Excerpted from Will the Circle Be Unbroken? by Studs Terkel. Copyright © 2002 by Studs Terkel. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Studs Terkel
Katie Bacon works at The Atlantic Monthly, where she edits articles for both the magazine and the Web site.
Katie Bacon: You wrote in the introduction to Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, “This is the one book I never thought I’d write.” What made you change your mind?
Studs Terkel: I never dreamed I’d tackle this one, because every book I’ve ever done has dealt with the experiences, the actual lived experiences of the person. With the book on the Depression, Hard Times: What was it like to be a kid seeing his father come home at ten o’clock in the morning one day with his tool chest on his shoulder, a very good carpenter who’s out on relief for the next ten years until the government gives him a job in the WPA? In “The Good War,” the one about World War II: What’s it like to be a mamma’s boy on a landing craft about to hit Normandy? Or a woman having a job for the first time in her life, ironically, because of a war? Or the book Working: What’s the day of a schoolteacher like, or a storekeeper, or the spot-welder at an auto plant? Or in the book Race: What’s it like to be black in a white society, or white, for that matter? What does a white think of a black–poor or middle class or whatever they are? Or the book about age, Coming of Age. What’s it like to grow old in a society where our life span increases, yet at the age of fifty we’re about the be knocked off work for a younger horse to step in? All these are experiences people have had, but what of the one experience none of us had had but all of us will have? That’s a crazy thing to tackle for a guy like me, but the time came for it. It’s true that my wife died in 1999, but that was not the reason I did the book. I was working on the book before she died. Her death obviously played a role in my approach.
KB: Did it change the direction of the book at all?
ST: There was an urgency, of course, and, oh, I hate to use the word empathy or whatever it is, but I had a sense of empathy when talking to others.
KB: What was it like for you to interview people about death? Did hearing people’s thoughts about death and an afterlife change your own thoughts?
ST: Well, really the book is about life. Even though it’s about death. Remember, the subtitle of the book is “Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith,” and the key part is the “Hunger for a Faith.” So often I hear the phrase “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” That sounds like one of those new-age bromides, but it’s not. What the person means is, I do believe something, but I don’t want to be associated with an institution. In the book I have all kinds of thoughts expressed from skeptics and cynics, and there’s this feeling when they speak of heaven and hell that, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “there’s no there there.” I may feel there’s no there there either. Nada. I’m an agnostic, which is, of course, a cowardly atheist. I want to cover all the bases, you know. At the same time, I respect and I sort of envy those who believe in a hereafter, because it gives them solace, you see, when someone dear or near is dying or they themselves are thinking of dying.
KB: Were you surprised by how willing people turned out to be to talk about death? It seems like it’s a subject people usually avoid.
ST: It’s amazing–once you get them started, people are crazy to talk about it. It’s the liveliest book I’ve ever done. Every doctor I know–I mean, every doctor I know and have heard of and have interviewed–every one says, you must do this book. You’ve got to do it, because we never talk about death unless it’s when someone we know is near to it. Then it’s out of grief or out of guilt. Why not talk about it when we’re in the flower of health? It’s the most natural thing in the world! Life is finite, isn’t it? So, because it’s finite it would seem that each day is more precious than ever. As Kurt Vonnegut says in the book, death is “the most ordinary thing in the world.”
By the way, Vonnegut’s in it, but few other famous people are. For the books I hardly ever interview anyone who is celebrated. They’re mostly the “ordinary” people. The events that happened on September 11 prove to me what I’ve always felt about the people of this country and, I suspect, of the world. The so-called “anonymous” people are really heroes and are capable of things they’re not thought to be capable of. I was interviewed for 60 Minutes recently, and the interviewer asked me, “Do you feel since the World Trade Center attacks happened, you would have altered your book in any way?” I say, on the contrary, no. To me–it’s unfortunate to say–if anything, the book is on the button. If anything, it strengthens the faith I have in the American people. I’m going to add, people anywhere.
