The Great Louis Terkel
(You know him as Studs)
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
I recently read a memoir by Studs Terkel, who is now 94 years old, I believe. Though I grew up in his city, Chicago, in the 1940s and 1950s, when he already was pretty well known there, I can't remember having known much about him then. That is a reflection of the ignorance of a kid, plus the milieu in which I grew up. But I learned a good deal about him reading his memoir, Touch And Go, and some of what I read was particularly interesting to me.
One has read upon occasion that there is a Chicago style of writing. It is said to consist of an erudite use of language coupled with street talk or obscenity. This coupling, minus true erudition, often marks my own speech and writing. Some relations and friends, who are not used to the Chicago style, do not like it at all. My response is unprintable (unless you're from Chicago).
Terkel's memoir is of this genre. There is high flown language, sophisticated thoughts, and cursewords. Terkel says of James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, that he "was among the first to have captured the argot of Chicago streets, South Side Irish. He caught the language, the idiom, that Chicagoesque quality." Terkel likewise has captured "that Chicagoesque quality."
Some of Terkel's Chicagoesque is excruciatingly funny. I actually got tears in my eyes laughing at one episode. To tell of it, and of how Terkel sets the stage for it, I shall simply quote him, since it is impossible to do justice by mere descriptive paraphrase. I hope I violate no copyright by quoting two pages worth of Terkel - - all that can happen, really, is that readers of this post are more likely to buy his book.
Terkel went through a period when he was regularly watched and investigated by the FBI because he was a man of the left, which in those days meant you would be closely watched by Jedgar Hoover's boys, as a possible dangerous commie. The Eff Bee Eye would come to Terkel's house, call him up, and so on. He sets the stage by describing visits to his house:
I myself was hospitable at all times. I seated them. I offered them choices of Scotch or bourbon. I had triple shots in mind. Invariably, they refused. Once, I suggested vodka, making it quite clear it was domestic. I thought I was quite amusing. At no time did our visitors laugh. Nor did my wife. I felt bad. I did so want to make them feel at home. I never succeeded.
They had questions in mind. They frequently consulted small notebooks. They hardly had the chance to ask any of their questions. It wasn't that I was rude. On the contrary; I simply felt what I had to tell them was far more interesting than what they had to ask me.
I read Thoreau to them; his sermon on John Brown. Passages out of Walden. Paine. I told them these are times that try men's souls. And so on. We hold these truths, I even tried out on them. Nothing doing. Their attention wandered. They were like small restless boys in the classroom, wiggling in their seats. At times, I showed them where the bathroom was and asked if they wanted any reading matter. No, they didn't. I have done some of my most exploratory reading there, I told them. No response.
After several such visits, with a notable lack of response on their part, my patience, I must admit, did wear thin. On one occasion, a visitor took out his notebook and studied it. Our son, five years old at the time, peered over his shoulder. The guest abruptly shut the book. The boy was startled.
"Why did you do that?" I asked.
"He was peeking in my book."
"He's five years old."
"This is government information."
"Is it pornographic?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Isn't it fit for a child to see?
"This is serious."
"Does it have dirty words or dirty pictures."
"Does it? Come on, be a sport, lemme see. I won't show it to the kid."
With the determined step of an FBI man, he stalked toward the door. He had trouble with the lock. I opened it. "One for the road?" I was determinedly hospitable. He walked out without so much as a thank-you. His colleague followed suit, step by step.
Terkel then describes the last time he heard from the FBI, in a phone call from one Martin Shea, who, in a very funny scene, underwent a form of telephonic meltdown during the call due to Terkel's responses:
The last time I heard from the FBI was a good twenty-five years ago. It was a telephone call. I was not in the best of moods. In sorting through my records, preparing for my disc jockey program, I had dropped a 78 rpm. It smashed into a million pieces. It was a collector's item: "Joe Louis Blues." Lyrics by Richard Wright. Vocal by Paul Robeson. Accompaniment, Count Basie and his band. I was furious as I answered the phone.
"Are you Louis Terkel, known as Studs?"
"Yeah!" Damn my clumsiness.
"This is Martin Shea, FBI." It was a rich, stentorian bass. Strong, firmly American.
"Cut the shit. Who is it? Eddie?" I was in no mood for badinage.
"Shea of the FBI." A note of uncertainty. An octave higher than before. A baritone.
