Oral History’s Dirty Little Secret

Stud Terkel’s People. Harry Maurer, author of Not working (an oral history of unemployment that’s a zags off of Terkel’s Working zig), reflects on oral history, and Studs Terkel.

After finishing Not Working, Studs Terkel invites Maurer onto his radio show.

Soon there we were, across a table in the WFMT studio, the celebrated author of Working interviewing the rookie author of Not working, Studs voluble, fizzy with energy. He quickly zeroed in on something I had remarked upon: that no matter how people lose their job, even if they have been laid off with hundreds or thousands of others, they usually feel a sense of failure and shame, that somehow it is their fault. Studs saw the suffering in that, and saw that it stems, at least in part, from the American every-man-for-himself ethos we breathe in from the cradle. That fit with what I knew about Studs from reading his books and what comes through so strongly in his latest, the memoir Touch and Go: instinctive empathy wedded to a blazing sense of right and wrong.

Maurer reflects on those who were at the turning points of history, and on memory and forgetting. This next part, though, harks back to a comment made in a panel session of the Oral History Association conference I recently wrote about—“the mind that wants to know and the heart that wants to connect.”

The dirty little secret of oral history—well, maybe it’s not such a secret—is that it’s not just about listening. It’s about connection (Studs says people open up to him because he makes them “feel needed”), about dialogue, about who-I-am meeting who-you-are. By daring to ask the scary question, by revealing what moves him or her, the interviewer nudges, or downright shunts, the talk in a certain direction. Here Studs excels because his singularity is so strong, his passions legion and unabashed and his judgments held in check.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on November 26, 2007 in • Oral Historians
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