:: Article

Whether we last the night

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is part of a series on the complete works of Studs Terkel, in honor of his hundredth birthday on May 16th of this year. The last book was And They All Sang.]

By 2007, Studs’ normally robust health had deteriorated. He had open-heart surgery in 2005 at the age of 93, and had gotten less and less mobile. His hearing was mostly gone. His longtime transcriber and assistant Sydney Lewis had moved to Massachusetts to work for Atlantic Public Media.

André Schiffrin sensed Studs would go soon, and asked Lewis to help him write one last book – his memoir. In the end, it became Touch and Go.

Studs’ previous effort to look at his life, Talking to Myself, was really a book of memory, much like Hard Times or The Good War, except instead of a collective memory, it was just his. And Studs always had a conversation going, even if it was with just himself. His memories were oddly connected, and Studs thought fast, and it reads like he tried talking as fast as his thoughts, but he could only talk so fast.

With Touch and Go, Sydney Lewis was largely in the driver’s seat. She records and transcribes what Studs says faithfully, but keeps him focused on certain events and ideas long enough that he can talk about them in-depth and not segue into something else.

Studs, in the prologue, notes the irony of writing a book about himself – having been celebrated for having celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated people. He imagines some of his fore-bearers, and how they approached work similar to his, such as Henry Mayhew, who told the lives of ordinary people in mid-nineteenth century London. Another is Zora Neal Hurston, one of the greats of African-American literature who started as a folklorist and anthropologist. During the depression she interviewed former slaves and sharecroppers about their life-stories for the WPA Writers Project (who Studs also worked for). Like in Talking to Myself, Studs notes his odd relationship with the tape recorder, saying one other person was so enamored with the device as he: Richard Nixon.

Studs goes more in detail in this book about his parents. His father was often bed-ridden, and while they were still living in New York, he had a mistress named Theodosia Goodman, who he calls Natacha Rambova (Rudolph Valentino’s wife) to match with his fantasy of her. Studs, as a seven year old kid delighted in her company, and she delighted in his, tussling his hair and giving him a chocolate soda. His mother was the dominating force in the family. When they ran the Wells Grand, which was inhabited by union men and “self-made” men who argued fiercely about everything, she could tussle with the best of them. She was tough on everyone, everyone that is but Studs. He always felt bad that he was the favorite, and was coddled as much as he was.

Studs also pays tribute to his two older brothers. Meyer, the intellectual, who passed on his love of Shakespeare and reading. These are further cemented by Studs’ teachers in school. Ben, the dreamer, who took Studs to the Dreamland Ballroom and while he chased women, Studs fell in love with jazz.

Studs talks a little more about his time at the University of Chicago. He applied to be a fingerprint specialist at the FBI when he graduated. He was accepted, but was later rejected by J. Edgar Hoover after an interview with an unknown professor who noted how different and unlike everyone else he was. Studs ended up getting a job with the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (FERA).

He also tells more stories about Studs’ Place, The Wax Museum, his first radio show. He has one chapter devoted to Henry Wallace, the progressive Vice-President and Secretary of Agriculture under FDR who ran for President in 1948. Studs worked for his campaign. Wallace was accused of being a communist (and was even endorsed by the Communist Party USA), and many of his campaign staff, including Studs, were thought guilty by association.

Studs closes the book with a chapter on technology. About the tape recorder, but more about the larger power of technology. Technology can improve our lives greatly – advances in medical technology allowed Studs to live many decades after his brothers. But he still worries about how technology can harm us. When Studs passed away, his friend and colleague Bill Moyers replayed a bit from a documentary he had done with Studs where the two of them traveled across America by train, and talked to the folks on the train. When Moyers asked him what he most feared, Studs said “I’m worried about what Einstein was worried about and if he’s scared, I’m scared. He said, ‘We’ve taken such a leap in weaponry and technology and science. Unless we take that same leap as far as understanding one another in this society and in the world, we’re in for a catastrophe.'”

He has much of the same concern in the last chapter echoing Einstein’s concerns about the atomic bomb. In a separate interview, he told Amy Goodman that Albert Einstein is both the hero and the villain of the book. That Einstein was “a man from the future who came to us too soon…Out of Einstein’s mind came all these thoughts that led eventually to some of the advances in medicine, but also led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He contrasts Einstein’s view of humanity – that we must all work together for a better world – with the view of Ayn Rand. Studs had interviewed Rand’s biographer Barbara Branden some years before, and Branden summarized Rand’s hero as “the man who lives for his own sake against the collectivist, who places self above others.”

Studs asks if we have learned from the Great Depression that we’re all in this together. In some ways, that’s the message Studs had wanted people to take away from all of his books – that we’re all in this together, even the uncelebrated people. And the uncelebrated every-day person, be it the union man, the white-collar worker or the woman in the housing project has a voice. And it counts.

The book ends with William Sloan Coffin’s prayer, which Studs, an agnostic, often closed his public speaking events with.

Oh Lord, as we leave this university, let these be young men and young women for whom the complexity of issues only served their zeal to deal with them; young men and young women who alleviated pain by sharing it; and young men and young women who were always willing to risk something big for something good. So that we may have in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, a little more beauty than would have been there, had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not but still can be. Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

[Next: Studs’ final book, P. S.: Further thoughts from a lifetime of listening.]

Robert 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 Chicago.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 14th, 2012.