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Dreamers by Day

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is part of a series looking at the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last book was his first memoir, Talking to Myself.]

The American dream, and just what it meant is one of the great themes of 20th century American literature. The tragedy that the American dream is an illusion meant to distract everyone from the bleak reality of their lives is another common theme. Nelson Algren was one of the writers who explored the latter theme best.

Algren was championed by Studs, and is the dedicatee of American Dreams: Lost and Found. He moved away from Chicago to New Jersey in 1975, and passed away in 1981 – the year after Lost and Found came out.

This book asks a hundred people what keeps them going. Some of them are just starting out – the first person interviewed is a former Miss USA – and some people are at the peak of their professions. Some of the more interesting interviews are ones with those who have gotten to the top. Gaylord Freeman, the retired chair of the First National Bank of Chicago, has an interview in which he talks about where he came from and how he tried giving back. Freeman was friends with Milton Friedman, the Nobel-winning economist at the University of Chicago. Freeman disagreed with Friedmans contention that business should never field obligated to society.

But most of the people in the book are young people talking about what keeps them going and where they want to be. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger talks about how he was determined to be on top, and how he’d always wanted to go to America and make it.

Some of the older folks also look back on their childhoods, picking out incidents from them that motivated them to do better, or choose a particular path, or that otherwise affected them. A Japanese-American couple, Aki and Jun Kunrose, talk about their experience with discrimination and internment, which has led them to have a cynical view of the American dream. John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me talks about how his interests led him to becoming an activist, first smuggling Jews to safe places in Nazi-occupied France, and later as a civil rights advocate after living as a black man for six weeks.

Vernon Jarrett, the first African-American syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has one of the longest interviews in the book (or any of Studs’ books) at 11 pages. As a child growing up in Paris, Tennessee, he read the Chicago Defender, the city’s black newspaper, led by its passionate founder Robert Abbott. Jarrett had never been to Chicago before he arrived in the early 1940s as a young man, but had heard about it all his life, and felt like he knew it well by the time he arrived.

Another notable interview in the book is with C. P. Ellis, a former Exalted Cyclopes of the Ku Klux Klan who reformed and became a civil rights activist and a trade union organizer. Studs had heard of Ellis’ transformation and went to see him. Ellis says he became involved in the Klan because he wanted to be empowered, and left because he realized it wasn’t helping. “As long as [the powerful] keep lower-income whites and lower-income blacks fighting, they’re gonna maintain control,” he says.

Ellis’ interview is paired with one of Hartman Turnbow, a black man in Mississippi who faced down the local sheriff when he tried to register to vote in 1964. His house was shot at by people who didn’t want him to vote, and he shot back.

Like most books by Studs, the subject of the book is sneaky. Working was not about what people do, but how people define themselves through their work. In Lost and Found, the American Dream is talked about, but the real subject is what keeps people going.

[Next: How people’s lives were forever changed by “The Good War.”]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 20th, 2012.