"Fer Chrissake, don't fuck around! Jimmy, ya sonofabitch!"
"I'm Shea of the FBI." An intimation of tremolo. A tenor.
"Look, you cocksucker! I'm not in the mood. I just broke a valuable record. Understand?"
"I'm Shea of the FBI!" Another octave up. A mezzo-soprano. I was quite certain it was he. My fury, though, was uncontrollable. All the more so because it was he.
"Look, fucko. Keep this up and I'll kick the shit out of ya!"
Really! I'm so flabby I can't swat a mosquito.
The voice was higher now. It was a countertenor. No, it was a despairing falsetto. A castrato, that was it.
"I'm Shea of the FBI!"
"You prick . . ."
A click. He had hung up. From Feodor Chaliapin to Alfred Deller. It was a remarkable piece of virtuosity, surpassing even Yma Sumac. That was the last I heard from the FBI. Oh well.
This phone scene is, to me, classic Chicagoesque: sixty four dollar words and names like stentorian, badinage, tremolo, countertenor, castrato, Feodor Chaliapin and Yma Sumac mixed with words like sonofabitch, fucko, cocksucker, shit and prick. How wonderfully Chicagoesque. How I do miss hearing on a regular basis that kind of mixed speech, the speech of part of my long ago youth.
A related linguistic point arises from Terkel's book. There were, in the old days, common forms of expression whose use has languished, almost died out, though they are wonderfully descriptive. Very occasionally, with a shock of recognition, one still hears them used, invariably by guys who are nearing their 70s or are even older. One of my favorites has always been a phrase used to describe someone who is thoroughly dishonest: he is said to lie, cheat and steal. Another favorite was used by Terk el. It is a phrase that means something can or will or has happened in a whole variety of different ways or, sometimes, just to mean that something has or will happen a lot: It happens "eight ways from Sunday" is the phrase. Terkel uses it to describe a triple revolution in the United States in the 1960s, one of the three revolutions being "the advancing ability to wipe out the planet eight ways from Sunday." Just so. Mankind does have the ability to wipe out everything and everyone eight ways from Sunday, and we seem to be advancing down at least a couple of those eight avenues. The old phrase Terkel used is wonderful and apt.
There are also the interrelated questions of income, self regard, and collective action in a capitalist society whose 24-7 emphasis on money, fostered by Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan, causes a person of low or no income to be regarded as, and, even worse, to regard himself as, someone of little worth -- causes him to question his own ability and/or his own worth as a person. This is a terrible, terrible thing, but is a phenomenon that widely exists and can destroy a human being. Terkel writes of it.
In the late 1940s and early '50s Terkel had a TV program, "Stud's Place," which was doing well and was broadcast nationally from Chicago. His program was suddenly cancelled because he was a man of the left and had picketed a petroleum company. Here is what he says of the self doubt created by the experience:
During the blacklist, you're not working for a time, you start thinking maybe you ain't got something you thought you had. I knew my work troubles were for political reasons, but the situation seemed somewhat hopeless. There's something that's interesting psychologically, moments when you feel self-doubt: that is, was your talent there to begin with? Maybe you're not that good.
Later in the book he writes of what "My friend Virginia Durr said about the Depression:"
People started to blame themselves. The preacher was saying, "You shouldn't have bought that second radio. You shouldn't have bought that secondhand car." People started thinking, "this is America; if I were good, I'd be behind that mahogany desk. I'm not smart enough, I'm not tough enough, I'm not strong enough, I'm not energetic enough. Therefore, I hold my hat in my hand with my head slightly bowed."
Which feeds the belief that you don't count. (Emphases in original.)
In connection with regarding oneself badly, Terkel speaks of people feeling they don't count and of overcoming the feeling of helplessness by joining with others. "When people feel they don't count," he says, "they are lost. What's left? Get as much as you can for yourself and forget the rest." In short, let personal greed rule and to hell with others. On the other hand, in collective action -- collective action which can make one count -- there can be protection from this descent into purely selfish, w holly narcissistic greed. Terkel quotes Nicholas Von Hoffman on this and then extends the point:
The journalist Nick Von Hoffman worked with Saul Alinsky for a while and said: "Once a person joins a group, a demonstration or a union, they're a different person." That particular fight may have succeeded or failed, but you realize there's someone who thinks as you do, and so you become stronger as a result, no matter what the outcome. You count!
