The Reading Room

The World According to Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel and his book for James Cameron…st-twoThe BBC World Service will shortly be airing a documentary on the legendary American journalist Studs Terkel (1912-2008) whose contribution to the way the American public saw the events of the twentieth century knew few equals. He was an outstanding journalist, a cigar loving man of the people who hosted The Studs Terkel Show via WFMT Radio for forty five years which amassed thousands of interviews with a truly diverse cast of authors, politicians and musicians. His genius was in the way he listened, allowing the guests to open up more than they ever had done before, he was an avid listener and collator of people’s thoughts and memories and it showed.

In 1985 Terkel won the Pulitzer Prize for The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two. It is a stunning book which captures the memories of those Americans who experienced the events as they unfolded both directly in combat and at home in the relative safety of the United States.

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Terkel captures the reality of America’s situation at that time quite brilliantly. In the aftermath of The Great Depression the war was seen as a Godsend in kick-starting the ravaged economy but at what cost? “And prosperity came. Boom had a double meaning. For the old Iowa farmer, it was something else. Oh yes, he remembered the Depression and what it did to the farmers; foreclosures the norm; corn burned, grain at minus three cents a bushel; rural depression. Oh yes, it changed with the war.” He goes on to describe that old farmer slumped in his rocking chair staring at the wallpaper, a catch in his voice as he recalls the onset of war, “It does something to your country. It does something to the individual. I had a neighbour just as the war was beginning. We had a boy ready to go to the service. This neighbour told me what we needed was a dam good war, and we’d solve our agricultural problems. And I said, ‘Yes but I’d hate to pay with the price of my son’ Which we did”.

st-fourThis remarkable book was dedicated to his great friend, the British journalist James Cameron whom Terkel held in the highest regard. Like Terkel, Cameron shared the same journalistic instincts, valued the word of the eye-witness account and carried a burning torch for an independent, honest journalism which stood up to the strongest scrutiny. This then is the first edition which Terkel dedicated to Cameron and contains Terkel’s handwritten note of affection to Cameron and his wife on the front endpaper.

On a separate sheet of WFMT Radio stationary Terkel has written Cameron’s then London address for the publishers to send the book to. The affection and admiration felt by Terkel for Cameron is moving and a wonderful piece of reportage history between two giants of the field. It is fitting that Terkel should dedicate such an extraordinary book to Cameron and for it to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. They were both remarkable characters, fond of a drink and a smoke, I cannot begin to imagine what a conversation between them must have been like. The whole ethos behind this site is to feature those whose like we are highly unlikely to see again, I can say with some considerable degree of certainty that Studs Terkel and James Cameron will remain untouched at the top of their profession.

st-threeFor a  bibliography and more information on James Cameron the journalist, please click here.

Studs Terkel “The Good War” An Oral History of World War Two first published in the US by Pantheon in 1984.

 

 

 

 

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