KB: Do you think what happened on September 11 is going to change the way we think or talk about death?
ST: Well, I hope it does this: I hope it makes us feel the value of human life anywhere in the world. We have never been attacked this way. Elsewhere in the world, everybody has. We have been the “exceptional people.” I hope that when we see that Vietnam shot of that naked little girl, terrified, running along railroad tracks, I hope we realize the fact that she’s our little girl. I hope that when we hear about this Iraqui kid as we bomb Iraq–we don’t get Saddam Hussein; we do get women and kids–I hope we look at the Iraqui kid as our kid. That is what I hope, and that is what Einstein hoped, too–I always love to quote Einstein, because no one dares contradict me. Einstein, my God, he’s responsible for the bomb. It’s ironic, he’s the only one who could convince President Roosevelt to do stuff at Los Alamos. Einstein was the great mind of the twentieth century and the great heart of that century. And he said, Everything in the world has changed since the atom was split except one thing: the way we think. We must think anew. That’s what Tom Paine had in mind 210 years ago, in 1792. He wrote a piece about that very thing: There’s something new, a new society, this American society–never in the world has there been anything like this. Not only free citizens but thinking citizens. This could be the example for the whole world! We must think anew. We have to realize that we are no longer isolated in the world.
KB: You talked about this in “The Good War.” In the introduction, you asked, “Must a society experience horror in order to understand horror? Ours was the only country among the combatants in World War II that was neither invaded nor bombed.”
ST: Yes, in that war, every combatant, every major combatant, was invaded or bombed. England suffered the Blitz and the rocket bombs, and thousands were killed. France was occupied; Holland was occupied; Denmark was occupied. The Soviet Union lost more than twenty million civilians. As far as the enemy were concerned, the Axis powers, Italy was bombed and invaded; in Germany, many cities were rubble toward the end of the war–Berlin, Hamburg, and, of course, Dresden. Need we speak of Japan, with the fire bombings of Tokyo and, of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? But there was one country that was not–except those thousands of families who lost their sons, they made the great sacrifice. They grieved inconsolably for scores of thousands of young American kids killed or maimed. But aside from that, the rest of us–let’s be honest with ourselves. As John Kenneth Galbraith, who was working for the Office of Price Administration during the New Deal and the war, said in “The Good War,” we had a little black market once in a while, not as much as we thought we’d have, a little rationing. Sure, you couldn’t get the cut meat when you wanted, but that’s it. We Americans, except those who lost dear ones, we American were not really affected in the same way as other countries. So when we saw that Iraqui kid on the hospital bed, didn’t we pass over him? Now I hope we won’t pass people over that way, and that we’ll recognize them as fellow humans.
KB: What are your own thoughts about death?
ST: Well, I’ve had a pretty good run. I’m eighty-nine. Do I fear death now? No, and I’m being quite honest. No, of course not. But I don’t want to go just yet–I’m greedy. The question, Who wants to live till ninety? One of the answers is, Everybody who’s eighty-nine! Some ask, Why don’t I retire? I’m like the hero in The Virginian–remember The Virginian? That Gary Cooper movie years ago. The villain, Trampas, calls Cooper’s character a name, an SOB or something, and the hero says, “When you say that, smile.” And so when they say, “Studs, are you retiring?” I say, “When you say that, smile.” I’m working on a couple of books now. I may not finish them–the odds are I won’t finish them–but I like the journey slightly more than the destination.
KB: What are the next books you’re working on?
ST: One of them is hard to explain, but I met this farm woman, Jessie de la Cruz, in Fresno, California, a number of years ago. She worked with Cesar Chavez’s farm workers union, and she’s retired. She was saying in Spanish, when things go crazy or bewildered–and I’ll translate badly–“Esperanza muera al ultimo,” meaning, roughly, “Hope dies last.” That’s the title of my next book, Hope Dies Last. I’m asking certain people I knew through the years: Hope? What happened to hope? Do you have as much as you had when you were young? More? What went wrong? What can be done? So, I’m kind of working on that. It makes the day go faster. Which leads to a humorous anecdote that appears in the book Working.
