Sunday, October 28, 2007

Studs Terkel tells his story

Studs Terkel's Touch and Go.

Looking back over ninety-five years of life with an eye to writing a memoir is a daunting task, even for veteran storyteller Studs Terkel. The bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a dozen books of oral history, among them Hard Times, Race, The Great War, and Hope Dies Last, Terkel summons up memories redolent with sensuous detail and shaped by his irreverent humor, concern with justice, antennae for drama, and unfailing sense of how the small things unlock the large. Here he is, a boy of eight in a New York café, sensing that “something illicit is going on” between his father and Natacha Rambova, Rudolph Valentino’s wife. But he is a “child pragmatist” attuned to his father’s “burdens,” and willing to enjoy his father’s trust and the sweet drink unperturbed. And there it is, Terkel’s madeline, and a clue to his future success in bearing witness to people’s lives with curiosity, understanding, and respect. Writing with a gruff lyricism rooted in the literature he loved by his friend Nelson Algren, whom he describes bluntly as “nutty as a fruitcake,” Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor, Terkel recounts his formative years at the front desk in the working-class Wells-Grand Hotel in Chicago run by his father, his graduation from University of Chicago’s law school, and his serendipitous entrée into radio and early television success. Roguishly funny and candidly self-deprecating, Terkel recounts one atmospheric, keenly detailed, and rousing tale after another of adventures in a life of conversing. His musings on music and theater reveal the secrets of his success in shaping conversations with people from all walks of life, and his recollections of the great movements for workers’ rights and racial equality, as well as his own blacklisting and the FBI’s long surveillance, lead to bracing observations about current predicaments. “Remember,” is Terkel’s refrain, and his dazzling memoir reminds us that in memories personal and collective reside wisdom.

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