A personal anthology of unpublished pieces by the nonagenarian master of oral history.
Following closely on the memoir Touch and Go (2007), this small selection illustrates some of the episodes in that nicely anecdotal book and might best be read with it alongside. At the start, Terkel revisits his early beginnings as an actor of many voices, most of them gangsterish—Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney—and most leading up to a climax along the lines of, “Fuggiva me, Mudder of Ooaawwow!” Readers interested in tracing the origins of Terkel’s interview style, and particularly of his early work on the Great Depression, have the answer here in a radio broadcast that is most timely today. Says one interviewee, sagely, “It’s really—it’s really hard to…to talk about the Depression because what can you say except you were hungry.” The Wizard of Oz and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” lyricist Yip Harburg adds more wise words to Terkel’s discussion of the era, as does his luminous, too-brief reflections on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, a painting that hangs in the Art Institute of his beloved Chicago, a place rapidly disappearing. In that vein, Terkel laments the growing cancer of “The Red Lobster. The Golden Arches. Marriott hotels. You can’t tell one city from another.” This is no old man’s nostalgic grousing—though Terkel would be entitled to that—but instead the populist editorializing of a great progressive whose credentials acquire new depth with his searching interview with the African-American novelist James Baldwin, who seldom had such a sympathetic ear for his remarks on race in America: “To be a Negro in this country is really just…never to be looked at. And what white people see when they look at you is not really you.”
Essential reading—as is all of Terkel’s work—for would-be practitioners of journalism, oral history and “active listening.”