generation to generation as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn.”

It seemed a fitting backdrop to Studs’s brilliant run as an interviewer and author, but paradoxical nonetheless. Chicago was Studs’s stage, his inspiration and his beloved home, but the Second City was never really hospitable to his left-wing dissent and often hostile to his deeply intellectual nature. Throughout his broadcast, writing and acting career, Studs did his best to keep serious ideas—literary, political, historical and musical—in play, but in Chicago, Addison signifies only one thing: a street where the Cubs play baseball.

To be sure, the third floor of the Cultural Center was packed with up to 400 intelligent, well-spoken people. Among them was the former WFMT program manager and announcer, Norman Pellegrini, who with the late Ray Nordstrand helped invent the institution that Studs became on the radio. I grew up enamored of those resonant, cosmopolitan voices, which brought light and cheer on frigid days and evenings when all of Cook County felt like it was hibernating — physically and philosophically. Winter is Chicago’s emblematic season and by the time the event began at 6 p.m., the temperature along Michigan Avenue had fallen to 13 degrees.

The speakers, drawn from Studs’s wide array of devoted friends, leaned heavily on anecdote, ranging from the eloquent to the funny to the tragicomic. Studs the kinetic force and anti-snob, arguing politics with uptight yuppies at his bus stop; Studs, randomly passing out photocopies of articles on the bus to work; Studs, relentlessly interviewing “ordinary” people (an adjective he loathed for its “patronizing air”) on the train to Washington for the big 1963 civil-rights rally and even when he didn’t have his tape recorder. Sydney Lewis, Studs’s longtime collaborator on radio and books, stole the show when she recalled the first time she met him, at the Quiet Knight, a North Side club where she worked as a waitress in the late 1970s. When Lewis tried to take Studs’s order, he launched a thorough inquiry into her life, to the point where she finally lost patience: “Mr. Terkel, I read Working, I loved Working, but right now I am working. What do you want to drink?”

With all the tributes, it was left to the “outsider” from New York, André Schiffrin, Studs’s editor and publisher, to appraise Terkel the intellectual who raised popular oral history to an importance and respectability it had never previously enjoyed. It’s fair to rank the 42-year Schiffrin-Terkel partnership with other great editorial alliances, such as Maxwell Perkins and Ernest Hemingway, for the cultural impact of Studs’s interview books (not to mention the sales) has been immense. Impossible now to forget or ignore the bottom-up histories of the Great Depression (Hard Times) and World War II (“The Good War”), or the eternal plight of the working class (Working) with all those millions of copies in print.

I confess that I also used to pigeonhole Studs as a “character” and “political radical”—that I didn’t fully appreciate the subtlety of his intelligence or his writing. We first met at a 1976 fundraiser for Fred Harris’s populist presidential campaign, which took place in the weirdly uncomfortable Coho Room of the old Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive. The space was too small for the overheated crowd—a mistake by the organizers, including me—but Studs was unfazed. He ratcheted up the audience like no one I’ve ever seen; then, borrowing from some long-forgotten pitchman, played a kind of “Simon Says” trick: He told everyone to reach high up in the sky, then loooow down to the ground, and finally (after a significant pause for effect), deeeep into their pockets. It brought the house down—and the wallets out.

Years later, in 1992, when Studs interviewed me on WFMT, I got a better sense of his wide knowledge of American literature and history. But it wasn’t until I attended a small dinner at Schiffrin’s Manhattan apartment—I think it was 2002—that I realized the extent of Studs’s sophistication. Besides Studs, the guest star was Jonathan Miller, the English polymath, whose career as medical doctor, comedian, theater director, and author makes him one of the world’s leading public intellectuals. Studs was quite hard-of-hearing but he was still very acute. The conversation turned to British playwrights of a bygone age, none of whom I’d heard of. Then, suddenly, the table-wide discussion became a two-way street: Studs and Miller just talked, including lots of quoting lines, while the rest of us listened. I can’t say which man was more erudite or spoke more authoritatively.

On another occasion, late one night in the lobby of the Iroquois Hotel (his preferred Manhattan hotel after the Royalton went glitzy), Studs regaled me by reciting full-length poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, one of many poets whose work he knew by heart. As the mordantly witty Sydney Lewis told me, Studs had a lot of extra time for reading in the early 1950s, when the anti-communist witch hunters put him on the blacklist and he lost his television show.

I don’t know how Studs managed to “get the truth from people even when they were lying to themselves,” as André Schiffrin put it. But I do believe that Studs, the great democrat, would have agreed that Democratic Chicago (not to mention American democracy) is something of a lie, one all too often concealed by self-deceivers pretending that the Daley machine has turned “liberal” and more “open,” especially with the advent of Barack Obama.

Living witness to five decades of boss rule, most of it by the Daleys, is Leon Depres, who came to the memorial in a wheelchair, just three days short of his 101st birthday. Depres appeared in Studs’s 1995 Coming of Age compilation about the elderly, and seemed as clearheaded as in the days when, as Fifth Ward alderman from the Hyde Park neighborhood, he defied Mayor Richard J. Daley (his son Richard M. Daley is now mayor) as part of the tiny independent block—at its peak numbering five—in the 50-member City Council. When I asked him who today would qualify as an independent alderman, he could think of only one: Joe Moore of the 49th Ward.

No friend of the Daleys (though he appreciated the current mayor naming a bridge for him), Studs called himself a “radical conservative,” asserting that “radical means getting to the core of things.” At the core of his life was the importance of memory and of hope. His great friend Nelson Algren, the moody chronicler of hopeless Chicago, rebuked “The City of I Will” by asking, through his fictional characters, “What if I can’t?” Studs valiantly resisted that question all his life; he knew plenty of real-life Frankie Machines (Algren’s drug-addicted anti-hero from The Man With the Golden Arm), but he never joined them in their despair.

But Studs was hardly a Polyanna. In his lovely memoir, Touch and Go, he railed against America’s loss of memory—a “national Alzheimer’s.” Though he wrote the book toward the end of the last Bush Administration, I think his analysis still applies today as President Obama recycles the people and policies of the Clinton Administration while the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan grind on: “Basically, there is an affront going on, an assault on our intelligence and sense of decency. We have a language perverted, a mind low-rated, and of course, the inevitable end result — forgetfulness…. When there’s no yesterday, a national memory becomes more and more removed from what it once was, and forgets what it once wanted to be.”

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