Working is about what jobs people do, and this is about a gas-meter reader. This guy–Conrad something–I asked him, “Tell me, what’s your day like?” He says, “Well, I’ll tell you. It’s boring. There’s two elements in it: dogs and women.”
I realized the first is the reality; the second the fantasy. I asked him, “Tell me about dogs.” He says, “Dogs, I’ll tell you something–they’re menaces. They come at me and they bite. The Pekingese are the worst. They gnaw at my leg, and I use my flashlight as a weapon, and the woman hollers, ‘Hey, why are you hitting my dog?’ ‘Lady, he’s tearing my leg off!’ So anyway, I want to get even with that dog. She leads me down the stairs, the lady of the house, to show me where the gas meters are. As she leads me down to the cellar, I follow her. There’s the little dog, and I take a whack a that dog–it’s like W.C. Fields–to make up for the one I missed at the last house.”
I say, “Okay, now tell me about women.” “Well, you know, nothing has happened, but I’ll tell you what, it’s a funny thing, in the summertime, in the suburbs.” He’s describing now the posh middle-class suburbs. “This young woman is very pretty, and she is lying out in the sunshine in the garden. She’s lying out there on a blanket on her stomach; of course, she wants her back to get sunburned. She’s in a bikini and the brassiere is loosened because she wants to get all the sunshine on her back. So what I do is creep up slowly, very, very slowly, and I holler, ‘Gas man!’ She turns around, and, well, you know what. I get yelled at an awful lot, but it makes the day go faster.” So when you ask me about the books, why am I working on these things? It makes the day go faster.
KB: I’d like to ask you something about your interviewing style. I’ve read that you like to describe yourself, above all, as an actor. Is that how you see yourself?
ST: Well, my interviewing style is hard to describe. I’m sort of a goofball. The point is, interviewing is conversation. The people I interview realize I’m just a flawed guy. I’m no guy from Mt. Olympus, coming down from some of the network TV stations. On the contrary, I’m much as they are, and the questions are ordinary ones. People interviewed for the first time in their lives open up if they feel that you are much like they are, and you know, I’m very interested in what they have to say.
There’s one interview I’ll never forget. It was in my first book about life in the city, in Chicago, called Division Street: America. There is a street in Chicago called Division Street, but I meant that as a metaphor–it was the sixties, during the civil-rights movement and the peace movement and everything, so I was talking about the country being on Division Street. There was this one woman who lived in a housing project, a mixed, integrated project. The one common denominator was that they were poor. I can’t remember if she was white or black, but she was pretty. I know she was pretty and skinny and had bad teeth–well, no dentist, you know–and three little kids dancing around. She’d never interviewed before. And we finished, and the kids want to hear Mamma’s voice back, and I say, “Now, you be quiet, and I’ll play it back for you.” So we play back her voice. She’s hearing her voice for the first time played back. Suddenly, she puts her hand to her mouth and says, “Oh my God. I never knew I felt that way before.” That moment to me was bingo! And to her it was bingo! In other words, the interview suddenly made her think about something she hadn’t thought about before. That I find very rewarding. Or once in a while I run into someone on the street who knows who I am, and he’ll say something like, “Hey, listen, since reading Working, I’ll never again talk that way to a waitress.” Because there’s a waitress in the book who tells what it’s like being a waitress. When you hear something like that, you feel pretty good.
KB: One of the people in Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, Quinn Brisben, said, “You are probably going to be remembered not for what you say, but for what Lovin’ Al, the guy who parked the cars, said in Working.” How do you think you’ll be remembered?
