A last testament about life's lessons from an old-time big-hearted liberal

Review Memoir

November 04, 2007|By Jon Meacham | Jon Meacham,Los Angeles Times

Touch and Go

By Studs Terkel

New Press / 270 pages / $24.95

In the beginning, before blogs, there was Studs Terkel, who, more than anyone else in what Time-Life founder Henry Luce called the American Century, gave the great mass of Americans who were not Henry Luce a way to be heard.

"I have, after a fashion, been celebrated for having celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated among us; for lending voice to the face in the crowd," Terkel, now 95, writes in Touch and Go, his new memoir.

In a dozen books of oral history, including "The Good War" (about World War II), Hard Times (the Great Depression) and Working (the life of people on the job), Terkel has won an enduring place in American letters. Touch and Go is, not surprisingly, conversational and impressionistic. It is his own oral history, engaging, entertaining and evocative of a big-hearted American liberalism we don't hear much about anymore.

Terkel has led an amazing life. He remembers perching on his father's shoulder on the steps of the New York Public Library as the parade marched by on Armistice Day in 1918. He listened on Chicago's WGN to Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan arguing at the Scopes trial. By his own account, he has been "an eclectic disk jockey; a radio soap opera gangster; a sports and political commentator; a jazz critic; a pioneer in TV, Chicago style; an oral historian and a gadfly." He was a lawyer, an actor and a labor organizer too, and he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era.

Terkel's father, Sam, a tailor from Bialystok (now in Poland) who came to America in the first years of the 20th century, idolized the Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Terkel's account of Debs' activism is emblematic of the memoir as a whole. It is personal, political, anecdotal and illuminating: "It was Gene Debs whose glory possessed Sam. Of course, he knew the statement old Gene made on the day of his conviction for treason. Remember that? Oh, Jesus, how could you? Your grandmother had hardly been born. It was in Canton, Ohio, in 1916. Debs was challenging [Woodrow] Wilson's plan to enter World War I. As he was sentenced to Atlanta Penitentiary for ten years, Gene spoke up: `While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.' "

The story is Debs', but in its rendering - "Remember that? Oh, Jesus, how could you?" - Terkel charmingly, even seductively, includes the rest of us; suddenly, we are not reading a memoir so much as talking with a great memoirist. And that can make the difference between the read and the unread autobiography.

To be clear: Terkel's book is not a memoir in the grand manner, but then Terkel is not a journalist or a historian in the grand manner, which is one of the many reasons he has achieved what he has and why his book repays attention. Some sections of the memoir are drawn from his earlier books; those looking for a chronological stroll through his life can look elsewhere - Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times (1977) is a good place to begin. The interesting thing about Touch and Go is that it feels less like a formal undertaking than a kind of benediction - a last, chatty testament about life and its lessons from a man near the end of his days. The title itself is imbued with a sense of mortality, from Dylan Thomas: "And every evening at sun-down / I ask a blessing on the town / For whether we last the night or no / I'm sure it's always touch and go."

Terkel has always had the good sense to get out of the way of his subjects; he is thus a substantial link in a chain of oral historians stretching back into antiquity. From the earliest of tribal tales up through the work of Henry Mayhew, the Victorian who brought the first-person stories of the British working class to the Morning Chronicle, oral history has grown from the most natural and unself-conscious of genres to a formal one; what distinguishes ordinary talk from oral history is whether the ordinary talk happens to be recorded and preserved in some way.

Few have done as much recording and preserving as Terkel. The only person he can think of who is as much in thrall to the tape recorder is Richard Nixon. He and Nixon, Terkel says, "could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians: I tape, therefore I am." He offers a refinement in regard to his own ends: "I tape, therefore they are." Quoting Bertolt Brecht, he asks: "Who built the Seven Gates of Thebes? ... When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army? When the Armada sank, we read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?" To Terkel, the work of oral history is to capture those "other tears."

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