Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Two Takes on Studs Terkel (R.I.P.), plus audio...

The death of Studs Terkel, the great documentarian of American life, came when I was reading Class Matters, selections of Karl Marx, and talking with other John Carroll faculty in a Poverty and Solidarity faculty learning group. I have become more and more interested in poetry which actively employs documentary modes as a way to introduce voices that have been left out of the wider conversations that constitute our national conversation; poets such as Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Reznikoff, and Mark Nowak interweave these (unheard) voices into their work in ways that activate what Walt Whitman famously wrote in "Song of Myself":
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas'd and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform'd, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd.

Terkel, whatever his flaws, became such a medium of voices of "them the others are down upon."
Studs Terkel Audio Podcast from This American Life

And two takes on Studs Terkel, one liberal centrist, one radical:

Studs Terkel Gave a Voice to Many, Among Them Himself
Published: November 2, 2008
The voice is unforgettable, as if each phrase scraped the ear with a scoopful of gravel. What remains in the memory too is the earnestness that could turn both fervent and sentimental. And there was the music, jazz and blues that often provided a respite from the trademark persona.

Skip to next paragraph
Studs Terkel, Listener to Americans, Dies at 96 (November 1, 2008)
Times Topics: Studs TerkelBut after hearing that Studs Terkel had died on Friday, I thought about his WFMT radio shows, which I had heard during my years in graduate school in Chicago. He seemed to be without pretense and compassionate but not terribly revealing or comforting. He had some terrific guests, but he rarely stood aside.

Since Mr. Terkel’s death, testimonials have proliferated. “I think he was the most extraordinary social observer this country has produced,” Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry at Harvard, told The Los Angeles Times.

“He was the quintessential American writer,” Representative Dennis J. Kucinich wrote on The Nation’s Web site, “He was our Boswell, our Whitman, our Sandburg.” (Though wasn’t Whitman already our Whitman and Sandburg our Sandburg?)

And without Mr. Terkel’s radio program, which was broadcast daily between 1952 and 1997, and without his books of oral history — including one that won him the Pulitzer Prize — it is difficult to imagine that National Public Radio would have evolved in the way it did, or that Ken Burns could have made oral history into a cinematic tradition. Just dip into some of the imposing volumes of oral history, in which Mr. Terkel took on the social world of the 20th century — “Hard Times,” “The Good War” or “Working” — and you are amazed at the range of people who spoke with him about the Depression, the Second World War or the world of the workplace: the bookmaker and the stockbroker, the carpenter and the washroom attendant, the mayor and the supermarket cashier. Mr. Terkel anticipated the academic movement of recent decades to tell history from below — not from the perspective of the makers of history but from the perspective of those who have been shaped by it. He once said he was interested in the masons who might have built the Chinese Wall, or the cooks in Caesar’s army. That is also one of oral history’s implicit ambitions: using a populist style to tell populist history. The oral historian does little more than hold up a mirror, just making sure the glass is clean. The practice claims to be self-effacing and world-revealing. How can a collection of interviews be anything else?

But if you look closely at these oral histories, you can never forget who has shaped them and to what end. It often seems easy to guess whom Mr. Terkel liked and who is there to make a particular point or provide ironic contrast. When in “Working” — compiled in the early 1970s — we read about a public-school teacher who is unfashionably strict in her classroom, the rhetorical blade cuts the shape of the account. She ends by telling of her most memorable pupil who was “special” and “never any trouble,” later a cashier at a supermarket who “gives no one trouble today either” and “has the same smile for everyone.” Neither the teacher nor her star pupil is meant to be admired.

The most admired are those who, because of personal gifts, transcend the monotony of working life; the most respected are those who come to recognize those horrors most clearly and speak of them. The interviews fit the intellectual framework set up by the “Working” introduction: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body.” That means it includes, in Mr. Terkel’s list, ulcers, accidents, shouting matches, fistfights, nervous breakdowns, daily humiliations and “scars, psychic as well as physical.” There are some, he says, who may enjoy their work, but these cases may “tell us more about the person than about his task.” He seems to cheer the questioning of the “work ethic,” though he himself clearly relished it and relied upon it.

This vision of work, though, is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor — the sense of disassociation that comes from the capitalist workplace. The most transformative accomplishment would be to recognize the causes of that alienation, because that would help usher in a new world; this is what Mr. Terkel seems to cherish in his most admired laborers and what he hopes to accomplish in the book itself.

It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel’s political vision from the contours of his oral history. You grow more cautious as you keep reading. Mr. Terkel seems less to be discovering the point latent in his conversations than he is in shaping the conversations to make a latent point.

This is not something often recognized about these books. Yet when Mr. Terkel’s 1970 oral history of the 1930s Depression, “Hard Times,” was reissued in 1986 in the heart of the Reagan administration, Mr. Terkel’s new introduction worked strenuously to show how the two eras were comparably nightmarish — though the 1980s never had anything like the 25 percent unemployment of the earlier era. Mr. Terkel writes: “In the ’30s, an administration recognized a need and lent a hand. Today an administration recognizes an image and lends a smile.” Similarly, Mr. Terkel’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Good War,” has a title in ironic quotation marks because the emphasis, again and again, is on World War II’s shadows and injustices, with allusions, in the words of one interviewer singled out for attention, to a contemporary “meanness of soul.”

