Marc Sobel reviews Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation

Posted by on December 24th, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Adapted by Harvey Pekar, Edited by Paul Buhle; The New Press; 224 pp.; $22.95; B&W; Softcover; ISBN: 9781595583215

Studs Terkel is widely regarded as the greatest oral historian in American literature.  Although he would later win the Pulitzer Prize (in 1985) for The Good War, a collection of oral histories about World War II with a uniquely American perspective, Working, Terkel’s third book, was originally published in 1974.  At the time it was released, Terkel was a semi-popular radio host in Chicago (his show was an early precursor to Ira Glass’s This American Life), but was a relative unknown on the national stage.  Working, however, put Studs Terkel on the literary map.  The book was universally acclaimed and selections from it were even adapted into a Broadway musical.

When it was originally published, the full title of Terkel’s book was Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  To many, the thought of people sitting around talking about their jobs may sound dull, but what made Working such a runaway success was Terkel’s unique skill in capturing the authentic voices of people who Marshall Berman, in The New York Times Book Review (March 24, 1974), labeled “the great river of humanity, flowing through the heart of the country … the masses of anonymous, ordinary men and women, from every occupation … every race and color, every class.”   Terkel’s oral histories are actually interviews, but the author almost completely edits himself out of the finished pieces, leaving behind only traces of his presence —  brief introductions, occasional factual observations and a few stray questions to provide context.  The resulting monologues are often rambling accounts, complete with tangents, incomplete thoughts and other stream-of-consciousness quirks inherent in spoken conversation, but by leaving these pastiches in his written accounts, Terkel infused his writing with an audible sense of authenticity.  Each oral history has a strikingly distinct and unique voice.  As Berman so eloquently noted, in Working, Terkel’s people “are present in all the full radiance and frightfulness of their individuality.”  The noted historian Robert Coles also wrote in the Introduction to My American Century, a collection of Terkel’s highlights from each of his major books, that “[t]hese stories owe their convincing impact to the shrewd and skilled shaping of them at the hands of someone who knows how to make the words of other soar in their intent, in their deliverance of this or that message, opinion, concern, conviction.”

Be Sociable, Share!

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.