A Meeting of Writers, the Champions of Underdogs

by David Bernstein
The New York Times

Studs Terkel, the eminent author and oral historian, was wearing his signature outfit - a blue blazer over a red-checkered shirt and red sweater, with red socks to match - as his anecdotes, memories and opinions cascaded forth.

Except for the cane near the armchair in a sunny corner of his living room, there was little evidence of the bad fall he had taken last July on the front steps of his house in Uptown, an ethnically diverse neighborhood on this city’s North Side.

But when it was suggested that he and a friend, Alex Kotlowitz, another admired Chicago author, meet for lunch and a joint interview, Mr. Terkel, 92 and still recovering, chose to have the company and the meal - takeout Chinese - come to him.

The two men have much in common. Mr. Kotlowitz, who is 49 and has written three books, says Mr. Terkel helped spur his own interest in telling the stories of working-class heroes and underdogs. They met in 1991, on Mr. Terkel’s radio show, when Mr. Kotlowitz’s first book, “There Are No Children Here,” a bleak portrait of two brothers growing up in Chicago public housing, was on the best-seller list.

Both are New Yorkers by birth and Chicagoans by accident, exploring and describing the city with intense affection. As journalists and progressives, they share similar sensibilities about the nation’s racial and social divisions, and try to understand the world through the eyes of others, especially, in Mr. Terkel’s words, “the et ceteras” - the marginalized.

Seated at Mr. Terkel’s dining table during lunch two weeks ago, Mr. Kotlowitz recalled that 1991 interview. Mr. Terkel, he said, had read his book so thoroughly that the pages were tabbed, dog-eared and filled with underlining and notes. In addition, Mr. Terkel had found a tape he recorded some 15 years earlier with a young girl from the ghetto here who sounded as fatalistic about the future as one of the boys in Mr. Kotlowitz’s book.

“I remember being pretty astonished,” Mr. Kotlowitz said. “I knew enough at that point - having gone on the book tour - that you were lucky if somebody had read your book, let alone knew what it was about. But Studs had more than read it; he inhaled it.”

Mr. Terkel interrupted, “You were on with Oprah, too.”

Mr. Kotlowitz shot back: “Right. But I much preferred being on with you.”

The two men have been busy with new books. For Mr. Terkel, who has written more than a dozen volumes, the latest, “They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey,” is a collection of his radio interviews with musicians like Bob Dylan and the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. It is nearly finished, he said, and scheduled to be published next September by the New Press.

Mr. Kotlowitz’s latest book, “Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago,” published by Crown last year, was influenced, he said, in large part by Mr. Terkel. One of the eight portraits that make up the book is of a retired steelworker and labor leader, Edward Sadlowski, whom Mr. Terkel had interviewed in the 1970’s. Mr. Sadlowski and the others - among them, a defense lawyer who handles capital murder cases, artists and a restaurant owner - are Chicagoans “who look at their city from the vantage point of outsiders and as a result they have perspective,” Mr. Kotlowitz said.

Speaking of Chicago, he said: “I love the messy vitality of this place, the energy of this city. You do feel the fissures here. All the contradictions in this country, all the paradoxes, are within the boundaries of this city.”

Chicago has a rich literary tradition rooted in its gritty street life, its romantic populism, its immigrant waves and its constant reinventions. Pioneering writers like Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright, Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell helped shape the raw and realistic literary style that Mr. Terkel and his contemporaries - like Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow and Mike Royko - would build on. Even contemporary novelists who live in or near Chicago, like Stuart Dybek, Scott Turow, Sara Paretsky and Aleksandar Hemon, use the city’s stark realism in their fiction.

Although the city has cultivated a regional literary identity unlike other American cities, Mr. Kotlowitz says that many writers here, even those who have found national success, feel as if they are too often classified as “Chicago writers.”

“Chicago is a kind of inspiration, a muse,” said Mr. Kotlowitz, who moved here in 1983 and later covered urban affairs and social issues for The Wall Street Journal in addition to writing for magazines. “But it’s not necessarily all or even most of what I write about or what Studs writes about.”

He added that while he appreciated being compared to Mr. Terkel, he is not his literary heir. “There’s not another Studs in the wings,” Mr. Kotlowitz said, “and there shouldn’t be.”

Over lunch, Mr. Terkel told stories, occasionally swapping a few with Mr. Kotlowitz. Though his reputation was made long ago as a listener to other people’s tales, Mr. Terkel, now nearly deaf, talks more than he listens. He recalled Zero Mostel (“unless you became his foil, his second banana, you couldn’t interview him”), Joan Crawford (“she was so sad”) and Jeb Stuart Magruder of Watergate notoriety (“he said he committed ‘a little moral slippage’; I couldn’t get over that phrase”), then segued into an impassioned rant about the recent presidential election: “Something happened to people, I’m sorry, something happened to them that elected President Bush. It was a lie when he went to war against Saddam. He didn’t have to. You know what’s going to happen to Social Security. You know what’s going to happen to health care.”

Speaking of the recent presidential debates, Mr. Terkel recalled an earlier era: “It’s who’s more likable. So Nixon was unshaven and Kennedy was shaven. So there you have it. We’re suffering from national Alzheimer’s disease. There was no yesterday. There was no Depression.”

When Mr. Terkel stopped to sip his hot-and-sour soup, Mr. Kotlowitz said: “Studs tells all this history. It seems so ancient. But he was part of it. I always soak it in.”

Mr. Terkel has been a D.J., a radio and television host, a jazz columnist, a playwright, an activist and even a radio soap opera actor. He spent the bulk of his career on the radio, first as a D.J. on his program “The Wax Museum” and then as the host of “The Studs Terkel Program” on WFMT-FM in Chicago. But he is probably best known for his oral histories culled from tape-recorded interviews. Mr. Terkel was 55 when his first oral history, “Division Street: America,” was published in 1967. The title came from a Chicago road, but for Mr. Terkel it was a metaphor for the racial, ethnic and economic divisions in the country. Other oral histories followed, including: “Hard Times,” on the Depression (1970); “Working” (1974), on people and their jobs; “The Good War” (1984), on World War II, which won a Pulitzer Prize; “Race” (1992), on relations between blacks and whites in America; and “Hope Dies Last” (2003), on how people remain optimistic in difficult times. Mr. Kotlowitz, who said he found it difficult to produce new books, marveled at Mr. Terkel’s prodigiousness. “I met him 13, 14 years ago,” he said. “He’s done three or four books since then.”

He added, with a grin: “I’m 49. I mean, I’ve got plenty of time.”

“How did we become friends, Studs?” he asked, turning to Mr. Terkel.

“Like Topsy and Eva,” Mr. Terkel responded wryly, referring to the 1920’s vaudeville duo, which based its act on the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “It growed.”

The friendship was underscored in October, when Mr. Terkel received the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award in journalism, given by Colby College in Waterville, Me. Because he was still recuperating from the fall, Mr. Terkel asked Mr. Kotlowitz, whom he calls “the Young Writer,” to go to the ceremony in his place. Mr. Kotlowitz spoke of Mr. Terkel’s influence on his journalism career.

“After my talk,” Mr. Kotlowitz said, “someone came up and asked me what it was like hanging out with a guy 92 years old. He said: ‘You’re, like, half his age. What do you have to talk about?’ “

“I just kind of smiled,” Mr. Kotlowitz remembered. “Studs has borne witness to a century. There’s plenty to talk about.”

© 2017, Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved