Conversation: Oral Histories

PBS NewsHour

STUDS TERKEL: This is my fish-head cane.

TERENCE SMITH: Studs Terkel is 93; Alex Kotlowitz, 50. A generation separates these two authors, yet more unites them. Both accidental Chicagoans who grew up in New York, they share a friendship and a passion for storytelling about their adopted home.

They are also accomplished practitioners of an age-old but rarely used form of journalism: Capturing the oral histories of ordinary men and women.

Studs Terkel is known for extensive conversations with Americans from all walks of life that chronicle the profound changes in the nation during the 20th century. He’s written 13 books, winning a Pulitzer Prize for “The Good War” in 1985. He has another volume coming out this fall, “And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey.”

Studs first pursued acting on stage, radio and in the movies, after graduating from the University of Chicago’s Law School in 1934.

He then had his own early variety show on television called Studs’ Place, which capitalized on his background as a disc jockey, film narrator, sportscaster and music columnist, among other jobs.

And for 45 years, from 1952 to 1997, he hosted The Studs Terkel Program on Chicago Radio, where he interviewed politicians, writers, activists, labor organizers and artists, among others.

STUDS TERKEL: Take it easy, but take it.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: I just want to read you a short section about Milton.

TERENCE SMITH: Alex Kotlowitz is becoming something of a multimedia Studs Terkel.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: “Drab cinderblock walls became lakes surrounded by oak trees, beaches with palm trees.”

TERENCE SMITH: He has been a newspaper reporter, television producer and writer. Like Terkel, Kotlowitz has focused on the disadvantaged in his books, “The Other Side of the River” and the best-selling “There Are no Children Here,” which was selected as one of the 150 most important books of the century by the New York Public Library.

His latest work, “Never a City so Real,” is a portrait of Chicago told through the stories of its people, as is his first-person narrative series for Chicago Public Radio. And many of those characters reappear in his recent play, “An Unobstructed View.”

We sat down with the two men to discuss their craft in Terkel’s house on the north side of Chicago.

TERENCE SMITH: Both of you use the interview. Both of you are good listeners. What’s special about that form of journalism, where you simply go to people and get them to tell their stories? What’s special about that?

STUDS TERKEL: They are ordinary. I use the quote ordinary because it’s a patronizing word. They are not celebrities. Celebrities, we know, are celebrated for being celebrated, and they’re not very exciting. And ordinary people hasn’t been asked about his, her life.

TERENCE SMITH: Terkel recalled tape-recording an interview with an unmarried mother of four in one of Chicago’s housing projects.

STUDS TERKEL: We play it back and she hears her voice and she says something, suddenly puts her hand to her mouth and says, “Oh, my God!” I said, “What is it?” She said, “I never knew I felt that way before.”

Well, bingo, that’s a star for her and for me. In other words, that interview helped her say something that revealed herself to herself.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: And stories are also the way, you know, we make sense of ourselves and make sense of the world. And so that’s what all these people … like this woman here, I mean, she’s beginning to sort of, as she tells her story, make sense of her own life. And it’s one of the, I think one of the real exhilarations about doing this, is that people begin to reveal things to themselves that they haven’t done before –

STUDS TERKEL: And suddenly they feel they count. It’s not an interview; it’s a conversation. You, yourself, enter it, too. I’m not the guy from 60 Minutes coming down to talk to them.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: You realize that that’s what listening is all about. It’s not just sitting there as kind of like a landscape artist and sort of watching it all from the distance. It’s engaging with people, and that’s what’s so critical.

TERENCE SMITH: Alex, what’s the value in the first-person account? What’s the value … what makes it different from ordinary expository journalism?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Well, my usual feeling about stories, you want to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. And there’s no better way to get out of the way than let people tell their own stories.

TERENCE SMITH: Terkel and Kotlowitz describe how people’s stories often take twists and turns that even they don’t expect.

