Thank you, Studs Terkel!


Studs Terkel was the pioneering and now immortal celebrant of recorded sound, of inspired vernacular gab, of “that fabulous instrument,” as he called it, “Vox Humana.”

Yes, he was a great listener, as the obits said. But how that man loved to talk! In anecdotes, sermons and rants…

Our last encounter was three autumns ago, on a program marking the 150th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Studs, at 93, was the second-oldest guy on the show; Stanley Kunitz was 100. We knew we were hearing the great poets of America, Studs among them:

We can learn from Whitman today that every human being is important… That the Iraqi War is obscene. Not just bad for America, it’s obscene. It would be obscene to Walt Whitman. What is the most nasty word you can think of? Obscene! It’s mindless, arrogant, the opposite of Whitman, who embraced the world.

He celebrates the non-celebrated… our appreciation of life itself… now, here, this place, this moment. You can talk of the hereafter all you want. But this moment, now, what you do, how you act, whom you hurt, or help, or don’t hurt, or don’t help. Of myself I sing. He embraces the world, you see? Of course I’d use profanity, where he’s a poet. He’s always pertinent and relevant, probably today moreso than ever. He’s embracing the world instead of ‘Bring ’em on!’ We speak of the neo-cons and neo-libs… They’re Neo-Neandertals at work. They are, you know… Our children’s children’s children will be like our fathers’ fathers’ fathers: they’ll be in caves. No more civilization as we know it. We are the most feared nation in the world. Whitman saw us as the most beloved nation in the world. If the worst comes to the worst, we can bomb the shit out of the world and destroy it, but we can be destroyed in the process, too — all of us, and our quote-unquote ‘enemies,’ who are everywhere. ‘Enemies’ are people who are not us, and it’s precisely the opposite of Whitman. Those others are us, is what Whitman is saying.

Imagine, then, a nightmare that is anti-Whitman, if the world blows up. Our children’s children’s children will come out of caves… with club in hand. And they’ll see this darkness, and they’ll be scared… From that tribal memory will emerge certain words: Sh.. Sh.. Shakespeare! Wha’ dat? O… O… Ode to a Grecian Urn. Wha? Leaves of Grass… Where? Who?

Whitman is the opposite of all that. He’s saying: it’s grand — the grandness of everyday life, of breathing, living, doing, the grandness of the ordinary things, and of work, and of pride in it, all that is there. So I especially am enamored of Whitman.

Studs Terkel on Open Soruce, celebrating “Walt Whitman, a Talk-Show Guy,” September 1, 2005

There’s a treasury of brilliant Studs Terkel on the Transom site. Don’t miss it.

Related Content

  • nother

    “I think it’s realistic to have hope. One can be a perverse idealist and say the easiest thing: ‘I despair. The world’s no good.’ That’s a perverse idealist. It’s practical to hope, because the hope is for us to survive as a human species. That’s very realistic.”

    -Studs Terkel

    Election Day, November, 1884

    If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and


    ‘Twould not be you, Niagara–nor you, ye limitless prairies–nor

    your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,

    Nor you, Yosemite–nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic

    geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,

    Nor Oregon’s white cones–nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes–nor

    Mississippi’s stream:

    –This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name–the still

    small voice vibrating–America’s choosing day,

    (The heart of it not in the chosen–the act itself the main, the

    quadriennial choosing,)

    The stretch of North and South arous’d–sea-board and inland–

    Texas to Maine–the Prairie States–Vermont, Virginia, California,

    The final ballot-shower from East to West–the paradox and conflict,

    The countless snow-flakes falling–(a swordless conflict,

    Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the

    peaceful choice of all,

    Or good or ill humanity–welcoming the darker odds, the dross:

    –Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify–while the heart

    pants, life glows:

    These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,

    Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

    -Walt Whitman

  • potter

    Thank you for this! I am catching up on the obituaries and tributes to Studs Terkel. If only he would have lived a little longer to reflect on this election result.

    He was a wonderful storyteller of real life stories, and so too a teacher. The audio here is essential- to hear his words from him.

    Today in the NYtimes Adam Cohen wrote a piece about Terkel’s book “Hard Times”:

    A Vivid Window on the Depression


    After the great crash of 1929, the Wells-Grand Hotel in Chicago began losing guests. The ones who remained had more time for idle pastimes. “The decks of cards were wearing out more quickly” and “the black and red squares of the checkerboard were becoming indistinguishable.”

    Those are the recollections of Studs Terkel, from his classic oral history of the Great Depression, “Hard Times.” I found myself re-reading the book this week because of the confluence of two unhappy events: the economic downturn and the death of Mr. Terkel on Oct. 31. He was 96.

    I knew Mr. Terkel a bit — enough to appreciate his gentle nature, his deep interest in people of all sorts and his drive to reform the world. As I turned the pages of “Hard Times,” I was struck by the remarkable fit between historian and subject.

    In Mr. Terkel’s wide-ranging interviews, the horrors of the Depression come through vividly. A manual laborer on the San Francisco waterfront recalled that when a sugar refinery offered four jobs to a crowd massed at the gates, “a thousand men would fight like a pack of Alaskan dogs” over them.

    Dorothy Day, the Catholic social activist, told Mr. Terkel that in 1933 and 1934, “there were so many evictions on the East Side, you couldn’t walk down the streets without seeing furniture on the sidewalk.” An African-American hobo, Louis Banks, said that when he rode on top of boxcars, there was a railroad policeman who wouldn’t ask him to get off the train; he would just shoot.