Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
by Studs Terkel
The New Press
407 pages, $25.95
"Few have matched his track record for tapping the national mood," James Janega wrote of the oral historian Studs Terkel earlier this year in a Chicago Tribune profile. "In 1967, Division Street: America encapsulated the nation's views on race. Working in 1974 related the plight of Depression-era laborers to Baby Boomers just entering the work force. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 'The Good War,' whose 1984 release came just as America began assessing its 'greatest generation.'" And now, in a bit of what Terkel calls "tragic, exquisite irony," his latest book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, is appearing only a few weeks after the terrorist attacks, when Americans have come face to face with mass death in a way they haven't since perhaps World War II.
In the book, a collection of sixty interviews, Terkel's cardiologist comments that "dealing with death is a third-rail issue in the United States." A woman who spends time caring for graves says that "death has become the new pornography. We don't talk about it." Yet it turns out that people do want to talk about death, or at least they do with Terkel. A Hiroshima survivor describes what it was like to walk through the decimated city, looking for her mother; a woman who worked at a food bank for AIDS victims early in the epidemic describes losing her friends one by one; a retired New York policeman tells how he rescued a man about to jump from a four-inch ledge at the top of the World Trade Center; and the mother of Emmett Till describes examining the body of her son, killed and mutilated while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Painful and jarring as many of the accounts are, the overall tone of the book is not dark. Terkel's subjects laughingly share memories of families and friends; they muse on why they believe in an afterlife, or why they don't; they describe near-death experiences that gave them a new appreciation for what they have. And far from being a depressing book to write, Terkel found that working on it helped him to endure the loss of Ida, his wife of sixty years, who died soon after he started the book. "The sixty heroes of this book, in offering me their bone-deep, honest testimonies have been a palliative beyond description," he wrote in the introduction. For forty-three years Terkel had a radio show in Chicago, for which he interviewed many of the artists and authors who passed through the city, from Tennessee Williams to Leonard Bernstein to Mel Brooks. But what he is really known for, and what his ten oral histories are mostly filled with, are his conversations with "ordinary" people. Now eighty-nine years old, he has a trove of thousands of interviews. Excerpts of four of the interviews from Will the Circle Be Unbroken? appeared in this month's issue of The Atlantic Monthly. We spoke over the telephone on September 28.
You wrote in the introduction to Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, "This is the one book I never thought I'd write." What made you change your mind? I never dreamed I'd tackle this one, because every book I've ever done has dealt with the experiences, the actual lived experiences, of the person. Like with the book on the Depression, Hard Times: What was it like to be a kid seeing his father come home at ten o'clock in the morning one day with his tool chest on his shoulder, a very good carpenter who's out on relief for the next ten years until the government gives him a job in the WPA? In "The Good War," the one about World War II, What's it like to be a mamma's boy on a landing craft about to hit Normandy? Or a woman having a job for the first time in her life, ironically because of a war? Or the book Working: What's the day of a school teacher like, or a storekeeper, or the spot-welder at an auto plant? Or in the book Race: What's it like to be black in a white society, or white, for that matter? What does a white think of a black—poor or middle class or whatever they are? Or the book about age, Coming of Age: What's it like to grow old in a society where our life span increases, yet at the age of fifty we're about to be knocked off work for a younger horse to step in? All these are experiences people have had, but what of the one experience none of us has had, but all of us will have? That's a crazy thing to tackle for a guy like me, but the time came for it. Now, it's true that my wife died in 1999, but that was not the reason I did the book. I was working on the book before she died. But her death obviously played a role in my approach.
Did it change the direction of the book at all?
There was an urgency, of course, and, oh, I hate to use the word empathy or whatever it is, but I had a sense of empathy when talking to others.
What was it like for you to interview people about death? Did hearing people's thoughts about death and an afterlife change your own thoughts?
Well, really the book is about life. Even though it's about death. Remember, the subtitle of the book is "Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith," and the key part is "Hunger for a Faith." So often I hear the phrase "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual." Now, that sounds like one of those new-age bromides, but it's not. What the person means is, I do believe in something, but I don't want to be associated with an institution. In the book I have all kinds of thoughts expressed from skeptics and cynics, and there's this feeling when they speak of heaven and hell that, as Gertrude Stein said, "there's no there there." I may feel there's no there there either. Nada. I'm an agnostic, which is of course a cowardly atheist. I want to cover all the bases, you know. At the same time, I respect and I sort of envy those who believe in a hereafter, because it gives them a sort of solace, you see, when someone dear or near or they themselves are thinking of dying. Were you surprised by how willing people turned out to be to talk about death? It seems like it's a subject people usually avoid.
