Cover Story

Studs Terkel has made a career out of listening to other people's stories. At APA's 110th Annual Convention in Chicago this August, however, he'll be the one doing the talking. Terkel will give the keynote address at the meeting's opening session.

An actor, playwright, jazz columnist, disc jockey, radio host, activist and symbol of Chicago, Terkel is best known as the author of more than a dozen volumes of oral history.

"Oral history is the oldest form of history there is," says Terkel. "The only difference between me and the old-time storytellers around the campfire is that I happen to have a tape recorder."

And Terkel's tape recorder has gotten a real workout over the years. Renowned for his interviewing skills, Terkel has talked to Tennessee Williams, Lily Tomlin, James Baldwin, Jimmy Carter, Buckminster Fuller, Woody Allen and dozens of other big names. But it is ordinary people, he insists, who are the true heroes of all his books.

In fact, says Terkel, his oral history approach has a lot in common with psychotherapy. The goal of both, he explains, is to get people to share their innermost thoughts. As an example, he describes interviewing a young mother in a housing project long ago. She had never heard her own voice; no one had ever asked about her life.

"When I played the tape back to her and she heard her voice for the first time in her life, she said, 'My God! I never knew I felt that way before,'" remembers Terkel. "Hearing her voice revealed something to her. That's the kind of stuff I like."

Death...and life

Terkel's books include "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression" (1970), "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do" (1974), "American Dreams: Lost and Found" (1980) and "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession" (1992). His 1984 book, "The Good War: An Oral History of World War II," won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

The topic of Terkel's latest book, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith" (New Press, 2001), should also interest psychologists.

In this collection of 60-plus interviews, Terkel elicits the thoughts of a wide swath of society that includes a New York City firefighter, a Hiroshima survivor, a death row parolee, an artist, a member of the clergy, a parent who's lost a child and medical professionals of all stripes. Although most of the interviewees are ordinary people, well-known figures such as author Kurt Vonnegut and radio journalist Ira Glass also make appearances in the book.

No matter who they are, the interviewees are remarkably open. They share their hopes and fears about the afterlife, describe losing others to death and even reveal encounters with spirits.

Although death is often described as a taboo topic, Terkel doesn't agree. People, he found, want to talk about death. And many readers--especially those who have lost someone they loved--have told Terkel his book has the power to heal.

"The book isn't really about death," says Terkel, who lost his wife Ida in 1999 after six decades of marriage. "It's about the recognition that life is finite and very valuable. Basically it's a hymn to life."

Hard work

Terkel's own life is a testament to his belief that having work you enjoy is the secret to psychological health.

Born Louis Terkel the year the Titanic went down, he earned his unusual moniker thanks to a long-ago habit of carrying a copy of the novel "Studs Lonigan" stuffed into his back pocket.

Although Terkel earned a law degree from the University of Chicago, he soon decided he wanted to be an actor. He got his start during the Depression, writing plays and acting with the Works Progress Administration. By the early 1950s, he was the host of a Chicago-area television program called "Studs' Place."

With the creation of the Chicago radio station WFMT came a new chapter in Terkel's career. "The Studs Terkel Program" began in 1952; the daily program was on the air for the next 45 years. In 1998, the Chicago Historical Society created a WFMT/Studs Terkel Archive Project based on thousands of hours of program recordings donated by Terkel and the station.

The radio program was also indirectly responsible for launching Terkel's writing career. Although he had published his first book, "Giants of Jazz," in 1957, it wasn't until a publisher read transcripts of his radio programs and invited him to produce a book of interviews that he had his first best-seller. The 1967 "Division Street: America" let Chicagoans from all walks of life tell their stories in their own words.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Terkel has received numerous other honors. He received the Presidential National Humanities Medal in 1999, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1997 and the National Medal of Humanities in 1997. He was nominated for the National Book Award in 1981 and 1975 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1997. There's even a Chicago bridge named after him.

Terkel's not resting on his laurels, however. He's now hard at work on a new book about hope.

"I may not finish the book," admits Terkel, who celebrates his 90th birthday this year. "I know my destination, but I do like the journey."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading

To register, go to the APA Convention Web site.