Friday, October 31, 2008

Farewell, Mr. Terkel

It's a rare journalist who will just sit back and let a source just talk -- share stories, laughs, fears, and tears. Studs Terkel was one of those journalists. And he'd let anyone talk, form company presidents and generals to stone masons and newspaper delivery boys. He didn't care a whit about prominence. He not only believed that every person has a story to tell, but that those stories deserved telling.

Terkel, 96, of Chicago, died today, leaving people who enjoyed his unique brand of storytelling -- that brand being stepping back and letting people talk, prompting only when necessary but rarely inserting those prompts into the story -- wishing the news were not so.

I was introduced to Terkel through his most popular work, "The 'Good' War," which focuses on narratives he gathered from participants in nearly every facet imaginable of World War II. Reading Terkel is absolutely like listening to the people he talked to -- he never inserted himself between the storyteller and the reader, no matter how tempting it might have been. For a group of rather callow college kids, most of us reading about the war for the first time, Terkel's approach helped mold the story tellers into real people, rather than caricatures or figments we might learn about through a Hollywood movie.

Here's a wonderful quote from Terkel on how he did his storytelling:

"Who are the best historians? Who are the storytellers? Who lived through the Great Depression of the '30s, World War II that changed the whole psyche and map of the world, a Cold War, Joe McCarthy, Vietnam, the '60s, that's so often put down today and I think was an exhilarating and hopeful period, and, of course, the computer and technology. Who are the best ones to tell the story? Those who've borne witness to it. And they're our storytellers."

I've read a lot about World War II, mostly from historian or military historian standpoints. HEaring stories told by the people who lived them -- through Terkel's work -- really opened my eyes to the fact that events both great and small occurred during the war years. We cheat ourselves in history if we read only the thinnest crust of the complexity that lies underneath. Thanks to Terkel -- and to a father who witnessed the war in Holland as a civilian firsthand -- I've developed a great love and interest in reading about the war. Not because I want to read about the suffering or learn about the good guys or the bad guys, but because these events became real to me. Terkel can take the credit for helping that door open in my life.

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