It's amazing—once you get them started, people are crazy to talk about it. It's the liveliest book I've ever done. Every doctor I know—I mean, every doctor I know and have heard of and have interviewed—every one says, you must do this book. You've got to do it, because we never talk about death unless it's when someone we know is near to it. And then it's out of grief or out of guilt. But why not talk about it when we're in the flower of health? It's the most natural thing in the world! Life is finite, isn't it? So, because it's finite it would seem that each day is more precious than ever. And, as Kurt Vonnegut says in the book, death is "the most ordinary thing in the world." By the way, Vonnegut's in it, but few other famous people are. For the books I hardly ever interview anyone who is celebrated. They're mostly the "ordinary" people. The events that happened on September 11 prove to me what I've always felt about the people of this country and, I suspect, of the world. The so-called "anonymous" people are really heroes, and are capable of things they're not thought to be capable of. I was interviewed for 60 Minutes recently, and the interviewer asked me, "Do you feel since the World Trade Center attacks happened, you would have altered your book in any way?" I say, on the contrary, no. To me—it's unfortunate to say—if anything, the book is on the button. If anything, it strengthens the faith I have in the American people. I'm going to add, people anywhere.
Do you think what happened on September 11 is going to change the way we think or talk about death?
Well, I hope it does this: I hope it makes us feel the value of human life anywhere in the world. We have never been attacked this way. Elsewhere in the world, everybody has. We have been the "exceptional people." I hope that when we see that Vietnam shot of that naked little girl, terrified, running along the railroad tracks, I hope we realize the fact that she's our little girl. I hope that when we hear about this Iraqi kid as we bomb Iraq—we don't get Saddam Hussein, this brute; we do get women and kids—I hope we look at the Iraqi kid as our kid. That is what I hope, and that is what Einstein hoped, too—I always love to quote Einstein, because no one dares contradict me. Einstein, my God, he's responsible for the bomb. It's ironic, he's the only one who could convince President Roosevelt to do the stuff at Los Alamos. But Einstein was the great mind of the twentieth century and the great heart of that century. And he said, Everything in the world has changed since the atom was split except one thing: the way we think. We must think anew. And that's what Tom Paine had in mind 210 years ago, in 1791. He wrote a piece about that very thing: there's something new, a new society, this American society—never in the world has there been anything like this. Not only free citizens but thinking citizens. This could be the example for the whole world! We must think anew. We have to realize that we are no longer isolated in the world.
"Atomic War or Peace" (November, 1947)
Albert Einstein, the ranking physicist of our century, now commits himself unequivocally on the crisis which involved the atomic bomb, the United Nations, Russia, and ourselves. By Albert Einstein as told to Raymond Swing.
You talked about this in "The Good War." In the introduction you asked, "Must a society experience horror in order to understand horror? Ours was the only country among the combatants in World War II that was neither invaded nor bombed."
Yes, in that war, every combatant, every major combatant, was invaded or bombed. England suffered the Blitz and the rocket bombs, and thousands were killed. France was occupied; Holland was occupied; Denmark was occupied. The Soviet Union lost more than 20 million civilians. As far as the enemy, the Axis powers, Italy was bombed and invaded; in Germany, many cities were rubble toward the end of the war—Berlin, Hamburg, and, of course, Dresden. And need we speak of Japan, with the fire bombings of Tokyo and, of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? But there was one country that was not—except for those thousands of families who lost their sons, they made the great sacrifice. They grieved inconsolably for scores of thousands of young American kids killed or maimed. But aside from that, the rest of us—let's be honest with ourselves. As John Kenneth Galbraith, who was working for the Office of Price Administration during the New Deal and the war, said in "The Good War," we had a little black market once in a while, not as much as we thought we'd have, a little rationing. Sure, you couldn't get the meat when you wanted to, but that's it. We Americans, except those who lost dear ones, we Americans were not really affected in the same way as other countries. So when we saw this Iraqi kid on the hospital bed, didn't we pass over him? Now I hope we won't pass people over that way, and that we'll recognize them as fellow humans.
What are your own thoughts about death? Well, I've had a pretty good run. I'm eighty-nine. Do I fear death now? No, and I'm being quite honest. No, of course not. But I don't want to go just yet—I'm greedy. The question, Who wants to live till ninety? One of the answers is, everyone who's eighty-nine! Some ask, Why don't I retire? I'm like the hero in The Virginian—remember The Virginian? That Gary Cooper movie years ago. The villain, Trampas, calls Cooper's character a name, an SOB or something, and the hero says, "When you say that, smile." And so when they say, "Studs are you retiring?" I say, "When you say that, smile." I'm working on a couple of books now. I may not finish them—the odds are I won't finish them—but I like the journey as much as the destination.
What are the next books you're working on?
One of them is hard to explain, but I met this farm woman, Jessie de la Cruz, in Fresno, California, a number of years ago. She worked with Cesar Chavez's farm workers union, and she's retired. We were saying in Spanish, when things go crazy or bewildered—and I'll translate badly—"Esperanza muera al ultimo," meaning, roughly, "Hope dies last." That's the title of my next book, Hope Dies Last. I'm asking certain people I knew through the years: "Hope? What happened to hope? Do you have as much as you had when you were young? More? What went wrong? What can be done?" So, I'm kind of working on that. It makes the day go faster. Which leads to a humorous anecdote that appears in the book Working.
