Q&A, Part One: STUDS TERKEL
Highlights from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue
Studs Terkel in his Chicago home, Oct. 2005 / Photograph by CHRIS STRONG
Sunday, November 02, 2008
What follows is an excerpt from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue
For more information on this issue, click here
BEHIND THE BILLBOARDS
The Stop Smiling Interview with Studs Terkel
By Danny Postel and JC Gabel
Studs Terkel is “as much a part of Chicago as the Sears Tower and Al Capone,” a BBC journalist once remarked.
Indeed, just as tourists to the “city of the century” throng to the skyscraper's observation deck and make their way to one or another of the gangster's old haunts, many a writer has pilgrimaged to the Uptown home of Chicago's legendary oral historian, where the following interview took place.
Stop Smiling: One of Chicago's literary giants passed away earlier this year. How well did you know Saul Bellow?
Studs Terkel: I didn't know him too well. We disagreed on a number of things politically. In the protests in the beginning of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, when Mailer, Robert Lowell and Paul Goodman were marching to protest the Vietnam War, Bellow was invited to a sort of counter-gathering. He said, “Of course I'll attend.” But he made a big thing of it. Instead of just saying OK, he was proud of it. So I wrote him a letter and he didn't like it. He wrote me a letter back. He called me a Stalinist. But otherwise, we were friendly. He was a brilliant writer, of course. I love Seize the Day. On the way to a party with his young wife, he grabbed me and embraced me. Oliver Sacks was visiting Bellow in Massachusetts, and Bellow told him, “I love Studs.” I asked him once if I could have his permission to read some of his work on the radio, the story “A Silver Dish.” I read it, and Bellow called me up and told me how much he liked the reading. That was my relationship with Bellow.
SS: When you think of literary Chicago, who else comes to mind?
ST: Stuart Dybek is terrific. He has a Nelson Algren quality. Nelson Algren, of course, was Chicago behind the billboards. You can go all the way from Gary, Indiana, to Evanston and not see Chicago. You just see the lake. Algren was a very American writer. He knew Chicago. James T. Farrell, at the beginning of the last century, captured the street talk of the South Side Irish. That street talk was part of the Lonigan trilogy: Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan and Judgment Day. That's how I got the nickname, because I liked the books so much. But Algren had that crazy, goofy humor. There's Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo. And of course there was Richard Wright, the great black novelist, who wrote Native Son. Once Wright left Chicago for Paris, he left his roots. “Bright and Morning Star” — a fantastic story of Wright's.
Gwendolyn Brooks, whose book Annie Allen won the Pulitzer. She had no telephone at her house. I had to run and tell her that she won the award. She has a poem called “The Rites for Cousin Vit.” I used to always like to read that one. It's about someone who is so full of life that no coffin could contain her, no satin could unfold her. There's a wonderful poet living two blocks away at the Admiral Hotel — Lisel Mueller, a German-American. She writes poetry that is fantastic. So Chicago has these lesser-known writers as well.