The subtitle of Studs Terkel's 1974 book Working is "People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do". With all its homely, rambling American informality, it offers a much better description of what Terkel does than the coldly academic "oral history" that is commonly attached to his work. Terkel is only by accident a historian. What he enjoys is talking to people and getting them to talk, which he did for more than 50 years on a radio show in Chicago and in a dozen books on subjects including race, the great depression, the second world war, old age and the American dream.
In the process, Terkel has become expert at unpicking the lock on people's thoughts. So many professional lives are consecrated in the pursuit of this goal that it is a wonder more attention has not been paid to Terkel's methods. Salesmen would love to know how our shopping patterns are formed and can be diverted. Politicians are randy for information on whether the price of petrol is going to affect how we vote, or if we care enough about questionable party political donations to punish wrong-doers at the next election, or how bombing Baghdad might be received in middle England. American and English society is constantly assessed and polled, surveyed and sized up.
But, strangely, the dedication of pollsters to their task is matched only by the banality of their conclusions. Terkel, on the other hand, seeks only to record and preserve testimonies, and because he does not pervert his cause with an ulterior motive (selling soapflakes or winning elections), he seems far more likely to get at the truth. While pundits tell us that most people do not want the euro, or that 81 per cent of people think the government is doing a bad job of improving the railways, Terkel is laying bare the soul of America by presenting its inhabitants' own accounts of their own lives. He does not attempt to prise open the public mind with asinine questionnaires asking if his interviewees strongly agree, mildly agree, mildly disagree, strongly disagree or feel utterly indifferent (the response one feels like giving) to the set of statements that follows. He asks people questions and prints their replies. Sounds simple, doesn't it?
Too simple for some. Those trained in statistical testing will have very little time for Terkel's grand anthologies of American experience. But the many readers who admire his books confirm that people's memories, although fallible, are a repository of something very precious that is seldom recorded in the newspapers of the day or in the most conscientiously assembled history book. As Terkel wrote in his preface to Hard Times (1970), which recorded the history of the 1930s depression: "Ours, the richest country in the world, may be the poorest in memory. Perhaps the remembrances of survivors of a time past may serve as a reminder to others. Or to themselves." More than a reminder, there is a type of truth in Terkel's books that slips through the fingers of too many academic historians. As Terkel declared of his interviewees for Hard Times : "In their rememberings are their truths. The precise fact or the precise date is of small consequence. This is not a lawyer's brief nor an annotated sociological treatise. It is simply an attempt to get the story of the holocaust known as the Great Depression from an improvised battalion of survivors."
Persuading those survivors to let on requires a man such as Terkel. Ronald Blythe wrote of his experiences writing Akenfield (1969) - a very Terkelian project - that "(the villagers) will courteously rake up a few old customs as make-weight, but they remain intrinsically private folk and their characters cannot be termed open". Terkel is the man to draw them out. He attempts to minimise the intimidating presence of his tape recorder by being singularly incompetent at using it (which has resulted in the loss of a couple of priceless interviews), sometimes even getting his interviewees to show him which button to press. He puts people at their ease. Instead of inadvertently tempting his interlocutors into mendacity as soon as they catch sight of his microphone, Terkel believes he more often releases something hidden even from the interviewee themself. "On one occasion, during the playback, my companion murmured in wonder, 'I never realised I felt that way.' And I was filled with wonder too."
That quality of wonder is crucial. Terkel is continually astonished by the things that normally unsung people come out with when given the opportunity, and now in his 90th year is still rooting out undocumented lives with amazing vigour and engagement. At the beginning of Working (and in many interviews) he quotes Brecht's poem "A Worker Reads History" - "In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished / Where did the masons go?"
