Hope Dies Last: Keeping Faith in Difficult Times, by Studs Terkel

reviewed by
D
esmond MacNamara


 

H

ope Dies Last is the latest of Studs Terkel’s books on modern social history, following such gems as Hard Times, The ‘Good War,’ and, most recently, Will The Circle Be Unbroken? All these oral histories have been honed rigorously into compulsive readability from extensive interviews with a wide gamut of people, formerly folks who often appeared on his Chicago radio program and, after retirement, from free-ranging interviews, resulting here in a brave and honorable exposure of the dark side of social life. In his “memory books,” as he dubs them, Terkel offers a vivid ‘sample’ of citizens, from a rebel priest who discover that viciously exploited Mayan Indians need social ameliorative mechanisms more urgently than spiritual uplift: to maverick economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who detests the Bush regime, to hardy folk singer Pete Seeger and dozens more, known and unknown, who have strived to improve the human lot in a rapacious world.

There has always been a moral, political or even religious leaning in social comment. John Ball preached in the Peasant’s Revolt in the 14th century: “When Adam delved and Eve sported, Who was then the gentleman?” His thanks was a cruel death at the hands of treacherous English lords. More reflectively, in 1751, poet Thomas Gray wrote of

Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his fields withstood

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood

(“Elegy in a Country Churchyard”)

Gray did the grand tour of Classical Europe with the imperious and supercilious figure of Sir Robert Walpole as his companion, so he may be forgiven for a somewhat patronizing and elevated perspective, but like many other intelligent people throughout the long ages, he knew the score. Studs Terkel’s methods in his classic radio interviews was to ask questions, and to expand the answers into material for further questionings. In each unique case, out of this patient method emerges, without pressure and with whatever tact is needed, a capsulated autobiography of protest and of opposition to iniquity. I was aware of this beguiling technique when he interviewed me in 1986, and in his hands it worked excellently.

When I first encountered Terkel I was very fresh to North America, from largely 18th century Dublin, via commercial London, a limitless Victorian sprawl of connected villages. Studs’ WFMT radio studio was located on the top of a high steel and concrete building serviced by a lengthy lift ascent to a reception desk where Studs shortly appeared, sprightly, elderly, and agreeably.  Seated with my wife and a Chicago friend Studs, knowing less of me than I of him, started to probe into the cavity of my being. Knowing, at least my Irish and somewhat radical origins in the theater and art, he startled me by introducing, by a signal to a recording engineer, the loud melodious bawlings of my old and very dead friend Brendan Behan, the writer and playwright.  Up in the cloudless August sky above Lake Michigan, that vast sea where the water is astonishingly saltless, I suddenly got the feeling that the Americans had discovered reincarnation. This eerily apt surprise was followed by a tape of the Wildean utterances of Michael MacLiammor,  actor and impresario of Dublin’s Gate Theater where I had toiled in younger days. MacLiammor commented sonorously and appositely on the essence of Irish art. Out of this and similar devices Studs was able to taste my personality and draw out a few signal experiences – and we went on from there. Afterwards, as he presented me with a couple of volumes of his earlier works, he looked at me wryly and said, “I know what you are. You are a survivor” Indeed.  And so inscribed the books.

In his pellucid preface to this collection Terkel quotes Thomas Paine as an apostle of democratic truth. Paine was a fearless and perceptive man whether alighting in England, France or America. In 1791 he wrote: “Freedom has been hunted around the globe. Reason was considered as a rebellion: and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that it asks and all it wants is the liberty of appearing.”  More than any man in word or print Terkel has coaxed riveting truths out of many otherwise neglected witnesses to the dark side of the human condition, witnesses who also achieved varying degrees of victory in their endeavors.

The people interviewed in these autobiographical expositions are drawn mostly from the more critical and combative ranks of contemporary society.  Galbraith, the nonagenarian ex-ambassador and economist, harks his memories from the sinking of the Titanic.  The Ship of state still ignores warning signals; “Private affluence and public squalor” is making a dismal comeback (if it ever went away). “But today it’s not so easy as with the Herculean task of the New Deal. Today capitalism has passed out of the hands of the capitalists and is the plaything of managers and self-appointed boards. Enron is only one such example,” he laments. With the pessimism of old age and hard experience, he can think of no quick or painless cure.

Admiral Gene Laroque was born in 1918 in a small town, worked his way through university in the depression years and, rather to his surprise, soon enough found himself in command of seven fighting ships in the second world war. He critically muses about many past wars: Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam: and smaller conflicts like Grenada, Panama and Iraq, Being a military man he argues – sincerely but not entirely convincingly - that Army or Naval people are less belligerent than civilians like John F. Kennedy, or for that matter, Bush junior. Eisenhower, who knew something about them, avoided wars.

Other contributors to Terkel’s social history are a bit more earthbound. A philosophical and canny Mel Leventhal describes some petty squabbles between blacks and whites during the civil rights struggle. Tim Black, aged 86, describes his tribulations in the classroom as a black teacher in underprivileged areas in Chicago.  Some of the more striking Village hampdens are women. Deborah Bayley provides a fascinating account of her dauntless dedication to education and of her protests when the neighborhood in which she ran her school were “developed.  That is to say, the Latinos, blacks and poor whites that originally filled the neighborhood were squeezed out and condominiums built for wealthier people. She insolently hung a card on her home with deliberately crude lettering saying, “Beware. Noisy white trash.” It became quite famous and its temporary replacement with a Christmas holly wreath caused a local outcry and even an anxious inquiry from the local police.

Writer Clancy Sigal, an acquaintance, born in Chicago to a radical socialist single mother very early became deeply involved in left wing politics. In the despicable McCarthy era the FBI even compiled a big file portraying him as the single-handed  ‘center of a Marxist conspiracy to destroy the government.” A most impressive credential, is it not? He spent the next 30 years in Paris and then London before returning to a much changed USA.  He is still involved in anti-war work and gets excited by the opportunity for dissent. Terkel also draws out several trade union organizers of powerless exploited workers, and speaks to victims of slum landlords who tell of their strife and their resilient hopes. Fragments of Terkeldom - of gripping and revealing oral histories - turn up everywhere these days but not so systematically or persuasively as in Studs’ volumes. He is the Gibbon of discontent and righteous anger, and Chicago is fortunate indeed to claim this necessary and agreeable Recording Angel. “Hope Springs Eternal” is a common belief but as Studs points out, ‘Poor people never lose hope, they can’t afford to.”