Editor’s Note: On Nov. 18, Studs Terkel was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He delivered the following remarks:
There is more than a touch of irony to this pleasant occasion. I am, after a fashion, being celebrated for having celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated; for lending voice to the face in the crowd.
This, I imagine, is what much of oral history is about. It has been with us long before the feather pen and ink, and certainly long before Gutenberg and his printing press. It has been with us since the first shaman, at the first communal fire, called upon the spirits to recount a tribal tale, to reveal a hidden truth.
It is no accident that Alex Haley, in writing “Roots,” first visited the land of his forebears, Gambia, to search out the griots, the tribal storytellers.
It was Henry Mayhew, a contemporary of Dickens, who sought out the needleworkers, the shoemakers, the street criers, the chimney sweeps, all those etceteras, and, in one year, 1850, poured forth a million words, their words, in the Morning Chronicle. He lent voice to these groundlings, who were so often seen but, like well-behaved children, seldom heard. The Respectables of London, Manchester and Birmingham, in reading their morning newspaper, were astonished. They had no idea these etceteras, who had for so long submissively and silently served them, thought such thoughts and, what’s more, felt that way.
E.P. Thompson pointed out that Mayhew rejected the temptation to “varnish matters over with sickly sentimentality, angelizing or canonizing the whole body of workers of this country, instead of speaking of them as possessing the ordinary vices and virtues of human nature.”
Listen to this Mayhew at a public gathering of tailors in October 1850: “It is easy enough to be moral after a good dinner beside a snug sea-coal fire, and with our hearts well warmed with a fine old port.
“It is easy enough for those that can enjoy these things daily to pay their poor’s rates, rent their pew and love their neighbors as themselves; but place the self-same ‘highly respectable’ people on a raft without sup or bite on the high seas and they would toss up who would eat their fellows. Morality on 5,000 pounds a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing to morality on slop-wages in Bethnal Green.”
It is no accident that Nelson Algren, winner of the very first National Book Award for Fiction in 1950, precisely 100 years later, often expressed his admiration for Mayhew’s classic “London Labour and the London Poor.” As for me, that book has been Scripture; Mayhew has been my North Star. Nor was Henry Mayhew the last so engaged in this adventure we call oral history.
It was Zora Neale Hurston, already established as a folklorist and anthropologist (she was a disciple of Franz Boas), who, during the Great Depression, as a member of the Works Progress Administration Writers Project in Florida, at the pay of $37.50 every two weeks, engaged in a similar adventure. She tracked down former slaves, children of slaves and their children, sharecroppers. She celebrated their lives, in their own words. There were scores of such writers so occupied throughout the country, under the auspices of Big Guv’mint.
Studs Terkel is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of numerous books, including “Division Street: America,” “Working,” “The Good War” and, most recently, “My American Century.”
(A further touch of irony. It was the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal, best remembered by the much maligned acronym WPA, and other such alphabet agencies, that saved the self-esteem, the livelihoods and, in many instances, the lives of the daddies and granddaddies of those who most condemn Big Guv’mint today. It is a case of stunning forgetfulness, as though we’re suffering from National Alzheimer’s Disease.)
What distinguishes the work in our day from the efforts of these pioneers is the presence of a machine, a ubiquitous one--the tape recorder. I know of one other person as possessed by the tape recorder as I have been these past 30 years--a former president of the United States. Though our purposes may have been somewhat different, the two of us have been equally in its thrall. Richard Nixon and I could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians: I tape, therefore I am. I hope one of these two so possessed may be further defined by a paraphrase: I tape, therefore they are. Who are they, hardly deserving a footnote in history? Who are they, of whom the bards have seldom sung?
Bertold Brecht, in a series of questions, put it this way:
Who built the Seven Gates of Thebes. . . ?
When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch?
When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?
When the Armada sank, we read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?
That’s what I believe oral history is about. It’s about those who shed these other tears. Or who laughed, during those rare moments of triumph.
Consider some of these heroes of our day, whom I’ve had the good fortune to encounter. They are an arbitrary few I’ve chosen out of a multitude of such heroes.
Florence Scala, a Chicago housewife. In trying to save her rainbow-colored community, the very neighborhood where Jane Addams had cast down her bucket so many years ago, she was fighting to save the soul of the city. She lost to the power brokers.
Now there are miles of cement, where cars whiz by like crazy, where once there was a place which, like Molly Malone, was alive, alive, O. Yet Florence Scala, in her defeat, experienced a revelation of sorts.
