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The Great Louis Terkel. (You know him as Studs.)

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Message Lawrence Velvel

January 30, 2008

 Re:  The Great Louis Terkel.  (You know him as Studs.)  

            I recently read a memoir by Studs Terkel, who is now 94 years old, I believe.  Though I grew up in his city, Chicago, in the 1940s and 1950s, when he already was pretty well known there, I can’t remember having known much about him then.  That is a reflection of the ignorance of a kid, plus the milieu in which I grew up.  But I learned a good deal about him reading his memoir, Touch And Go, and some of what I read was particularly interesting to me.


            One has read upon occasion that there is a Chicago style of writing. It is said to consist of an erudite use of language coupled with street talk or obscenity.  This coupling, minus true erudition, often marks my own speech and writing.  Some relations and friends, who are not used to the Chicago style, do not like it at all.  My response is unprintable (unless you’re from Chicago). 


            Terkel’s memoir is of this genre.  There is high flown language, sophisticated thoughts, and cursewords.  Terkel says of James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, that he “was among the first to have captured the argot of Chicago streets, South Side Irish.  He caught the language, the idiom, that Chicagoesque quality.”  Terkel likewise has captured “that Chicagoesque quality.”


            Some of Terkel’s Chicagoesque is excruciatingly funny.  I actually got tears in my eyes laughing at one episode.  To tell of it, and of how Terkel sets the stage for it, I shall simply quote him, since it is impossible to do justice by mere descriptive paraphrase.  I hope I violate no copyright by quoting two pages worth of Terkel - - all that can happen, really, is that readers of this post are more likely to buy his book.


            Terkel went through a period when he was regularly watched and investigated by the FBI because he was a man of the left, which in those days meant you would be closely watched by Jedgar Hoover’s boys, as a possible dangerous commie.  The Eff Bee Eye would come to Terkel’s house, call him up, and so on.  He sets the stage by describing visits to his house:


I myself was hospitable at all times.  I seated them.  I offered them choices of Scotch or bourbon.  I had triple shots in mind.  Invariably, they refused.  Once, I suggested vodka, making it quite clear it was domestic.  I thought I was quite amusing.  At no time did our visitors laugh.  Nor did my wife.  I felt bad.  I did so want to make them feel at home.  I never succeeded.


They had questions in mind.  They frequently consulted small notebooks.  They hardly had the chance to ask any of their questions.  It wasn’t that I was rude.  On the contrary; I simply felt what I had to tell them was far more interesting than what they had to ask me.


I read Thoreau to them; his sermon on John Brown.  Passages out of Walden.  Paine.  I told them these are times that try men’s souls.  And so on.  We hold these truths, I even tried out on them.  Nothing doing.  Their attention wandered.  They were like small restless boys in the classroom, wiggling in their seats.  At times, I showed them where the bathroom was and asked if they wanted any reading matter.  No, they didn’t.  I have done some of my most exploratory reading there, I told them.  No response.


After several such visits, with a notable lack of response on their part, my patience, I must admit, did wear thin.  On one occasion, a visitor took out his notebook and studied it.  Our son, five years old at the time, peered over his shoulder.  The guest abruptly shut the book.  The boy was startled. 


“Why did you do that?”  I asked.


“He was peeking in my book.”


“He’s five years old.”


“This is government information.”


“Is it pornographic?”


“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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