There is extensive wisdom and great current pertinence in all this. We live in a time when millions upon millions of us think we don't count. Only the big money on Wall Street and in big business counts: Only the people who lie, cheat and steal unbelievable sums from scores of millions of small fry count. They, and only they, get what they want. The politicians are only bums who are bought off by these people. One after another we have economic disasters (and educational shortcomings) in which the small fry are raped, while a war wanted by only a few accurses the nation and the whole of its mood. So many millions upon millions of people have lost jobs in the last two or two and a half decades, have found themselves on the street and have lost their pride. Collective action to remedy any or all of this? -- Don't make me laugh. Union membership has gone through the floor. In politics the history is that, to use a phrase made famous by George Wallace, "it don't make a dime's worth of difference" what pol you vote for or maybe even work for. Lots of people hope that Obama might make a difference, but history counsels skepticism, only the more so because so far he mainly talks about "change," not substance. People have now learned we don't count, and that all that really counts is to have the hundreds of millions or billions needed to buy anyone and everyone you need to buy.
Due to the internet, a person knows, regardless of his or her persuasion, that lots of others think the same way he or she does. But, at least for those on the decent liberal side of the equation, it so far has rarely if ever made a difference in actual action, as evidenced by the fact that Pelosi and Reid are nigh on to useless despite the Democratic sweep in 2006.
That the vast preponderance of us don't count these days brings up another question Terkel deals with: whether or not common people have the intelligence to understand things. Since about 1763 or 1776 it has been an essential assumption of this country that they do. Our system is based on this, and depends on it, even though the pols and the mainstream media now act on a wholly different basis and may destroy the country accordingly. Terkel discusses the average bloke's comprehension in a vignette about Buckminster Fuller, a vignette he says is "the one that, to me, represents what my books are all about," a vignette that "was a key one in my life in underscoring a belief. It is a simple one: that people can understand what is necessary for their well-being if it's explained to them. Honestly." (Emphasis in original.) Again I am going to quote Terkel extensively, because I cannot paraphrase the matter as well as he said it:
I mentioned to [Fuller] that later that afternoon there would be a gathering at a local church. No heat. No electricity. All would be cold and dim. The church was holding a gathering of protestors against evictions. Cha-Cha Jimenez, the leader of the Young Lords, who rode with us that day, told us that his family had been kicked out and forced to move six times in one month; that they felt like checkers on a checkerboard. It was then that Bucky suggested the unthinkable: "Let me talk to these people."
I thought to myself: "Oh, my God. What crazy thing have I suggested? If professors have a tough time understanding him, how will it be with working people who've gone no further than fifth grade?" Nonetheless, he insisted.
This moment, this event, was a key one in my life in underscoring a belief. It is a simple one: that people can understand what is necessary for their well-being if it's explained to them. Honestly.
Consider this most incongruous of occasions. The cold church, filled with men, women, and children bundled up in coats and blankets. There on the stage paces this old man with his crew-cut white hair, no hat, an old overcoat with two buttons missing, a tiny lapel mike pinned against the warm wool. Imagine Bucky Fuller's arcane speech and the chilled, downcast assemblage of Puerto Rican working people and their families. My head was spinning at the burlesque aspect of the situation.
What was the reaction? I closed my eyes fearing the worst. I opened my eyes and I saw something wondrous. These people, of such limited academic training, listened intently to Buck take off on the nature of housing. He spoke of gentrification and urban renewal and of the devastation it caused the have-nots and have-somewhats. He spoke of a world in which, thanks to technology, or as he called it, "technology-for life" (rather than against it), there would be enough to go around.
I speak about an utterly new world, a world in which it is assumed there's plenty for all; a world in which you don't have to have a job to prove your right to live. Where the first thing you're going to think of is not "How am I going to earn a living?" but "What needs to be done? What am I interested in? Where might I make a contribution?" What an extraordinary new preoccupation of man! Work will be the most privileged word we have. The right to work will be not with the muscle, but the right to work with your brain, with your mind. You are born with that, but just getting accredited by the other man to be allowed to use that tool, and getting credit enough so he helps you, and cooperates with you, and you make a breakthrough on behalf of your fellow men, is the next thing. That's the work. Work will be the most beautiful thing we can do.
The funny thing is, after he spoke, they asked him all the right questions. They had understood everything he said and exactly what he meant.
