Now, at 83, Terkel gives us Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who Lived It (New Press). In it, he asks many of his past subjects, now in their 80s and 90s, perhaps his toughest question yet: "What has your life been like?"
Q: You still type out your interviews on your old Remington. Have you been on the Internet yet?
A: They had me on it at the American Booksellers Association convention. I didn't know what they were talking about. The trouble with me and the Internet is that it's about facts and figures and information. But without the flesh and blood and the breathing that goes on, who am I talking to? What do they look like? Is it a multitude? Are there 25 people there? Who is that scraggly kid? The old woman there with a cane? That part--the human touch, that's what's missing.
This is one of the aspects of Coming of Age, one of the complaints that many of these older people have. Technology--some of my heroes and heroines let me know--makes them a little unhappy because something personal is missing.
Q: And yet, in a sense, your books and interviews were a precursor to the Internet, providing generally unfiltered information and ideas to and from ordinary people.
A: If we're to have a future in the 21st century, we'll want to be able to say, "Now what was the 20th century like in the United States of America, the most powerful of all countries of that century? What was it like to be an ordinary person?"
Q: But you first need to get them to open up, which you've been able to do pretty well. How?
A: I don't know. It's open, how I come upon things. [He pauses.] So, I'm in a cab, it was raining. I was working on The Great Divide, heading out interviewing. I'm in this cab and this young white driver saw the tape recorder and says, "Did you see Lord Jim?"
He meant the movie. I says, "Well, no, but I read the book and it's about this guy who finds his courage."
"It's about me, you know."
"Yeah, me--a coward who finds a little courage. That's why I joined the John Birch Society." So I say to myself, I got to get this guy. Oh, Jesus, I need him. I say, "Anywhere, anytime, I want to hear your story. Why you joined the John Birch Society and what you think about things."
And then it comes out. He's a guy who's had bad luck, and he's been a loser all his life. He says he joined the John Birch Society and became pretty important. But he says, "Funny thing, I worked as a prison guard for awhile and I got in trouble. I was going around--see I like black people better than I like white people."
It's all mixed; it's not all one stereotype. He says, "Later on they gave me a rough time because I was fraternizing too much with the prisoners." Now this is the same guy! It's so mixed-up--weird, crazy. And I want to catch that crazy maelstrom in which you can't have stereotypes, you can't have a rule of thumb.
Q: What about you? Is there a question you try to avoid answering?
A: Maybe about my self-centeredness. The way I keep going on this thing. [During interviewing for Hard Times] I had to get a caseworker, a social worker. Well, my wife [Ida, of 56 years] was a social worker during the Depression. And I thought, hmm, she'd be good. I'll change her name, and I did.
She happened to be my wife, but she happened to be good or I would never have used her in a million years. She was telling about--and here's the part--this one white guy, an old-time railroad worker. She remembers him as a distinguished-looking guy, gray hair, he's on relief, and she was given orders--she's a young girl--given orders to look into the closets of these people. As she's telling me this, of course she starts to choke up. She says she looks in his closet and it was empty. And she says, "He was so humiliated, and I was too."
You see that's a very marvelous moment! Marvelous. It was a horrible moment--but I call it a marvelous moment for me, to capture what it was like being humiliated. But as she is choking up, I'm saying, "This is great! This is great!" And she's saying, "You bastard!"
Well, I don't care what she says. That's it, that's the way I work.
Q: Have you ever cut something out of an interview to save someone from being embarrassed?
A: Oh, yeah. No interview, no book is worth the hurt to a person that is irreparable. I'm a strong believer in protecting the privacy of a person. For one thing, I don't want gossip or stuff of that sort. What is it that is said by that person that is a revelation to those reading it? What is the commonality? Of course, that person says, that's me!
Q: Through the years, has there been one issue in this country that seems most neglected or ignored?
A: The big one is the gap between the haves and the have-nots--always. You see, the basic issues--we're always up on these issues of abortion and all the others, that are important of course--but the key issue is jobs. You can't get away from it: jobs. Having a buck or two in your pocket and feeling like somebody.
A guy I interviewed for Hard Times says, "What do I remember about the Great Depression? That I was hungry, that's all." Elemental things.
This came up recently when I was asked: "Will shame do it?" Meaning: Will welfare people be shamed into getting respectable work? And I said that shame plays the biggest role there is: The biggest shame is that there is so much abundance around but that so many have so little and so few have so much. That's the shame.
Q: But living in this amazing house on this incredible street, is it still possible to connect with those have-nots?
A: This street is a have street. This is Uptown, which I like. It is a have-street enclave in a sea of have-nots. Beware of that. Here I am, the romantic again, without feeling the pangs of it. I like Uptown for the United Nations aspect of it. Uptown has more people from different societies and cultures than any area in the country probably. However, only about 100 yards away, there are the have-nots. Am I aware of that? Yeah.
I suppose without consciously doing so, I call upon my background, my childhood--The Wells Grand Hotel [his mother's boardinghouse]--meaning the guys who were there, the journeyman locomotive engineers, the carpenters, who lived in that hotel, and I continuously remember them.
Q: Having interviewed for so many years, are you surprised anymore by what people tell you?
A: The people in Coming of Age were far less curmudgeonly than you would think. The greater percentage said that without the young we'd be lost. One woman, a former Southern belle, now 87, a philanthropist, says, "Well, these young, their history's been stolen from them. And what have we done to make them respect us?" Another old woman remarked how "they try to run me down with the roller skates and the bicycles, and yet when I want to cross the street, they never fail to help me."
People in the book recognize the ambivalence of their feelings, that there is something that's been lost. Their lives have been pretty full. But they grieve for the young--what will their lives be like?
Q: What do you think the future holds?
A: I wish I knew. It's so incredible; unless there's a grassroots movement of some sort, with TV and the media in general in the hands of fewer and fewer people--the Murdochians, you know--all we hear is the one point of view. There has to be something communal.
Remember, Coming of Age opens up with George Bernard Shaw being quoted: "I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community as long as I live." No matter what the issues are, it has to be handled at the grassroots. When you take part in something, even though that movement may lose, the juices start flowing and you feel you count. You count. Well, that's pretty important.
Q: The environmentalist David Brower, whom you interview in Coming of Age, wanted us to ask you: "When did you decide that you were never going to retire? Or do you see some end to your work in sight?"
A: I cannot even picture myself retiring. What would I do? I'll always be doing something, asking somebody questions, even if there weren't a book.
I suppose if I have an epitaph it would be: "Curiosity Did Not Kill This Cat." I don't see retiring in the sense that we view it--I don't see how I could. Dying at the microphone or at the typewriter would not be bad.
Dale Eastman is senior editor at Chicago magazine.