Studs Terkel Accepts the 1997 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

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.

Terkel at the National Book Awards. All photos: Robin Platzer

Studs Terkel: Thank you very much. Thank you. I’m glad that Don Logan mentioned Andre Schiffrin because he’s the man who turned my life upside down. I was in Chicago 30 years ago minding my own business. I got a phone call from Andre Schiffrin suggesting I change my line of work. That was unusual, since I was 55-years old at the time. And I was engaged mostly as a radio disc jockey, and as a Chicago gangster in soap operas. And Andre suggested early retirement from those endeavors and a new line of work. And so, in the words of Jack Jefferson, in Great White Hope, he says, “Here I be for better or for worse.” And it simply proves that if you hang around long enough, anything is possible.

And so I was thinking, listening to Don Logan, I thought that more than a touch of irony to this pleasant occasion. I am, after a fashion, being honored for celebrating the lives of the non-celebrated. For reputedly lending voice to the face in the crowd. Now this is much of what oral history is all about, it’s been with us long, long before the feather pen and ink. Long before Gutenburg and the printing press. I guess it’s been with us since the first Shaman, for the first communal fire called upon the spirits to offer a tribal tale, to reveal a hidden truth.

No accident that Alex Haley in working on Roots, visited the lands of his forebears, Gambia, to meet the Greeos, the tribal storytellers. It was Henry Mayhue, a contemporary Dickins, who sought out the needle workers and shoemakers, the street criers, the chimney sweeps, all those et ceteras. And one year, 1850, he put forth a million words, their words, in the Morning Chronicle. He gave voice to these groundlings who were so often seen like well behaved children, seldom heard in the respectibles of London, Manchester, and Birmingham. In reading that morning newspaper they were astonished, they had no idea these et ceteras, who had for so long submissively and silently served them, thought such thoughts; and what’s more, felt that way.

E.P Thompson pointed out that, may you reject the tempation to “varnish matters over with sickly sentimentality, angelizing, or canonizing the whole body of workers of this country.” Instead of speaking of them, as possessing the ordinary vices and virtues of human nature. And listen to Mayhue, it’s a public gathering in October, 1850, a gathering of tailors, and he says, “it’s easy enough to be moral after a good dinner beside a snug sea coal fire, with our heart’s well warm with final port.” It’s easy enough for those of us to enjoy these things daily, to pay that poor’s rates and love thy neighbors as themselves. But place the self-same highly respectable people on a raft without sup or pipe on the high seas, and they would toss up who would eat their fellows.

Morality on 5,000 pounds a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing than morality on slop wages. It’s no action on Nelson Algren, who won the very first National Book Award for Fiction in 1950, always expressed his admiration for Henry Mayhue, especially for his classic, London Labor and the London Poor. Now to me this book has been scripture and Mayhue has been my North Star, in a way he has. Nor was he the last one so engaged in this adventure. It was Zora Neil Hurston who has been established already as an anthropologist and folklorest. She was a disciple of Franz Foaz, who during the great depression, was a member of the WPA, Writer’s Project in Florida, at the pay of $27.50 every two weeks, engaged in a similar adventure. She was getting the words of former slaves, children of slaves, and their children’s sharecroppers. She celebrated their lives in their own words.

And there were scores of such writers working on the project back in those days doing similar work under the auspices of Big Government. And here then is another ironic touch, parenthetically. It was the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal, best remembered by the much maligned acronym WPA, and other such alphabet agencies that saved self-esteem, the livelihoods, in many cases, the lives, of the daddies and the granddaddies of those who most condemned Big Government today. In the case of a stunning forgetfulness, sort of a case of suffering from a national Alzheimer’s Disease.
Now what distinguishes the work, the work we do today from that of our pioneers, is the presence of machine, the ubiquitous one, the tape recorder. I know of one other person who is as possessed by the tape recorder as I’ve been these past 30 years. A former president of the United States. (laughter) Though our purposes may have been somewhat different, the two of us have been equally in its thrall. Richard Nixon and I could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians. (laughter) I tape, therefore I am. (laughter) And I hope that one of these two so possessed me maybe further defined by a paraphrase, “I tape, therefore they are.” Now, who are they? Hardly worth a footnote in our histories. Who are they whom the bards have so seldom sung? Who built the seven gates of Thebes? When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gall, was there not even a cook in the army? And here’s the big one, when the Armada sank, you read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?

And that’s what I believe oral history is about. It’s about those who shed those other tears, who on rare occasions of triumph laugh that other laugh. Now consider some of the heroes of our day, whom I’ve had the good fortune to encounter. There’s an arbitrary few I’ve chosen, about four of them, out of a multitude of such heroes. Florence Scala, a Chicago housewife. Now Florence is trying to save her rainbow colored community. The very neighborhood where Jane Adams had lay down, or cast down her bucket many years before, fighting to save the soul of her city. And she lost to the power brokers. And now there are miles of cement where the cars whiz by like crazy, where once there was a place which like Molly Malone was alive, alive-o. Yet Florence Scala in her defeat experienced a revelation of sorts. “That’s when I lost the feeling of idolatry,” she says, “I had for some people. I felt because they were nice people they could never make a mistake. I found out that they are the ones that can hurt you the most. That we prepare at all times for imperfections in everyone. We, people like me, have to feel equal to everyone. I haven’t become cynical, simply realistic.”

