National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Introduction of Studs Terkel, Winner of the 1997
DISTINGUISHED CONTRIBUTION TO AMERICAN LETTERS AWARD

delivered by Don Logan

Picture credit: Robin Platzer

Don Logan: Good evening to all of you. I was afraid that when Wendy said there was something wrong with the microphone that she was going to blame it on CNN because Ted Turner is in town, and as you know, since he's in television business, I thought maybe he was throwing a little jab at us here since we're the print side of the business.

It's a great pleasure to be up here tonight and see the faces of so many good friends and colleagues. Seeing you here in record numbers, I must add, proves that what the media has been reporting is true. That all that our industry cares about is the bottom line. Only the bottom line tonight is books. Great books. The thrill of discovering them is what drew us to publishing in the first place. And the challenging of publishing them is what keeps us going. That's why it's so gratifying to be a part of this splendid celebration because The National Book Foundation is all about great books. The great books that have been honored tonight with the National Book Award, and the great books yet to be written.

It was to nurture these books that the Foundation was established nearly nine years ago. Our most visible task has been the stewardship of The National Book Awards which today, I am proud to say, are regarded as our nation's preeminent literary prize. Once more, thanks to the support of so many publishers and booksellers, the National Book Award back list is not only thriving, it has become a unique literary legacy accessible to readers everywhere.

With less fanfare, but equal success, we have been pursuing another mission as well. Nurturing the books that are waiting to be discovered by people like you and me. To that end, our Foundation works with dozens of partners across the country to bring together National Book Award authors with readers of all ages and backgrounds. In inner cities, and rural communities, at settlement houses, at Native American reservations, in elementary schools and libraries. These programs provide opportunities for thousands of ordinary adults and children to do something extraordinary, to participate in the world of books. Invariably they discover what all of us already know, that reading a great book can change your life. Even more important, some of these readers make another thrilling discovery, that they have the power to change our lives as well by writing great books of their own.

Of course, great books can also change the life of a nation, which is one of the reasons we are here tonight, to honor Studs Terkel and his twin legacies to American letters - the invention of the genre known today as Oral History, and perfection of the genre in a series of books that give voice to ordinary people living in an extraordinary time, 20th Century America.

Now Studs Terkel doesn't call himself an oral historian, and he's far too modest to claim a record of unparalleled achievement. So that's why I'm giving this speech tonight, because Studs Terkel's contribution to American letters have changed forever the way we view our history and ourselves. No one has produced oral history that speaks to the human condition with the same insight as Studs Terkel. No one has dared explored with the same empathy the social, racial, economic, and generational issues that so often divide our nation. And no one has challenged us with the same fervor to consider who truly makes history and what their place should be in the life of America. It is to celebrate these achievements that The National Book Foundation honors Studs Terkel tonight. But first, a few words about the man.

Studs, you must know, is not his real name. (laughter) You know, I have to tell you this because he's been around so long that they are kids who think that James T. Farrel, named Studs Lonnigan after him. In fact, he came into the world as Louis, here in New York City some 85 years ago, whose parents were immigrants. His father a tailor and a man of few words. His mother, a fiery entrepreneur who dreamed of something more than dressmaking. When Louis was nine, his mother moved the family to Chicago where she became the proprietor of the Wells Grand Hotel. And he became Studs Terkel.

Of course, becoming Studs Terkel was more than just of moving and assuming a new name. His transformation began in the lobby of his mother's hotel where at the age of nine he discovered, which is probably his greatest gift, the ability to listen. It was there that he first began listening to the conversations of his mother's guests: tool and die makers, coppersmiths, chefs, boomer firemen, and master carpenters. Sometimes drunk, sometimes sober, almost always impassioned. They argued the great issues of the day, politics and poverty, war and work, race and the racing form.

Now any boy would have found these debates entertaining, the boy who was becoming Studs Terkel found them enthralling. In his ears the words resonated with the rhythms of real life, with the truth as they had experienced it. The more he listened, the more he wanted to hear. And the more he heard, the more he wondered why some people are embittered, and others are redeemed by the same difficult circumstances. He wondered why again, thirty years later, when he recorded some interviews in South Africa for WFMT, the radio station in Chicago, which has broadcast his daily programs for the past 45 years.

Andre Schiffrin, who had just published Yon Midrol's Report from a Chinese Village, happen to read these interviews and he was immediately possessed by one of the truly brilliant ideas in the history of post-war publishing. He asked Studs Terkel to write a report about an American village, namely Chicago. That book, Division Street: America, published in 1967, was unlike any work of history or journalism that American readers had ever encountered because unlike other writers, Studs chose to tell his story in the words of working men and women, and in their words alone, no data, no analysis. Just unvarnished conversation about the events and the issues that shaped their lives. What's more, his book made no claim to objectivity. By his likes, in fact, objectivity seemed undesirable because it is so often synonymous with received notions and official truths.

Instead, what Studs aimed to reveal is the unofficial truth about 20th Century America. A truth best expressed, as he has written, by the non-celebrated one on the block who is able to articulate the thoughts of his or her neighbors. As documents of the experiences and perceptions of non-celebrated people, each of the oral histories that's followed Division Street: America is unparalleled.

Where else but in his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, The Good War can we gain so many profound insights into World War II? And where, but in Working, a finalist for the National Book Award, can we find a sharper focus on what we do all day, and how we feel about it.

In fact, ordinary people voice extraordinary observation in all of Studs' books. We hear their painful recollections, and hard times. His classic oral history of the depression. We share their regrets and longings in both American Dreams and The Great Divide, books that chart our nation's changing notion of success. We empathize with our confusion and fear in Race, his landmark report on the American obsession. And we embrace their embattled but unbowed spirit in Coming of Age, his study of the elderly.

That Studs Terkel's books recount the history of this century through the voice of ordinary Americans is a single achievement in itself. That their voices are so vivid is another. A tribute to his uncanny ability to connect with others and to transform their conversations into unforgettable narratives. But what makes Studs Terkel's oral histories so riveting and so deserving of a place of prominence in American letters is not just their power to reveal the unofficial truth about our history, it is their power to reveal the unofficial truth about us all. For as everyone here must know, it is virtually impossible to read a book by Studs Terkel without recognizing within its pages the very essence of ourselves. That is the power of all great literature.

And it is to celebrate that power that The National Book Foundation honors Studs Terkel tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege to introduce Studs Terkel and to bestow upon him tonight on behalf of my fellow board members of The National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which comes with a $10,000 dollar cash award from the Foundation's board of directors. Thank you, Studs.