Still Tormenting The Powers That Be


The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It

By Studs Terkel

New Press 468pp $25

At 83, Studs Terkel keeps cranking 'em out. The Chicago radio broadcaster who perfected the form now called "oral history" has published nine books and shows no sign of slowing down--thus epitomizing the main theme in his latest volume. Coming of Age is a collection of interviews with Americans over 70, and while not as gripping as Terkel's best efforts, such as Hard Times, Working, and The "Good War," it is a fine book.

Terkel has always worn his allegiances on his sleeve, a habit that in this book proves both a strength and a weakness. Coming of Age is dedicated "to those old ones who still do battle with dragons," and with few exceptions the speakers are battlers--folks who could be resting on their laurels but instead continue to make life hell for the powers that be. What's more, they're all battlers of a certain stripe, leaning to the political left. We hear John Kenneth Galbraith, but not William F. Buckley; we hear veterans of the civil rights movement, but no aging segregationists. The book offers, as Terkel's subtitle announces, "the story of our century by those who've lived it," but it is very much Terkel's take on that story.

At first, I found that take irritating. The book opens with David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth. At one point he says: "This sounds preachy and that's exactly what it is. I'm a preacher and I make no apologies. You've got to sound off. The older you are, the freer you are, as long as you last." That's a valuable insight. The problem is that Brower and other early speakers often do sound preachy, which turns one off.

But read on, and the book begins to work--the single trumpet note turns into a rich chord. One of Terkel's goals is to recapture America's lost history, to combat what he calls "a national Alzheimer's disease" that obliterates the memory of injustice and the struggles against it. So his best interviews deliver history as it was made on the picket line and the assembly line, in classrooms and newsrooms and courtrooms.

Gertie Fox, 77, remembers working in a restaurant during the Depression: "The thing that most changed my life was something I saw in the basement of that restaurant--a dreadful thing that bothers me to this day. Why didn't I do something about it? There was a man sitting on the wet floor, peeling potatoes. He was a deaf mute. I made out the paychecks but never made out one to him.... I didn't report it to anyone because I was scared of losing my job." Marvin Miller puts the recent baseball fracas into perspective by recounting how and why the players' union was born. Nebraskan Merle Hansen describes a lifetime of activism in defense of family farmers who "know they're only one mistake away from being totally wiped out." And several interviewees rage against companies and other organizations that dump older workers.

Amid all this boat-rocking, there is little room in the book for oldsters who find more time for play or contemplation. The pleasures of perfecting one's golf game, of surf-fishing on an empty beach--these do not interest Terkel. His subjects talk astonishingly little of relationships with children or with spouses. And as in Betty Friedan's 1993 best-seller The Fountain of Age, the dreadful side of growing old--illness, infirmity, looming death--is underplayed.

But Coming of Age does resonate with one other great theme: loss. Throughout the book runs a lamentation, a sense that life in America is getting worse. This might seem a commonplace: Don't old folks always rattle on about the good old days? But Terkel's speakers see the changes so clearly that their vision seems radical in the best sense of the word. What they pine for can be summed up as the human touch. They remind us that as more and more realms of experience fall under the dominion of megacorporations and machines, human contact declines--and that the loss is felt in the bones.

Hank Oettinger, a former linotype operator, says newspaper city desks used to be "wild and romantic" places, full of bustle and shouting; now they're "dead," the reporters staring at silent screens in their cubicles. Painter Jacob Lawrence puzzles over students who make computer art: "Hammer? Chisel? Feel the hairs of a brush? They don't want to be accused by their peers of succumbing to this human thing: touch."

Many speakers also lament the fading of the great progressive causes, especially labor, civil rights, and disarmament. Terkel interviews rabble-rousing lawyer Ernest Goodman, 87, in his Detroit office overlooking Cadillac Square, once the site of huge political rallies before the city withered. Says Goodman: "See the old County Building at the end of the square? It was built in 1898. There is a stool in front of it, so the person standing on it could exercise free speech. Trying to exercise that right, you'd get arrested as easy as not. After all the battles were over, the stool remained as a symbol: the stool on which you could stand and speak to the masses below. But there are no masses anymore. There's nobody.... In 1930, free speech had a hard time. Now, there's plenty of free speech--if you want to address an empty square."

Terkel obviously doesn't believe the square is empty, because he's still up on that stool. But Coming of Age makes you wonder whether there will ever be another generation of white-haired crusaders like these.

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