E.D. Nixon. Former Pullman Car Porter, President of the NAACP, Montgomery, Alabama chapter. It was who chose Rosa Parks as secretary to do what she did that summer afternoon. It was he, E.D. Nixon, Pullman Car Porter, who chose that young pastor from Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr., to become the head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, thus drum major of the bus boycott of 1954. The rest, as they say, is history.

C.P. Ellis, former Grand Cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan, Durham, North Carolina chapter. A poor white all his life, having a hard time of it. One piece of bad luck after another, barely making it one day to the next. He said, “I worked my butt off, never to seem to break even. I abide by the law, go to church, do right, live for the Lord, everything’ll work out.”It didn’t work out. Kept getting worse and worse. And he’s starting to talk to me quicker and quicker, more emotionally. “I began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I had to hate somebody. Can’t hate America, cause you gotta see it to hate it. You can’t see it. You’ve gotta have something to look at to hate, so I began to blame the Black people. So I joined the Klan. My father said it was a savior to the white race. I’ll never forget that night. They put the white robe on me, and my hood, and I was led down the hall and knelt before an illuminated cross. It was thrilling. Me, this poor little ol’ boy, Claybord Ellis, a nobody, felt like somebody.”

Except that funny things were happening on his way to these forums. “One day I was walkin’ down the street and a certain city council member sees me comin’ and I expect him to shake my hand because the night before on the phone he told me I was great, breakin’ up that demonstration. And then he sees me comin’ and he cross to the other side of the street. Oh, shit, was I being used? Then I see a Black man walkin’ down the street as raggedy as me. Is he the one givin’ me a hard time? That’s when I began to wrestle with myself. It was one daily revelation after another.” And he worked, C.P. Ellis as a janitor at Duke University. And he became a member of the union, very active. The union 80% Black, mostly women. He decides to run for a full time job as business agent of the union. He begins his campaign speech and the Black women shout him down. “Sit down, Clayborn Ellis, we know all about you.” And that’s when he whispers to me, his voice takes on a note of awe, he says, “They elected four to one. Would you believe that,” he said. “They didn’t know me.” And then he says, “Today, I walked in where these women, these Black women, and we sat, we faced these professional union busters, college men, and we hold our own against them. And now I feel like somebody, for real.”

And lastly there’s Jean Gump. Jean Gump, middle class, suburban grandmother, devout Catholic, head of the local PTA, head of the village’s League of Women’s Voters. One day, Good Friday, 1986, she did something respectable people just don’t do. She and three young companions, young enough to be her grandchildren, disciples of Dorothy Day. She says, “We commemorated the Crucifixion of Christ entering a missile site near Holden, Missouri. We banged at it with a hammer, poured our blood over it and sang hymns. We hung a banner on the chain link fence we cut through; swords and a plowshare, an act of healing. We’ll study war no more.”

Terkel delivering his remarks upon receiving the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

She was arrested, refused to recant, refused to pay her fine, and for a couple of years, she was number 03789-045 at a Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. Free at last, she is still at it. She explains it so matter of factly, with a great deal of humor. She said, “What I did on Good Friday in Holden, Missouri is only expressing my Christianity. This is God’s world, okay? We’re stewards on the earth, aren’t we? I think we’re pretty bad stewards. Call it a legacy if you want, I want to offer my grandchild life, that’s all. We all want a crack at it, I think he has a right to have a crack at it too.” And then she says a crazy thing. “You know, many think I’m crazy,” she says. “I have never been so hopeful in my life. If I can change my way of thinking, anybody can.”

Now in none of these cases was there one overwhelming moment of epiphany. There was no Damascan Road they traveled nor was any struck by a blinding light. No, it wasn’t that. It was a accretion of daily revelations and the discovery where the body was hid, moments of daily astonishment. The stories told of Diogalof, you may have heard the stories. They’re gay Diogalof, the Bally impresario who’s never satisfied, always discontented. And poor Nimschinski, he may have been cocktoe. He would say, “What do you want of me, master?” And Diogalof, in a world-weary tone, put his monocle deep under his eye, says, “Umtanunwa, astonish me.”

Well, my moment of ultimate astonishment happened about 25 years ago. It was at a public housing project, a young mother, and I don’t recall if she was white or black, because it was mixed. I remember her as young, as pretty, skinny, bad teeth, I remember that. The first time she’d ever encountered a tape recorder. These little kids are hopping around and about, they want to playback, a replay, ‘wanna hear their mama’s voice in the machine. So I press the button and they howl with delight, but she suddenly puts her hands to her mouth and gasps, “I never knew I felt that way before.” Bingo. Jackpot. Not only was she astonished, but I was overwhelmed and astonished. And such astonishments have been forthcoming from the et ceteras of history ever since the year one. And there’s more, much more where that came from.