ST: Coincidentally, I just saw Quinn Brisben yesterday. He’s a Chicago schoolteacher, a white guy who has been teaching in the black community for years. He was the in the civil-rights movement. He was in jail for protesting, he and this black guy, and he says, “We’ll never be remembered,” and this black guy says, “Yes, we will. We’ll be remembered under the name of Martin Luther King.” Interesting thought–in other words, even though there is a celebrated figure who will be remembered, as Martin Luther King obviously will be, all these others who helped through the years, those anonymous people, they’re remembered metaphorically in him. In fact, this leads to one of my favorite poems, by Bertolt Brecht, in which he asks, “Who built the pyramid?” It wasn’t the pharaohs. They didn’t lift a finger. Down through the years, it was anonymous slaves, Brecht says. Who built the Seven Gates of Thebes? You read about kings and all that, but who hauled those lumps of rock? When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army? When the Chinese wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? But the part I like most is about the Spanish Armada. I remember in school Ms. O’Brien taught us that in 1588 Sir Francis Drake conquered the Spanish Armada. And I thought, Well, did he? What, by himself? So the poem goes, when the armada sank, we read that King Philip of Spain wept. Were there no other tears? That’s the history that interests me–who shed those other tears? Who are those anonymous many, down through the centuries, who have made the wheels go round? What was life like for those ordinary people? That’s what I try to do. Whether I succeed or not is up to the readers to judge.
1. If you had been one of the people Terkel interviewed for Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, what would you have told him?
2.Do you talk about death with your close friends or family? Do you feel that you would have been able to open up to Terkel in the way that the people in this book did?
3.What do you think it is about Terkel that enables him to draw these amazing, painful, personal stories out of people?
4.Is there anyone in this book whom you felt particularly akin to, in terms of how he or she spoke about death or what comes after it?
5.Do you think of yourself as religious or spiritual? If so, how does that play into your feelings on death?
6.Do you agree with Terkel’s contention in the introduction that “Invariably, those who have a faith, whether it is called religious or spiritual, have an easier time with loss”?
7.How do the various faiths differ in the ways they address death? Are there certain faiths that consider death in a way that’s especially helpful or comforting?
8.Terkel’s cardiologist comments to him, “Dealing with death is a third-rail issue in the United States. We don’t talk about death and dying as a societal problem, but it’s going to become more and more of one.” Are Americans particularly loath to talk about death? How would you compare our way of dealing with death with the ways of other cultures and countries?
9.Several people in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? describe dramatic near-death experiences, in which they were drawn toward a light and told they had to keep on living or saw their own bodies as they floated above them. Have you ever had or heard about a near-death experience?
10.In the introduction, Terkel quotes a writer who laments how people are expected to hold their grief inside. “We want sort of drive-by grieving. Nobody wants you to carry on about it. They want you to deposit it like you do in a bank.” Do you agree that our society discourages people from talking about their grief and their own fears about death?
11.Did September 11 change the way you think about death? Do you think it will have a long-term effect on how our society deals with and wrestles with death?
12.Terkel interviewed a homicide detective, a former death-row inmate, a Hiroshima survivor, an undertaker, and many, many others. Aside from the people in the book, who else’s perspectives on death would you be interested in hearing?
13.Several interviewees talk about how it used to be that people would die at home and their bodies would be left in darkened parlors for weeks so that people could come in to visit and pay their respects. Now people die in hospitals, and the bodies are whisked away. Our society is very far removed from the particulars of death. Do you think this distance has changed the way our society thinks about death or deals with it?
14.This book offers all sorts of different perspectives on whether or not there's an afterlife–from people who believe that death is just a transformation from one state of living to another to those who believe that after death there’s nothing. Do you believe that there’s an afterlife? If so, how do you envision it?
15.Kid Pharoah, a self-described “collector” whom Terkel has interviewed several times, said to him, “The great fear I have is dying a failure. We all go. I don’t want to go out a nothing. I want to go out a man among men.” What is your great fear about death? How would you liked to be remembered when you die?