Hope springs eternal

Special to The Times

Ninety-one-year-old oral historian Studs Terkel has lived long enough to understand the effects of hope on social progress. Where there is hope, great things can happen, and changes beyond belief can occur: Witness the civil rights movement or the struggle to survive during the Great Depression. Hope is a spark that gives light during times that seem ominously dark. In its absence, nothing new or positive takes place; we only dig ourselves deeper into the mire of the human condition.

Terkel's "Hope Dies Last" is a compilation of oral histories, spanning generations, that shed their own light on this elusive emotion. Where do we as Americans stand today in relation to our country's history of hope that spawned successful movements for social justice?

Do we still have reason to hope? His narrative urges us to take stock. Our country is blighted by corporate greed (as evidenced by the malfeasance of Enron and WorldCom) and sodden in its own materialism. We're fighting a seemingly endless war against an impoverished nation, yet most of us are disengaged from what's going on there. Look no farther than our own City of Angels for proof of apathy; the recent transit strike threatened the livelihood of nearly half a million bus-dependent commuters, yet most of the rest of us complained only that our drive to and from work had become tougher. What happened to the days of community activism? Where is the hope that we need in order to imagine a better world?

Terkel considers these questions, offering transcribed conversations that range over the 20th century and provide an oblique answer. He interviews people who lived through the Depression and World War I, people whose lives were changed by the Atomic Age and the Cold War, people animated by the idealism of the '60s and activists who are struggling to infuse today's world with hope. His subjects, from octogenarians to teenagers, are of different backgrounds and were formed by different experiences.

Some are names we recognize -- politician Tom Hayden and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, folk singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich -- though most are unknown to the world at large. He profiles union founders, community and labor organizers, teachers working with the urban poor, Guatemalan immigrants trying to make a decent life, a Japanese American who was held in an internment camp after Pearl Harbor, those who care for the homeless and participants in the Harvard living-wage campaign's sit-in strike of 2001. For all the problems we face -- and these oral histories make it clear that we face many -- we won't surmount them, the stories suggest, without the vigor of hope. "It's a double thing, hope and despair. Grimness and sunshine," says Clancy Sigal, a 75-year-old Los Angeles screenwriter. "What we learned in the Depression was stoicism, a kind of curious bravery." Holding fast to that bravery is what allows people to transcend dire circumstances.

One of the most moving stories is that of Leroy Orange, on death row for 19 years for murders he hadn't committed, until he was pardoned by Gov. George Ryan of Illinois. Cathryn Crawford was a law student when she became involved in his case, part of a team of law students and faculty from Northwestern University whose investigations proved that 13 men, convicted of murder and on death row in Illinois, were innocent. In doing so, Crawford and her cohort brought hope to those who had been rendered hopeless. "[I]t makes you feel something good about mankind," says Orange, who lost nearly two decades of his life to a corrupt judicial system.

To Terkel's credit, the stories are not all optimistic. Rather, he provides a complex look at how hope appears (or fails to) amid hardscrabble living. The most disturbing interviews are with members of the armed forces. "Never once do military people think about hope," says retired Adm. Gene LaRoque, whose ruminations are the antithesis of hope. "If I did have any hope, I'd hope we'd improve, but I don't want to waste my emotion hoping Americans are going to improve. We get one war and move along, and the president can easily declare another." War, he says, has become "a spectator sport."

In the very act of telling stories, Terkel's book makes clear, we fan into transforming flames the slightest glow of optimism. Reading about people who work tirelessly for the benefit of others -- people who aren't caught up in the greed and materialism surrounding us, and others who just won't give up -- is reason enough to believe. These oral histories form a compelling portrait not only of what hope can accomplish but of the devastation that occurs when hope goes missing. Taken as a whole, the testimonials are an insistent call to renewed activism. As civil rights activist Mel Leventhal puts it, "I'm not optimistic. But I'm not giving up. Can't afford to."


Hope Dies Last

Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times

Studs Terkel

The New Press: 326 pp., $25.95

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