All this is saying, perhaps, is that Mr. Terkel was a man of the political left — something of which he made no secret. The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories. But its perspective actually seems to guide its strategy, so one is no longer sure what is being omitted and how much is being fully seen. No part of history or human experience should be ignored, but all of it needs to be placed in a larger context.

Part of Mr. Terkel’s wide appeal was that he seemed to be a scrappy liberal in his choice of causes and concerns, but look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism. Though Mr. Terkel was not a theorist, nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory; he even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class.

Mr. Terkel also provided a blurb for the memoirs of William Ayers, the Weatherman bomber whose connection with Barack Obama has been a point of controversy. “A deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world,” Mr. Terkel wrote. “Ayers provides a tribute to those better angels of ourselves.”

Mr. Terkel presented himself as an avuncular angel with close contact with the salt of the earth, a populist with a humane vision of the world. There are times such gifts are evident, but there are also times when such dreamers should make us wary.

and a second, a retort by Howard Zinn:

By Howard Zinn

November 6, 2008

Reading Edward Rothstein's sour commentary on Studs Terkel, I was surprised that Rothstein, presumably a sophisticated thinker, seems to believe one can separate one's political views from a historical narrative, even from oral history: "It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel's political vision from the contours of his oral history."

It turns out that Rothstein is not complaining about the intrusion of Studs's "political vision" into his oral histories. I doubt, knowing Studs pretty well, that he would deny that. Indeed, I suspect he would embrace it. Would he be proud of attempting (yes, attempting, because it cannot really be done) to be a neutral conduit of his interviewees' thoughts?

No, what Rothstein resents is the specific character of this intrusion, that is, Studs's political beliefs. On Studs's oral history: "You grow cautious as you keep reading." I'm inclined to think that Rothstein did not "grow" cautious but that he started out being cautious, on the alert for radical ideas, or worse, anything that might suggest Marxism.

Rothstein is disappointed in Studs, because "he seemed to be a scrappy liberal...but look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism." Rothstein is evidently a proud liberal, possibly scrappy. I suspect Terkel, were he still alive, would have approved what Norman Mailer wrote once to Playboy magazine:

I don't care if people call me a radical, a rebel, a red, a revolutionary, an outsider, an outlaw, a Bolshevik, an anarchist, a nihilist, or even a left conservative, but please don't ever call me a liberal.

Rothstein gives examples of Studs's "radicalism." These are positions so reasonable that they would give a good name to "radicalism," just as McCain's worry that Obama is "socialist" because he wants to redistribute wealth divests socialism of its worst connotations and makes it quite attractive. For instance, Rothstein objects to Terkel comparing FDR's reaction to the Depression to Reagan's reaction to economic distress, wherein Terkel says that FDR "recognized a need and lent a hand," while Reagan "lends a smile."

He doesn't like the quote marks around Studs's "The Good War" because "the emphasis, again and again, is on World War II's shadows and injustices." Would any reasonable and "balanced" assessment of that war not emphasize, precisely because that has been missing in the general romanticization of the "good war," the "shadows and injustices"--Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, the segregation in the armed forces?

Rothstein finds that "nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory." Should we be alarmed? I can understand why J. Edgar Hoover would be alarmed--but someone as well-educated as Edward Rothstein? Looking at the state of the world, observing capitalism self-destruct to the point where even the Wall Street Journal questions its viability, it would seem that it may be time to take a second look at "models shaped by Marxist theory."

"The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories." Is Rothstein one of those readers? Does he believe, does anyone believe, who has given some thought to the myth of "objective" history, that one can present history "without perspective"? Indeed, would that be desirable? Do we want from history, even oral history to be "just" a series of statements that suggest no perspective?

Rothstein worries that with Studs's oral histories "one is no longer sure what is being omitted and how much is being fully seen"...Surely, he must understand--unless he possesses a naiveté we would never suspect in a New York Times writer--that one is never sure what is being omitted, and therefore we must always look beyond the words set before us. And no phenomenon is "fully seen," so we try to see as much as we can, and add to the universe of knowledge, as Studs Terkel did so brilliantly, our little piece of truth.


Andrew Patner said...

Edward Rothstein "liberal centrist"???!!

Right-wing, red-baiting, cowardly fraud is more like it.

See Roger Ebert's excellent letter in the Nov. 9 Times responding to Rothstein's nonsense:

The Politics of Studs Terkel

To the Editor:

Re “He Gave Voice to Many, Among Them Himself,” by Edward Rothstein (An Appraisal, Arts pages, Nov. 3):

And who, Mr. Rothstein, is the Studs Terkel of the political right, seeking out the oral histories of those Enron employees who were recorded joking about “Grandma Millie,” a hypothetical victim of the rolling blackouts, and boasting about the millions they made for Enron while deliberately creating the California “energy crisis” of 2000-1?

Who is listening to those whose savings were eroded by Wall Street executives, who paid themselves millions of dollars for the task?

Perhaps we could recruit Mr. Rothstein to listen to the soldiers in Iraq who are fighting a war founded on lies and propaganda.

I applaud Mr. Rothstein’s insight: “No part of history or human experience should be ignored, but all of it needs to be placed in a larger context.” If Studs Terkel was a Marxist, as the article suggests, what is Mr. Rothstein?

Roger Ebert
Chicago, Nov. 3, 2008

The writer is a film critic at The Chicago Sun-Times.

Philip Metres said...

Nice work, Andrew.