- and the poem runs as something of a leitmotif throughout Terkel's books. "[The tape machine] can be used to capture the voice of a celebrity, whose answers are ever ready and flow through all the expected straits," he has written. "I have yet to be astonished by one. It can be used to capture the thoughts of the non-celebrated... and these 'statistics' become persons, each one unique. I am constantly astonished." It is not that Eisenhower was a negliglible figure in the second world war - but his story was not the whole story. Thus in The Good War , Terkel's book about the world war experience, he called on an admiral and a general, but the vast bulk of the book consists of the words of those who were sent to do the fighting.
In his latest book, Will the Circle be Unbroken? , the investigative quarry is death, and it proves to be somewhat elusive. The book has about 60 interviews, fewer than in earlier volumes: both The Good War and Working had twice as many. This is understandable: aged 89, it is less easy to jump in a car and check out whether someone 1,000 miles away has anything interesting to say. But the chief problem lies elsewhere. What made Terkel's previous works so interesting was the unexpected accounts interviewees gave of their own lives and experiences. In this one, Terkel canvasses opinions about something that, by definition, no one he asks has experienced. Many of them have been close to death, or have observed someone near to them dying; but when it comes to describing the act itself and what if anything comes after, we inevitably encounter a web of superstition, speculative ramblings and very frequently the tenets of the Christian church. Although Will the Circle be Unbroken? is shorter than other Terkel books, it is noticeably more repetitive.
The section that best circumvents this problem is "Seeing things", in which a number of near-death experiences are described. Cancer sufferer Randy Buescher tells how one night he felt he was leaving his body and could read all the titles in the bookcase of the unfamiliar room in which his inert form was lying. It sounds like the stuff of daytime television, but the first-hand description is horrifyingly vivid. Another case is of Antoinette Korotko-Hatch, whose heart stopped beating for a few minutes. Sceptics will warm to her account of the great beyond: "[The nurses] didn't want to hear about it. I had the feeling they were uncomfortable about it. There was all this talk about a light and going to the Creator, going to God, this beautiful light and coming back... One woman did say to me, 'Now, what about this light?' And I said, 'I didn't see anything. There was no light.'
I said that if I got completely dead there would be nothing. They began patting me... and walked away."
There are many moments of superb black humour. A Vietnam veteran recounts:
"What did surprise me though, was... one of the body bags moved. It was some guy in there and when they unzipped the body bag he was swearing and swearing and swearing. They thought he was dead but he was alive. Somebody dropped him, and when they dropped him he came to." And Karen Thompson who spent two years in a coma has good advice for anybody liable to suffer the same. "And it's a good thing that I didn't have relatives because they told me later, after I'd been out of the coma, that if you have relatives, they can sign and they would cut off the life support and I would be dead. Most of the time, if you're poor, after a very short time all of your medical insurance is used up."
There are some glorious eccentrics, chief among them Helen Sclair, a "cemetery familiar". "I was born into death. My mother died a few days after my birth... I remember one of my grandfathers laid out in the living room. I tried to crawl into the coffin with him to pat him, to wake him up. 'Grandpa, I want to be read to'... There was no movie theater in the town that I grew up in, so you went to funerals... My goodness, you had to get the paper because it would be terrible if you missed a funeral."
People with Aids and familiars are well represented; murderers and executioners not at all - although America has plenty of both. But no matter who the interviewee, there remains the central problem. Uta Hagen expresses it thus: "I don't think we can realise what it means to die and really not be here anymore. I don't think we know..." The people in Will the Circle be Unbroken? talk about many things - the importance to them of community and religion particularly - but only tangentially about death. Terkel has set himself an impossible task, but if his chief conclusion is that we know little about death, nothing of what follows, and are not very good at talking about it, then that is worth being reminded of. Reservations notwithstanding, Will the Circle be Unbroken? is valuable as another blow in Terkel's campaign to make Americans think about their lives. As he lamented in 1977: "At the moment, a great many of us live in our fifty-first state, Catatonia." But if all you want is to sell soapflakes or win elections, try something else.
Christopher Wood is a freelance journalist.
Will the Circle be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death and Dignity
Author - Studs Terkel
ISBN - 1 86207 511 5
Publisher - Granta
Price - £15.00
Pages - 407