Hope Dies Last
Studs Terkel’s Hope Dies Last has been my bedtime reading of late. Studs interviewed a number of people (post 9/11) on the topic of hope. (The book was published in 2003.) The book has stories from a range of people, ranging from notable figures (Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay) and John Kenneth Galbraith, elected officials, teachers, clergy, musicians, activists, organizers, students, and more.
I’m not quite done with the book, but today—the day after Super Tuesday, which is also Ash Wednesday—is a good day to write about it. (I’m giving up reading political blogs for lent, a hard thing to do today, especially, since my state held an election yesterday. The upside is that posting here ought to increase accordingly. )
On this site, I veer away from politics and religion. Still, hope runs through both of those topics. And today, a little of politics and a little of religion, and a lot of oral history find common ground in Terkel’s book. Hope Dies Last offers a fascinating glimpse into contemporary history. These are the stories that aren’t “before my time” but during my time. They focus on events that have been on the periphery of my awareness, filling out details of things I’d learned through the news. It also offers a reflection on the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.
Also, seeing as how Studs Terkel is based in Chicago, he speaks with a number of “organizers”—both union organizers and community organizers. Without really intending to (I checked the book out of the library cause it’s, well, oral history), I found myself understanding more of the background and context of a certain Chicago-area presidential candidate whose resume includes “community organizer.” No, Barack Obama was not interviewed for Hope Dies Last.
The book inspires. There is story after story of how people keep acting with hope in the face of difficult circumstances, and what they’ve experienced and what they’ve done. This is a mosaic of recent history. Of a recently-pardoned death-row inmate who was wrongly convicted. The economist talking about Enron. Of how some run-down and neglected area of Chicago became transformed into a real neighborhood. I feel my spine straighten a bit, and the “it’ll never change” cynicism erodes a bit. I’m a little more optimistic than I was before.
The book shows well what oral history does—provide a composite picture of some event or some theme a told through the voices of many people. It’s a picture of my own era, during my own lifetime. If I, who’ve lived during the time of these events, can learn and reflect more deeply about the world I’ve lived in, I begin to glimpse the value of what oral history can do for times or places that I haven’t witnessed.
This underscores the argument for making sure that individual oral histories become part of larger collections. It’s the Historical Society or Community History effort. The individual histories I’m collecting, while valuable to me and a few others I’m related to, can grow in value when they’re joined with other histories from this time.
To the victors go the spoils, as the saying goes. Rosalind Miles says, The victors are the ones that write the history. Miles, in her nonfiction and historical fiction works, delves into past history to get at the stories of those who weren’t considered important enough to remember and record by the Victors of that day. Oral history doesn’t aim for the victors or the notable ones. And certainly Terkel’s body of work has focused on the stories of the everyday, ordinary person. In this book, the hopers are the ones that write the history.
Studs Terkel’s Hope Dies Last sounds like a great read.