Studs Terkel: Bard of the Popular Front

Studs Terkel: May 16, 1912- Oct.31, 2008

      Louis "Studs" Terkel, radio host, raconteur, storyteller, oral historian and bard of the common man, died last week at the ripe age of 96. The tributes, in the midst of this historic election campaign, have poured in. On "All Things Considered," Garrison Keillor  sang a clever tribute to the tune of Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." A Washington Post staff  writer praised him for his "shoe-leather approach to writing the history of America in the last century that coaxed extraordinary tales out of nobodies."  The New York Times obituary writer said that "he developed a continuous narrative of great historic moments sounded by an American chorus in the native vernacular."

      To be completely accurate, Terkel should be seen as the quintessential representative of Popular Front communism, circa mid 1940's through the current era. The social democratic intellectual Marshall Berman, reviewing Terkel's Working in the March 24, 1974 New York Times Book Review, called the Popular Front "one of the most poignant and powerful of American dreams," one that despite its Communist origins, "liberated immense imaginative energies."  For Berman, and for Terkel, the Front "articulated a vision of a genuinely democratic community- perhaps the first such vision in American history."

      This would not be the last time the newspaper of record has extolled Communist cultural policy as a great triumph for American democracy. What the Popular Front really accomplished, contrary to Berman, was to co-opt heroes of the American story to the phony narrative of American Communism----a struggle of working people allied with farmers, African-Americans and other oppressed minorities against the evil capitalist industrialists who exploited all in their search for super profits. It is a narrative that began with the late Communist historian Herbert Aptheker and today is carried on by its most well known exponent, the best-selling author Howard Zinn, whose  People's History of the United States has miseducated two generations of American students since it first appeared.

     Nevertheless, one has to agree with Berman's judgment that Terkel was "the ablest spokesman and visionary of the Popular Front in our time." More than Zinn, who pretends to be writing history, Terkel simply recorded interviews with those he saw as common people.  In  telling their own story these ordinary Americans would rescue the country from the ruling class version of the past which created a picture of America triumphalism and exceptionalism. In Berman's eyes, even Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who by now everyone knows were Soviet patriots who spied on behalf of Joseph Stalin- were "the last authentic heroes and martyrs of the Popular Front." One must wonder if even Terkel believed that.

Yet Berman understood Terkel's goal. The purpose of recording those oral histories was to show how those he interviewed " had overcome all the social barriers that have kept them apart or antagonistic," showing them "pledging solidarity, undertaking to march arm in arm toward the purple mountain majesties of the future, to take possession of America in the name of the people." Or as he concludes: Terkel was seeking to bring "us together to work to change a social system that strains and drains us all." In other words, to realize that great dream of socialism in America.

No wonder that the late A.M. Rosenthal, then executive editor of the Times and later a columnist for the paper (when it was still striving to have somewhat of an ecumenical approach and was not exclusively a left wing opinion sheet) read Berman's review and, perhaps a bit harshly and in an over the top comment, promptly called Terkel "a shmuck with a tape recorder." A man like Rosenthal, committed to the paper as he was, knew from personal experience and his years covering Communist Poland the reality of the nightmare underlying the Communist dream, and hence had little sympathy for the kind of narrative Studs Terkel was laying out.

The obituaries of Terkel have all pointed out that he had hoped to live to see Barack Obama elected President. That is not surprising. Like Terkel, Obama's meteoric rise to political power started with his life in Chicago, and his introduction to the leftist and black nationalist Chicago political milieu in which Terkel also lived and worked. Indeed, listening to many of Obama's soaring speeches reminds one of the expansive rhetoric and melodies of the Popular Front anthems. Obama's campaign, then, might be seen as the final victory of the Popular Front culture in America.