:: Article

The two Americas

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is part of an ongoing series looking at the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last book looked at was Chicago.]

For all of Barack’s Obama’s aspirations for a united States of America, America is very much divided in two. It’s true now as it was true in the late 1980s, when The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream came out.

Both sides don’t understand the other. They don’t see eye-to-eye on hardly anything. In some quarters, they hate each other as enemies in a war. The Great Divide examines the gap between the two Americas, and those who are caught in the middle.

Studs told Tony Parker that this book was the hardest of his to write, since the subject of the book isn’t as straight-forward as the previous ones. He could see the divide occurring, but many people couldn’t – or wouldn’t say it outlaid.

On one side are family farmers, who are struggling to make ends meet. They compete against giant agribusiness and lose. One expresses frustration at the government that bails out Wall Street, but not the family farm. He then talks to a futures trader who views the have-nots with no empathy – Rockefeller built the country a century ago, he reasons. And Standard Oil is still around despite Rockefeller’s exploitation of workers. By his logic, Standard Oil wasn’t punished, and shouldn’t have been (conveniently omitting that Standard Oil was broken up by the government in a landmark anti-trust suit).

On another side are observers, who lament the decline of their profession. Ron Rapoport, a longtime sports columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times laments how sports have become just another show – how the World Series had to be delayed until The Cosby Show aired, and by that time kids had gone to bed. For kids, he says, sports is their first experience of self outside of their family, and that’s why they’re important despite their silliness.

The book is about many different divisions, but principally it is about economic division. The gulf between rich and poor is not what bothered Studs, but how the rich were able to isolate themselves from the less-rich. How easy it was for the underclass to be hidden, so well hidden that journalists had to dig deep and find it.

What baffled Studs was how ordinary people embraced ideas that worked against them. They voted for Ronald Reagan because, as a truck driver puts it “He seemed as American as apple pie.” He made them feel good about being American. I can only imagine what Studs would have thought of the Tea Party, an organized movement that to some extent embodies this fundamental disconnect.

But Reagan’s economic policies devastated many communities, and due to his popularity and influence, they are continuing today. They were put in place by people like Alan Greenspan and developed by disciples of Ayn Rand, who’s biographer, Barbara Branden is interviewed. Branden sums up Rand’s hero as “the man who lives for his own sake against the collectivist, who places self above others.” And in the new economy, those who weren’t well off were not “victims,” as they were called in the Depression, but “losers.”

Studs calls this book a “book of memory” like Hard Times and “The Good War,” but the purpose of those books was to recreate the time periods through the memories of those who lived them. The Great Divide is more of a cry for the public to gain a historical memory. In the Great Depression, people didn’t know what to do, and they worked together to get out of the rut they were in. They built roads, bridges, buildings and even wrote books of memory.

During the Depression, Studs had worked at the Works Progress Administration, more specifically the Federal Writers Project, which is how he got his start in radio. Around the same time, writers with the WPA, including the African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston, were interviewing former slaves, sharecroppers and their children about their life stories, much like Studs would later do with ordinary people.

The last interviews in the book are with husband and wife Jean and Joe Gump. Jean had been arrested for pouring her own blood on a missile silo in Missouri. She was charged and convicted of property damage and trespassing and was sentenced to four years in jail. Her husband, Joe, was arrested for destruction of government property at another missile silo a year later and was sentenced to 30 months in prison and to pay restitution. Joe told Studs his ordeal over the phone from the Wyandotte County Jail in Kansas City, Kansas. Jean was eventually released from federal prison, but she was arrested again last year for trespassing at a national security complex.

The Great Divide covers a lot of ground that is explored in later books by Studs. And while this book anticipates his next books, his next one would serve as a bookend to his previous ones.

[Next: Studs looks at the great American obsession in Race.]


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, April 3rd, 2012.