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.

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