Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Good Listener

From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

Studs Terkel, a prolific American writer and broadcaster over several decades, died at the end October at the age of 96. His style and approach is well illustrated by the sub-title of his 1975 book “Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do”. Besides the subject of work, he dealt with leisure, family and education, culture and sub-culture. An article partly based on his writings appeared in the Socialist Standard for August 2003.

Some of Terkel’s nine thousand interviews — especially the broadcast ones — were with celebrities of various kinds. But his books were mainly about the life experiences of everyday men and women. He quoted these graphic words of an assembly-line worker: “I stand in one spot, about two or three feet area all night . . . it don’t stop. It just goes and goes. I bet there’s men who lived and died out there, never seen the end of that line.” Or again: “They give better care to that machine than they will to you . . . If that machine breaks down, there’s somebody out there to fix it right away. If I break down, I’m just pushed over to the other side till another man takes my place. The only thing they have on their mind is to keep that line running.”

Terkel also captured people’s memories of the Depression years and the Second World War. Again and again the themes of solidarity and sharing shine through amidst the destitution and suffering. A woman born in 1911 recalls the ’20s in a mining town in Illinois: “we’d go out picnics, we’d go out fishing, all families. Everything for the picnic. And then when you went to the picnic, there was no money exchanged, no commercial, everything like one big family. They’d cook a pot of mulligan stew and everybody’d share out of that. That was a picnic. Today you go on a picnic, what is it? It’s commercial. You buy your ticket, you buy your popcorn, you buy your beer. If you haven’t got a fistful of money, you haven’t got no picnic.”

As Oliver Sacks once said, “There is no one in the world who can listen like Studs Terkel.” Reading his books provides an unforgettable picture of working-class American life and shows that, contrary to what may sometimes appear, American workers are dissatisfied with their lot and more than prepared to fight for better times.