Three days after Studs Terkel’s death, the New York Times published a column by critic Edward Rothstein titled “An Appraisal: He Gave Voice to Many, Among Them Himself.” The piece is a striking instance of the low art of red-baiting disguised as high-minded criticism. It has been effectively countered as such by, among others, Victor Navasky, Howard Zinn, Roger Ebert and Andre Schiffrin. Yet I have continued to brood about it. I am moved to write about it now not because Terkel needs further defense against such petty sniping but because Rothstein’s essay, so clearly intended to diminish his achievements, has the ironic effect of illuminating them.
It is inevitable that the tsunami of praise and affection—of love—released by news of Terkel’s death would prompt reaction. And it is of course appropriate for a critic to scale back the superlatives and inquire into the precise nature of his achievement. Such scrutiny is especially warranted in this case, because the legend that celebrates Studs also obscures him. He was sharper, edgier and more complicated than the statue that is hardening around him.
Rothstein’s “appraisal,” however, proves, to be a crude exercise in ideological taxonomy. His critical method is to uncover with a flourish that which was never hidden—Terkel was “a man of the left”—and to offer this as the key to the work. Studs was open about his political sympathies—he used to joke that he never met a petition he didn’t sign—and he paid for them during the 1950s when he was blacklisted. The question is what relevance, if any, this has to an assessment of his work.
Rothstein begins by acknowledging the extent of his impact. Absent Terkel’s decades on Chicago radio, he writes, “it is difficult to imagine that National Public Radio would have evolved in the way it did, or that Ken Burns could have made oral history into a cinematic tradition.” Moreover, Terkel has influenced a generation of academics who seek “to tell history from below—not from the perspective of the makers of history but from the perspective of those who have been shaped by it.”
He then erects a straw man, in order to knock it down:
The oral historian does little more than hold up a mirror, just making sure the glass is clean. The practice claims to be self-effacing and world-revealing. How can a collection of interviews be anything else?
Is there a serious reader who believes this, who does not understand that an oral history is a literary construct? (Terkel himself was self-aware and reflective about his process of composition in a revealing 2001 interview with Michael Lenehan.) In any case, this willfully naïve proposition proves a key step in Rothstein’s emerging argument.
"If you look closely at these oral histories, you can never forget who has shaped them,” he writes, then adds ominously, “and to what end.” By way of example, he writes of Working:
This vision of work . . . is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor—the sense of disassociation that comes from the capitalist workplace.
Now of all the things that might be said about how Terkel’s sensibility shapes the selection and orchestration of the voices in that book, this is surely the least interesting. As Curtis Black has remarked, the tradition of alienation from work that Studs drew on had less to do with Marx than with Thoreau and Johnny Paycheck (known for his rendition of the country song “Take This Job and Shove It”).
As Rothstein’s argument advances, it derails. The clinching evidence he offers for his view of Terkel as a doctrinaire Marxist who deployed the voices of others in the service of his leftist views is that he wore red in solidarity with labor and once wrote a blurb for a book by Bill Ayers. We thus leave the esteemed critic at the end of his essay in a posture reminiscent of Joe McCarthy (“I have in my hand a list . . . ”), holding aloft a pair of red socks in one hand and a book jacket in the other.
The net effect of the essay is to erase rather than evoke the sensibility that animates Terkel’s work. His broad human sympathies, robust curiosity, narrative appetite, and eclectic taste—these qualities, in Rothstein’s view, were mere camouflage for rigid obedience to Marxist categories of analysis. The exercise is a classic demonstration of how those who police literature from an ideological perspective (wherever it may lie on the political spectrum) cramp their imaginations and impoverish their experience of the world. It is not Terkel but Rothstein whose vision is narrowed by a fixation on Marxist doctrine.
Stripped of its red-baiting snippiness, Rothstein’s thesis is that Terkel spoke through his subjects, that he coerced their voices to serve his own. There is, of course, a limited sense in which this is true. Terkel was a writer, making countless choices of selection, emphasis, and arrangement that necessarily reflect his sense of life. There are also legitimate questions that can be raised about what is gained and what is lost by his method of rendering encounters as monologues. But that is not Rothstein’s point. Rather, he repeatedly implies that Terkel’s voice was primary, that “he rarely stood aside,” that he displaced the voices of others with his own.
This is a profound misreading of the man and his achievement. Terkel was not retiring. He was a talker. His genre was conversation. In a good conversation, talking and listening, expressing and absorbing are one and the same, all part of the play of intelligence and wit and human sympathy that generates fresh perceptions and calls forth good stories.
Terkel’s conversational style was companionable, associative, and improvisational: it was musical. As much as he enjoyed being lionized as a figure in American letters, he would not, I think, be offended to be remembered, above all, as a disc jockey who spun the voices of his time.
What he has bequeathed us is extraordinary: some 5,000 hours of taped conversations housed at the Chicago History Museum, a generous selection of which are available on line. (A delicious irony: this technological incompetent—he didn’t drive a car, could barely operate his tape recorder, never used a computer—is gloriously preserved on the Internet.) In the end, I expect the books, as important as they are, will be seen as byproducts of this collection of voices—a body of work that constitutes an unparalleled record of what it was like to be alive in the second half of the twentieth century.
At the center of this vast symphony stands the man himself. Contra Rothstein’s portrayal of him as a doctrinaire ventriloquist, Terkel is ever alive to possibility and eager to be surprised. The world is larger and more mysterious, he knows, than his ideas about it. At play in the medium of conversation, his hospitable voice endlessly elicits the voices of others, not in the expectation they will lend support to some thesis, Marxist or otherwise, but in the hope they will delight him by refusing to conform to his expectations and thereby carry him deeper into the world.