The father of popular oral history turns 95 and finally turns the microphone on himself to craft an emotionally charged (but never sentimental), politically charged (but never formulaic) and energy-charged account of his days.
A Chicago institution, Terkel (Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, 2001, etc.) calls himself a “radical conservative,” adding, “I want to conserve the blue of the skies, the potability of our drinking water, the First Amendment of the Constitution, and whatever sanity we have left.” Getting to that position has required a long apprenticeship, beginning in an immigrant Chicago with a tailor father and a seamstress mother from the Jewish Old World. Chicago was a city of gangsters and speakeasies, of marked divisions between newcomers and natives. It was a city of radical politics and labor activism, a different place from today’s city, which is very much like any other—for, as Terkel laments, “the unique landmarks of American cities have been replaced by Golden Arches, Red Lobsters, Pizza Huts and Marriotts, so you can no longer tell one neon wilderness from another.” That’s not just an old codger’s cry for an irrecoverable golden age, though. As he writes, “I don’t want to romanticize the past, become an old reactionary, an old fart saying, ‘In the good old days. . .’ There were bad old days, too.” Indeed, Terkel harbors little nostalgia, especially for the McCarthyite days in which he, though a popular DJ, was hounded from the airwaves for political reasons. He had his revenge, a tale unfolded in one of the more pleasing of the many pleasing anecdotes in this leisurely paced congeries of stories within stories. Whether recounting the lives of working people, getting inside the heads of political leaders or interrogating history, Terkel is a self-aware and self-effacing presence who happily knows he has been at the center of many things—stories he gladly tells.
History from a highly personal point of view, by one who has helped make it.