Remembering Studs Terkel

Photos by Nancy Crampton

Studs Terkel would have been 99 today but the stories he told of life’s struggles came from a kind of American pre-history, an era that seemed older, even, than the small, rumpled, witty man recounting them.  I used to direct shows at Lincoln Center for the writers group PEN American Center and worked with Studs Terkel on a tribute to John Steinbeck that included a number of other great writers — Arthur Miller, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, William Kennedy, Dorothy Allison — too few of whom are still with us today.  The others talked about what Steinbeck had meant to them as writers but Studs Terkel talked about the ordinary people he knew who lived like the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath,” trying to make something of unforgiving land that wasn’t theirs or wouldn’t be for long.  For Studs Terkel, oral history was the true history of America and when he would talk about a woman named Peggy Carey from the Ozarks or a “stubborn little tenant farmer” in the 1930s named Muley Graves he did it with such firsthand intimacy that it was more like hearing Woody Guthrie sing than it was like reading Steinbeck, who would often give in to sentimentality when empathy would have been more powerful.

Read Studs Terkel’s full presentation at the John Steinbeck tribute on the PEN website.

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