Bucky Fuller has been dismissed in some quarters as a hopeless utopian. But others have found out that his ideas are a thinking man's ideas, and that some of his notions are right on the button. This revelatory afternoon proved for me that the intellectual and the Hand (an old-fashioned term for a workingman) can understand one another, provided there are mutual self-esteem and mutual respect. As Tom Paine put it, we must be not just men but thinking men. (Emphases original.)
I have often thought that, when experts and academics claim that something is allegedly too complicated for the average guy to understand no matter how clearly explained, this reflects only that the academic or expert lacks sufficient power of expression and, even worse, does not wish for such power lest the matters he deals in be exposed as simple and he himself consequently be exposed as something of a charlatan instead of the great genius he fancies himself to be. Very little aside from advanced nuclear physics or higher mathematics is truly incomprehensible to the average guy, one thinks. The event which Terkel says was "key . . . in underscoring a belief," which "represents what [his] books are all about," represents truth. It only underscores, one might add, the intellectual vapidness of a presidential campaign, in a time of enormous consequence, in which the candidates decline to discuss substance.
Related to the question of comprehension is the question of knowledge, in this case knowledge of history. Terkel has lived a long life, has read and absorbed a lot, and knows a lot of history. It shows in his memoir. Now and again he mentions names, events or books so obscure to the average reader, even the average semi-knowledgeable reader, that he drops a footnote at the bottom of the page to tell you who the person was or what the event or book was about, as when he tells you who Franz Boas or Giuseppe Mazzini were. You can learn a lot by reading Terkel, the more so because of our lack of knowledge of history, a lack which, I think, has contributed heavily to so many of the fixes we are in -- they are, after all, largely reprises in one way or another of fixes that we were in before.
There are also two interrelated, historical episodes regarding the presidency on which Terkel takes a revisionist tack. These are the dumping of Vice President Henry Wallace at the 1944 Democratic Convention in favor of Harry Truman (a dumping which Terkel says even involved physical thuggery), and Wallace's 1948 run for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, a campaign Terkel was involved in. In what little reading I have done about Wallace, anti-Wallacism has often been evident, and there has been a nagging feeling that perhaps Wallace is being jobbed. That Wallace was jobbed by conservatives in the 1940s, that he and his followers were unfairly tarred as Reds by the reactionaries of the country and even by Truman, is plainly Terkel's view. And it is probable that the doing down of Henry Wallace had a major impact on this country, the more so because Truman became an ardent cold warrior type. It has always been thought that Truman was right to become so, nor has the fact that in Korea he launched what has become the disastrous tradition of Presidential war detracted (as conceivably it should) from the reputation of what many of us think was a great man. And yet, and yet . . . . there is the nagging feeling that, although Stalin was perhaps even worse than Hitler, still it is possible that various American actions may have made the Cold War even worse and more dangerous than it had to be -- just a s today, in a reprise, the actions of Bush and Cheney may have made the world a lot more dangerous than it had to be. The American actions of the late '40s and early '50s would likely have been quite different than under Truman had either of the two alternatives to Truman, Wallace or William O. Douglas, been nominated for Vice President in 1944 and succeeded to the Presidency upon Roosevelt's death (just as American actions likely would have been different in the early 2000s under someone other than Georgedick Bushcheney). Terkel puts the matter eloquently and poignantly at the end of his discussion of Wallace's 1948 run for the presidency, and once again one cannot do better than to quote the literate Chicagoan himself:
Truman had been attacking Wallace as a Communist sympathizer, an agent of Russia. Wallace wanted peace in the world, and there couldn't be peace unless there was peace between the two superpowers. Stalin was a butcher and a bastard. You can't defend that, of course.
But had Wallace won, there might have been no Cold War, might have been no McCarthyism. It would have been a different world, a whole change in temperament - - things like universal health care, labor rights to organize. Perhaps even peace in the world. Perhaps. My hope was factor to my mad prophecy -- the dream of a Wallace presidency.
Terkel's dream, his "mad prophecy," was not to be, of course. Yet, regardless of whether he was right or wrong about what would have happened under a President Henry Wallace, one can only sympathize with Terkel's dream of a better land, and with the bitterness of his dashed hopes. This is only the truer when one considers that, more latterly, the same kind of dashed hopes for a better country have been the consequence of the fact that Georgedick Bushcheney won the elections of 2000 and 2004. History is reprise. In lots of ways.
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