Saturday, November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel - 1912-2008

Last night, one of the most legendary figures in the history of Chicago passed away. Studs Terkel has been a prominent figure on the city scene since the early 1950's, has beaten the odds to live longer than the vast majority of the human race, has won the Pulitzer, has endeared himself to several generations of the inhabitants of one of the greatest cities in America, and has died on Halloween. One only hopes that his ghost will haunt the city streets and remind people at bus stops about how hard times really were in the 1920's compared to now. One only hopes that his passing is to signal the passing of the torch from one legendary Chicagoan to the next, just a few days before history will, or will not be made. And one only hopes that the new torch bearer will consider Terkel's oeuvre and take direction from the author's benefit from government-sponsored program like Roosevelt's WPA.

Touch and Go is the only Terkel volume I have read. I read it rather recently, after I had started reviewing every book I read for Flying Houses. I read it after Crossing California, feeling it was appropriate to follow up a decidedly "Chicago" novel with arguably the most "Chicago" author. Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren and Richard Wright may more closely approximate that distinction, but they had their ties to Terkel that they too would acknowledge were they still around. Touch and Go is a memoir published in 2007, written when Terkel was 94 years old, after he had undergone a rather complicated heart surgery, for which he may have held the record as the oldest patient ever to successfully undergo it.

Today the Chicago Tribune listed the five most essential Terkel volumes--among them Division Street, Working, and Hard Times. But Touch and Go not among them--nor P.S. his newest volume, being released this month or the next. This man had to have led one of the most productive lifetimes in modern American history. Granted, his writing mostly came out of his interviews done on the radio, but just the idea of writing a memoir at 94 is incredible, particularly with a memory as startlingly strong as Terkel's. I saw footage of him giving interviews on PBS last night after they announced his death and he reminded me quite a bit of my grandmother, who was born around the same time as Terkel and who also was a lifelong Chicagoan. They had a similar way of not being able to stop talking, of never being able to communicate enough information about the past, despite their advanced age. It was kind of hilarious in a way.

I didn't review Touch and Go, because I honestly didn't know what to say about it. I will say that parts of the book were stronger than others. There were definitely some very interesting chapters and there were a few chapters that felt too disconnected from my present situation to interest me that greatly. I remember watching the Democratic National Convention from a motel room in Cedar City, UT and swearing I saw Studs sitting behind Hillary and Bill Clinton. But I couldn't be sure. Then in the paper today it showed a picture of Bill giving him a medal in 1997. Regardless of whether or not he was still at the convention, he did appear at last summer's Printer's Row Book Fair (which I missed because I was attending the Los Angeles equivalent) and he did speak about the election--one can only presume that he supported Obama. It is a shame that he will not be able to vote (or, maybe he did, early...though it seems unlikely). Regardless, politics played quite a role in his life, and he led a wonderful one, an extremely inspiring one as well. Before I mentioned that I wished I could live Chuck Palahniuk's life. Well, I also wish I could live Terkel's life. I wish I could mean as much to this city as Studs did. But he really, truly, was one in a hundred million.

1 comment:

ryan manning said...

ultimately life-affirming