RIP Studs Terkel: The Nation Whisperer
Studs Terkel's first bestseller didn't come until 1966, when he was 54 years old. Yet, despite getting such a late start as a bestselling nonfiction author, Terkel lived long enough to write several more bestsellers and enjoy a long successful career in American letters. Studs Terkel died yesterday at his home in Chicago at the age of 96.
Terkel, actually a native of New York City, adopted Sandburg's "city of the big shoulders" when he was ten years old. His mother was politically active and the Terkel family's activities brought him in contact with blue collar workers, the unemployed, felons and the rest of the underbelly of American society that, then as now, had no voice and no visibility.
His Chicago tough guy persona belied a heart of gold that always had close to it the plight of the common working stiff. In spite of interviewing celebrities and giants in the humanities on his radio show for 45 years, Terkel was always keenly interested in those who held down necessary but unheralded jobs. In Working (1974), Terkel changed the way we thought about working Americans in his non-intrusive interviews with a waitress, factory worker, professional athletes, police officer, mechanic.
Terkel, often an eloquent writer who relished reading Roget's Thesaurus, was most eloquent and articulate when chronicling the lives of the people who keep America moving, before the acceleration of job outsourcing under the last several Republican administrations.
Studs Terkel represented an age and a country, perhaps one that died with him yesterday, in which people actually listened to eachother, engaging in dialogue rather than aimed rhetoric.