(In trademark red-checked shirt and red socks, Terkel sips a Quad Club martini during Alumni Weekend 2004)
One of my heroes is Studs Terkel. And this year it is his centenary. Terkel died in 2008 at 96. He's my hero because of the way he interviewed people and did oral history.
In a lovely article in The University of Chicago Magazine (h/t to Peter Lederer), the author says
Terkel became famous once he began to interview the unfamous people whom he described as the “et cetera” of history.His voice was soothing and warm. His tone was sympathetic and interested. He engaged with people in such a way that good conversation was ineluctable. His books, Division Street, and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, told us about America and the ways of everyday life. And, by extension, about our own condition wherever we are.
I used to listen to his radio programme when I was in Chicago doing my PhD at Northwestern. WMFT was a classical music station, the nearest thing I could find to BBC Radio 3 (in pre-internet and iPlayer days). For an hour each morning up would pop Studs Terkel talking to someone...anyone...famous or ordinary...it was always interesting. I remember thinking what a great job, to be able to talk to people all the time.
As much as I enjoy reading books, I love going out on an interview never knowing whether I will hear something so interesting, it makes me go "Wow." That feeling of coming across something new is a tremendous feeling.
Maybe Terkel didn't theorize in the way that social scientists are "meant" to do, but in fact he did so. Terkel drew out the salient details of a person's story in such a way that the story made sense and had a feeling of completeness about it that rambling narratives never achieve. To do that with the "et cetera" of society is a wonderful skill.
I've just published my first foray into oral history with Peter Lederer on "Becoming a Cosmopolitan Lawyer", which can be downloaded from SSRN or the Fordham Law Review, along with other papers. We are planning much more.
Oral history is a great way to learn about the world and I encourage legal and socio-legal researchers to use it. There's a long list of resources here.
But the final word must go to Studs Terkel
People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immortality too. It goes from one generation to another.