Working is about what jobs people do, and this is about a gas-meter reader. This guy—Conrad something—I asked him, "Tell me, What's your day like?" He says, "Well, I'll tell you. It's boring. There's two elements in it: dogs and women." I realized the first is the reality; the second is the fantasy. I asked him, "Now tell me about dogs." He says, "Dogs, I'll tell you something—they're menaces. They come at me and they bite. The Pekingese are the worst. They gnaw at my leg, and I use my flashlight as a weapon, and the woman hollers, 'Hey, why are you hitting my dog?' 'Lady, he's tearing my leg off!' So anyway, I want to get even with that dog. She leads me down the stairs, the lady of the house, to show me where the gas meters are. As she leads me down to the cellar, I follow her. There's the little dog, and I take a whack at that dog—it's like W. C. Fields—to make up for the one I missed at the last house. I say, "Okay, now tell me about women." "Well, you know, nothing has happened, but I'll tell you what, it's a funny thing, in the summertime, in the suburbs..." He's describing now the posh middle-class suburbs. "This young woman is very pretty, and she is lying out in the sunshine in the garden. She's lying out there on a blanket on her stomach; of course, she wants her back to get sunburned. She's in a bikini and the brassiere is loosened because she wants to get all the sunshine on her back. So what I do is I creep up slowly, very very slowly, and I holler, 'Gas man!' She turns around and, well, you know what. I get yelled at an awful lot, but it makes the day go faster." And so when you ask me about the books, am I working on these things? It makes the day go faster.
I'd like to ask you something about your interviewing style. I've read that you like to describe yourself, above all, as an actor. Is that how you see yourself?
Well, my interviewing style is hard to describe. I'm sort of a goofball. The point is, interviewing is conversation. The people I interview realize that I'm just a flawed guy. I'm no guy from Mt. Olympus, coming down from some of the network TV stations. On the contrary, I'm much as they are, and the questions are ordinary ones. People interviewed for the first time in their lives open up if they feel that you are much like they are, and you know, I'm very interested in what they have to say.
There's one interview I'll never forget. It was in my first book about life in the city, in Chicago, called Division Street: America. There is a street in Chicago called Division Street, but I meant that as a metaphor—it was in the sixties, during the civil-rights movement and the peace movement and everything, so I was talking about the country on Division Street. There was this woman I interviewed who lived in a housing project, a mixed, integrated project. The one common denominator was that they were poor. I can't remember if she was white or black, but she was pretty. I know she was pretty and skinny and had bad teeth—well, no dentist, you know—and three little kids dancing around. And she'd never been interviewed before. And we finished, and the kids want to hear Mamma's voice back, and I say, "Now, you be quiet, and I'll play it back for you," and so we play back her voice. She's hearing her voice for the first time played back. Suddenly she puts her hand to her mouth and says, "Oh my God. I never knew I felt that way before." That moment to me was bingo! And to her was bingo! In other words, the interview suddenly made her think about something she hadn't thought about before. That I find very rewarding. Or once in a while I run into someone on the street who knows who I am and he'll say something like, "Hey, listen, since reading Working I'll never again talk that way to a waitress." Because there's a waitress in the book who tells what it's like being a waitress. When you hear something like that, you feel pretty good.
One of the people in Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, Quinn Brisben, said, "You are probably going to be remembered not for what you say, but for what Lovin' Al, the guy who parked the cars, said in Working." How do you think you'll be remembered? Coincidentally, I just saw Quinn Brisben yesterday. He's a Chicago school teacher, a white guy who has been teaching in the black community for years. He was in the civil-rights movement. He was in jail for protesting, he and this black guy, and he says, "We'll never be remembered," and this black guy says, "Yes, we will. We'll be remembered under the name of Martin Luther King." Interesting thought—in other words, even though there is a celebrated figure who will be remembered, as Martin Luther King obviously will be, all these others who helped through the years, those anonymous people, they're remembered metaphorically in him. In fact, this leads to one of my favorite poems, by Bertolt Brecht, in which he asks, Who built the pyramids? It wasn't the pharaohs. They didn't lift a finger. Down through the years, it was anonymous slaves, Brecht says. Who built the Seven Gates of Thebes? You read about kings and all that, but who hauled these lumps of rock? When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army? And then when the Chinese wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? But the part I like most is about the Spanish Armada. I remember in school Ms. O'Brien taught us that in 1588 Sir Francis Drake conquered the Spanish Armada. And I thought, well, he did? What, by himself? So the poem goes, when the armada sank, we read that King Philip of Spain wept. The big question is were there no other tears? And that's the history that interests me—who shed those other tears? Who are those anonymous many, down through the centuries, who have made the wheels go round? What was life like for those ordinary people? That's what I try to do. Whether I succeed or not is up to the readers to judge.
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