Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel passed away October 31 at age 96. LJ talked to Terkel in 2001, ironically about his book reflecting on death. Here are excerpts from that interview. Louis "Studs" Terkel, at 89, often falls asleep counting down an ever-growing roll of "departed buddies" instead of sheep. But the legendary radio host and writer, who survived quintuple bypass surgery in 1996, considers this more a pleasant than a morbid practice. For each name, he conjures up a humorous anecdote, a funny remark, or even an "imagined amour." It is his way to guarantee that a legion of lost friends "live on" in vibrant memories and continue to enrich his life. This same bold, upbeat approach to the specter of death and the universal desire for immortality can be found in Terkel's new work, Will The Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (reviewed 9/1/01). "Gore Vidal originally suggested a book about death 30 years ago after a radio interview with me, but it didn't register at the time," says Terkel, relaxing in his house in the heart of Chicago. "Then, in 1999, I was looking for another common theme to explore, and I realized death was the one experience none of us had been through, but all of us will. I had the 'ultimate' oral history—a double-edged thing. Death is the ultimate theme for a book and, at my age, it may be my ultimate book." Terkel relies on in-depth conversation with 60 subjects dubbed "heroes," about half the number actually interviewed, to reveal the way people tend to "reflect on death like crazy" for much of their lives. He confirms that, once started, they "can't stop" talking about the fear and grief of losing someone, or the guilt of being a survivor, or the hereafter. "But the key to the book is that all this talk of death makes us realize that the life we live now is what it's all about," says the author, who offers an atypically revealing introduction on how he has "courted death" since his days as an asthmatic child. "The life we live now and the effect we have on someone else can be enough to provide a kind of immortality."

Recording a tapestry

Terkel's new book has some chapters—like "Doctors," "ER," "War," and "God's Shepherds"—where the themes and connections among the subjects are readily apparent. For instance, "The Plague I" and "The Plague II" are powerful chapters that deal with the epidemics of AIDS and breast cancer, respectively. The AIDS-related interviews with, among others, an HIV-positive man, a hospital aide, and a woman running a food bank, all clearly concentrate on the plight of the gay community and how it feels to be surrounded by fear and death. "I hope all people will get an idea not only of the nature of AIDS, but how heroic these gay guys and lesbian women have been as caregivers to others—some of whom they don't even know," says Terkel, who adds that these interviews also testify to "how incredibly little government is doing" about AIDS. By contrast, "The End of the Beginning" is an example of how Terkel sometimes "likes to subtly connect seemingly disconnected things" within a chapter. It starts with a black, retired school teacher from Chicago remembering the mutilated body of her 14-year old son, murdered by two white men during a 1955 visit to Mississippi. She speculates that her son "died for our sins," and the author hopes that readers see the boy's end as "the Crucifixion." Then, a young, black doctor is intended surreptitiously to embody "the Resurrection" when he talks about how his departed grandmother, a nurse's aide, lives on through him because he inherited her love of literature, music, and medicine. Terkel feels his writing has become "more lean" in this book but still recognizes a rather complex overall pattern in the finished product. "The oral-history approach to this book winds up creating a tapestry of the subject," he says, warming to an artistic analogy. "The tapestry here richly shows what the crowd is doing, but it clearly portrays the individuals that make up that crowd as well. Each oral history, each tapestry, should also paint a picture of what we as a group have learned about a certain subject."

Finding a skeptic's faith

Unfortunately, the author has also learned some painful lessons about death and faith while writing this book. His beloved wife of 60 years, Ida, died soon after the project began, which made him more "empathetic" to those interviewed and gave their stories a heightened sense of "immediacy." In return, he believes work on the book acted as a "palliative" in dealing with his guilt and grief. The experience even made the self-described "agnostic" soften his total disbelief in the hereafter. "The phrase 'hunger for a faith' from the subtitle reflects how people would like to believe in some kind of afterlife," says Terkel, who notes that most people see themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious." "For example, I now have the urn of my wife's ashes on the window sill, and I have fresh daisies next to it because she loved yellow daisies. Do I talk to her on occasion? Of course! And I'm the skeptic." Despite the suggestions that this could be the "capstone" to Terkel's series of oral histories and career in general, he is already working on two more books. One, The Listener, deals with appreciating music and is a follow-up to The Spectator. The other, called Hope Dies Last, is a kind of epilog to American Dreams. "I may not finish either one, but I like the attempt," says Terkel, with new life in his voice. "The journey is what it’s all about.”  
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