“That’s when I lost the feeling of idolatry I had for some people. I felt because they were nice people, they could never make a mistake; I found out later, they were the ones that could hurt you the most. You have to be prepared always for imperfections in everyone. We have to feel equal--people, like me--to everyone. I have not become cynical. Simply realistic.”
E.D. Nixon, former Pullman car porter, president of the NAACP, Montgomery, Ala., chapter. It was he who chose Rosa Parks, his secretary, to do what she did one afternoon. It was he who chose a young pastor from Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr., to head the Montgomery Improvement Assn. and drum-major the bus boycott in 1954. The rest, as they say, is history.
C.P. Ellis, former Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, Durham, N.C., chapter. A poor white, all his life having a hard time of it. One piece of bad luck after another, barely making it from one day to the next.
“I worked my butt off and never seemed to break even. They say abide by the law, go to church, do right and live for the Lord and everything will work out. It didn’t work out. It kept gettin’ worse and worse.
“I began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I had to hate somebody. Hatin’ America is hard to do because you can’t see it to hate it. You gotta have somethin’ to look at to hate. I began to blame it on black people.
“So I joined the Klan. My father told me it was the savior of the white race.
“I’ll never forget the night when they put the white robe on me and the hood, and I was led down the hall and knelt before the illuminated cross. It was thrilling. Me, this poor little ol’ boy Claiborne Ellis, a nobody, felt like somebody.”
But funny things were happening to Claiborne P. Ellis on his way to these forums.
“One day, I was walkin’ down the street and a certain city council member saw me comin’. I expected him to shake my hand, because, the night before, he phones me to tell me how great I was in breakin’ up that demonstration. He sees me, he crosses to the other side of the street! Oh, man, was I bein’ used? Then I’d see a black man walkin’ down the street as raggedy as me. Is he the one givin’ me a hard time? That’s when I began to wrestle with myself.”
It was one daily revelation after another. Ellis had worked as a janitor at Duke University; member of the union; 80% black, mostly women. He decided to run for the full-time job of business agent; his opponent, a black man. As he began his campaign speech, the black women shouted him down. “Sit down, Claiborne Ellis. We know who you are.” He takes a long pause in recounting the moment. It’s almost in wonder. “They elected me four to one. They did know me. You feel so good, and these days, when you walk into a plant with those black women and butt heads with professional union busters, college men. And we hold our own against them. Now I feel like somebody for real.”
And, lastly, Jean Gump. Middle-class suburban grandmother; devout Catholic; head of the local PTA; head of the village’s League of Women Voters. One day, Good Friday, 1986, she did something respectable people just don’t do. She and three young companions, disciples of Dorothy Day, the ages of her grandchildren.
“We commemorated the crucifixion of Christ by entering a missile site near Holden, Mo. We banged at it with a hammer, poured our blood over it, and sang hymns. We hung a banner on the chain-link fence, which we cut through: Swords Into Plowshares, An Act of Healing. Isaiah 2, from Scripture. And We’ll Study War No More.”
She was arrested, refused to recant, refused to pay her fine and for a couple of years was 03789-045 at the Correctional Institution for Women, Alderson, W. Va. Free at last, she’s still at it.
She explains it matter-of-factly. “What I did on Good Friday in Holden, Mo., is only expressing my Christianity. This is God’s world, OK? We are stewards of the earth, aren’t we? I think we’ve been pretty bad stewards. Call it a legacy, if you want to. I want to offer my grandchild a life, that’s all. We’ve all had a crack at it, so I think it’s fair that his generation should. You know I’ve never been so hopeful in my life. If I can change my way of thinking, anybody can.”
In none of these cases was there that one overwhelming moment of epiphany. It was no Damascan road traveled; nor was any one of them struck by a blinding light. It was an accretion of daily revelations and the discovery where the body was hid. Moments of daily astonishment.
The story is told of Sergei Diaghilev, the ballet impresario, who was never satisfied. A desperate Nijinsky--or was it Cocteau?--cried out: “What do you want of me?” Diaghilev is reputed to have replied, in a world-weary fashion, “Etonnez-moi.” Astonish me.
My moment of ultimate astonishment happened about 30 years ago. It was at a public housing project. A young mother. I don’t remember whether she was white or black. The place was mixed. She was pretty, skinny, bad teeth. It was the first time she had encountered a tape recorder. Her little kids, about four of them, demanded a replay. They insisted on hearing mama’s voice. I pressed the button. They howled with delight. She put her hands to mouth and gasped. “I never knew I felt that way.” She was astonished, sure, but no more than I was. Such astonishment has been forthcoming from the etceteras of history. Ever since the Year One. And there is more, much more, where that came from.