Today in Literary History – May 16, 1912 – Studs Terkel is born

Studs Terkel, the longtime radio host and Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian, was born on May 16, 1912. His parents ran a “men’s hotel,” a rooming house in Chicago during the depression. Terkel later credited his upbringing with making him interested in people’s stories and comfortable with asking questions.

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Terkel earned a law degree from The University of Chicago Law School and was called to the bar, but found himself drawn toward acting and political activism. He appeared in plays on the stage and radio. On the radio he did everything from soap operas to news reports.

He also had an early TV show, Studs’ Place, where he interviewed a range of famous guests, but Terkel’s progressive activities resulted in his being blacklisted during the McCarthy witch hunts. Terkel leant his name and his voice to many left-wing causes involving worker’s rights, women’s rights and civil rights. As Terkel later said, “I never met a petition I didn’t like.”

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Terkel had a passion for oral history and criss-crossed America with his tape recorder (a bulky reel-to-reel in the early days) interviewing ordinary people. Tom Wolfe said that Terkel was “one of those rare thinkers who is actually willing to go out and talk to the incredible people of this country.”

The result was a remarkable series of books starting with Division Street: America (1967), exploring class and race, and including Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974), The Good War (1984), Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith (2001), and others.

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Terkel also had a long running daily radio show in Chicago where he interviewed writers, thinkers and celebrities with the same ease and inquisitiveness as he spoke to coal miners and housewives. Studs Terkel died in 2008 at the age of ninety-six.

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