STUDS TERKEL: Oh, for example, “Working,” the book “Working,” people describe that, what’s your day like? And so this guy’s a gas meter reader. And he’s the man who goes with a flashlight down in the basement to read. “So tell me about your day, how does it begin?” He says, “Well, mostly dogs and women.” “What about the women?” He says, “Oh, nothing’s happened with the women. However, in some of these suburbs they’re kind of good-looking ladies. And in summertime they’re out on the patio in their bikini getting the sun, and I come into the front door and she’s lying on her stomach in a bikini and the bra is open, so the whole sun can hit the back. So I creep up very, very slowly, and as I’m near her I holler ‘gas man,’ and she turns around.”

And then he says… then he says, “I get bawled out an awful lot. But it makes the day go faster.”

TERENCE SMITH: You’ve become friends. You’re working in sort of parallel paths. Do you see Alex as somebody who can continue this tradition?

STUDS TERKEL: I see him more than my disciple – he’s not a disciple, that’s a patronizing – I see him as my successor, of course. That is, he’s picking up where … I give him the baton, and he’s got the baton, and in his hands it’s good. Well, you know he’s good.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: I’ll take it, but I won’t be able to run as fast as you, Studs.

STUDS TERKEL: Well, you can’t, but you type faster.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: What so inspired me about his work is that these ordinary people, under extraordinary circumstances. I mean, Studs once, once you referred to them as the “et ceteras of the world,” and I think that was aptly put, and that’s where I spend most of my time.

TERENCE SMITH: Using Chicago as your source material, what is it about the city or the people that makes it so rich for you?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: First of all, it’s a city filled with messy vitalities. I mean, you can find all the fissures in this country within the confines of this city, whether it’s over race or religion or politics. It’s a city filled with paradoxes.

STUDS TERKEL: What he says about Chicago is on the button. It’s the contradiction, but also the very history. It was a place of hands. People worked, blue-collar city from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean.

And then the inner migration of Deep South, poor white sharecrop, poor black sharecroppers and white mountaineers having a hard time, and then came south of the Rio Grande. And so Chicago, really, is the archetypal American city.

TERENCE SMITH: And one of the archetypal characters of the city is Eddie Sadlowski, a.k.a. “Oil Can Eddie,” a retired steelworker and labor leader. His battles are detailed in the books of both Terkel and Kotlowitz.

SPOKESMAN: Top-shelf guy, top-shelf award.

TERENCE SMITH: On this day, he and a fellow union leader presented Terkel with an award they had been trying to give to him for some time.

SPOKESMAN: Every working stiff in Chicago should tip the hat when the name of Studs Terkel is mentioned.

STUDS TERKEL (reading award): “For all you’ve done”

TERENCE SMITH: Eddie Sadlowski reflected on what Terkel has contributed and how Kotlowitz is carrying on that tradition.

EDDIE SADLOWSKI: Terkel personifies what America’s all about, in my opinion. I mean, that’s … I really sincerely mean that. I love that guy. He’s one of my heroes.

But who better to pass it on to at the time that it needed to be passed on is Alex. Anyone that reads Alex, you can’t help but be impressed.

TERENCE SMITH: You both obviously value oral history, but does society?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: I think that’s sort of really the question, is there a place for that, because what does have me so concerned now is that as you pick up the newspapers and magazines, what you tend to read about are the celebrities, and the rich and the powerful.

And not to say that isn’t important, but I do think that we lose sight of what’s going on in the nooks and crannies in our country.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you get the sense that young people today with their computers, their video games and all the things they have for amusement, do they value storytelling the way you do?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: I don’t think storytelling is going out of fashion. I don’t think it ever will. I mean, it’s so much a part of human nature to want to tell stories and to want to hear stories; to just want to know what happens next.

TERENCE SMITH: You say you’re passing the baton to Alex, and in the same breath you tell me you’ve got another book coming out. It doesn’t sound as though you’re finished with the baton.

STUDS TERKEL: Yeah. I have another book coming out.

TERENCE SMITH: Yes.

STUDS TERKEL: It’s interesting when your life is a deadline. That becomes rather interesting. It really does, in a way.

TERENCE SMITH: With those self-imposed deadlines to fulfill, both authors assure there will be plenty more storytelling and plenty more listening.

© 2017, Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved