the wax paper

Studs Terkel, Listener

For thousands of years, millions of people were unable to speak to us. They were historically mute.  Literacy was rare, and even people we would call literate could not decipher the only texts available to them – solid blocks of letter without space between words, punctuation, distinction of capital letters. paragraphs, or chapter numbers and titles. And if reading was difficult, writing was an elite and very expensive operation. Papyrus or parchment had to be processed and transported. It took several people to write on a papyrus roll, two for simultaneous unrolling and rolling up, one or two to keep making ink and trimming quills for a man to write on the moving space between rolls. 

Since writing was so cumbrous an exercise, dictating took its place. Stenographers (tachygraphers) took words down in their shorthand on wood or wax tablets. Then the tachygrapher read his signs (slowly) as words before a panel of scribes making copies with the help of their papyrus rollers -– many copies had to be made from this one reading, to let an author have his own copies and distribute others out to friends, assistants, and other people who would want a copy.

All this changed gradually with the advent of the codex, of punctuating conventions, of chapter-and-erse divisions. Then it all changed rapidly, with the invention of the printing press. No more one-by-one copies done by hand. We may seem, now, to have reached an opposite situation – continual bombardment with twitters by people all shooting from their hip, spewing instant messages that are ill-considered or unconsidered. How are we to winnow all these words and direct our energy to the absorption of the ones most valuable for us? 

Studs Terkel, long before the invention of twitters, learned how to let people speak not off the top of their heads but from the depth of their hearts. He let them relax into intimacy. Then, from long recording sessions, he gleaned the most revealing words. In the process, he reversed the situation by which only the privileged spoke to the privileged. In convincing everyone he interviewed that they were important, he let it be known that he would talk to none of the recognized Important People.

There are deliberate omissions in this book, notably clergymen, college professors, journalists and writers of any kind. I felt that their articulateness and literacy offered them other forums. They had created their own books; my transcribing their attitudes would be nothing more than self-indulgence. It was the man of inchoate thought I was seeking rather than the consciously articulate. 

People who knew Terkel from his long-running radio interviews could be justly surprised by this norm. The people he excluded from his book interviews were precisely the ones he brought onto his radio show –authors, actors, leaders in various fields. The books were meant to be more democratic, in the sense that Chesterton gave that term. Chesterton said that democracy is like blowing your nose – you may not do it very well, but you ought to do it yourself.

Terkel was encouraged to take this approach in 1967 by Andre Schiffrin, then the editor of Pantheon Press, who had just published Jan Myrdal’s Report From a Chinese Village. The point of that book was to hear what Chinese people who were not in the headlines might be thinking about their lives. Schiffrin asked if the same thing could be done, not in a small foreign village but in a big city like Chicago. He suggested that Studs find out what a broad range of people thought of their lives in that bustling city. The aim was to hear from what are often called the ordinary people, or common people. But Terkel did not believe there are any ordinary people, or common people. Just people. He called those he spoke with not his subjects, or his interviewed ones, but his “companions.” 

Schiffrin and Terkel had invented a new genre – not the “man on the street” questionnaire, not the pollsters’ list of questions. It was not like the oral histories compiled at Columbia University and elsewhere, which focused on famous people or projects. Terkel was not trying to get the back story on big events. He did not guide the conversation, or ask what lawyers call a leading question. He wanted his companions to bring up what was on their minds, what needed no prompting. This approach was so successful that Terkel would repeat the operation in nine more well-read volumes.  He was 54 years old when Division Street came out in 1967. He and Schiffrin could not realize that he would live 42 more years, working to the very end, able to do a whole series of conversation, among all the other things Terkel was doing in his busy life..

The later books modified the formula of Division Street. They were each devoted to a single them – what did his companions think of working, or of World War II, of race, of music, of aging, of death. In that sense they were answering one leading question from the outside, though then they could range all over what the subject suggested to them. 

Although Terkel was a proud lefty himself, an important part of his liberalism was to hear everybody out with sympathy. He talks equably with Cold Warriors and pacifists, nuns and minor criminals, gay people and straight. Though these people differ widely and wildly, certain common traits emerge.

Everyone wants to matter, to claim an individual dignity, whether that dignity is affirmed or denied by other people. If heroic acts are recorded, they are not showy ones. If faults are admitted, they do not cancel out the person.

Terkel was able to spend so much time and energy in seeking out and listening closely to all kinds of people since that was his

customary way of living. If you got into a cab with him, it was not long before he had the cabdriver’s whole life story. Being in his company made you want to change your own attitude toward other people – and toward yourself. He made you feel that you matter. I found that others left his company as I did, wanting to be a better person, to be worthy of this man’s care for one. His books can have the same effect. 9 other oral histories. We begin to heaer the American people speek in this book, and the would continue to speak in his nine later oral hsistoried. The people had a tlast found someone who would listen.

Gary Wills’ is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. His latest book is The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis.