The Common Good
March-April 2002

How to Live Forever

by Danny Duncan Collum | March-April 2002

Studs Terkel reflects on life, death, and oral history.

The title of Studs Terkel's new book of oral histories—Will the Circle Be Unbroken?—is borrowed from a traditional gospel hymn. In the 1930s, A.P. Carter borrowed that same song, adapted it, and put his name on it for his group The Carter Family. It's an unusual gospel number, if only for the fact that the title is a question. "Will we see our loved ones again?" it asks. The lyric seems to answer in the affirmative. "There's a better home a'waiting, in the sky Lord, in the sky." But—like the fate of the flag in "The Star Spangled Banner"—the question dangles, "Will we get there?" Neither the keepers of gospel tradition, nor A.P. Carter, ever punctuated the title as a question. The question mark might be an overt sign of doubt, or even some sort of jinx.

Well, the question mark is there on the cover of Terkel's book, as large as life, and it's all over his text as well. In the book's 60-plus interviews, an assortment of ministers, doctors, police officers, AIDS sufferers, bereaved parents, near-death survivors, activists, artists, and people on the street wrestle with the ultimate big question. What does it mean to know that we will all die?

For more than 30 years, Studs Terkel has been documenting the dreams, wisdom, and dramas of everyday people in a series of topical oral history books. From Hard Times and Working to The Good War and Coming of Age, Terkel's books have covered the bewildering waterfront of the 20th century. At the end of that century, in his late 80s, with his own body weakened by heart surgery, the only subject remaining was death.

In a telephone interview from his Chicago home, Terkel told me, "We learned when we were growing up that you weren't supposed to talk about death, or about religion, or politics, or sex. That meant you weren't supposed to talk about life. Well," Terkel continued in a theatrical whisper, "this isn't really a book about D-E-A-T-H; it's a book about L-I-F-E."

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith

(New Press), like all of Terkel's books, resounds with a rich chorus of voices from extraordinary people, most of them unknown outside his pages. In Terkel's hands, you begin to feel what Walt Whitman felt when he heard America singing.

"I'm interested in bottom-up history," Terkel said. "The stories of the people you don't hear about in other books. There's a poem by Bertolt Brecht that says, ‘Who built Thebes of the seven gates?' In it he asks, Who hauled those rocks up there? When they were building the pyramids, what did the workers eat for lunch? In 1588, when the Spanish Armada sank and the Queen of Spain cried, who cried the other tears? That's what I'm interested in," Terkel said, "the other tears."

MARC LEVISON IS one of Terkel's blue-collar philosophers who has seen a lot of those tears. He's a paramedic. In the book he talks about some of the death scenes in which he's participated. "The nice ones," Levison says, "were the ones where it was an older person in their eighth or ninth decade of life. You walk into this house and they're either on the floor or in their bedroom. They've been gone for maybe 24 hours. And it looks peaceful. There's all this stuff in the house. The pictures from the '20s and their wedding pictures.... You'd just see the beauty of a person's life, and it struck me that this is where they lived, either the Ukranian Village or the West Side, and it didn't matter what color they were, what religion, or anything else—death is just about the same for everybody. The violent deaths are a lot different...the suicides...the gangbanger that was a tough guy on the street two minutes before. There's no deathbed confessions from the gangbangers," Levison noted. "They're just tough little kids that are trying to survive."

Fifteen years ago, one of those tough little kids was Lloyd "Pete" Haywood, another of Terkel's informants. He almost died when members of a rival gang rained bullets into an elevator in which he and several of his buddies were riding. A few weeks later, still recovering from his wounds, Haywood confronted the man who'd shot him in a housing project playground. One of Haywood's friends handed him a gun and said, "Pete you got him, go on and kill this nigger." But Haywood couldn't and wouldn't do it. He tells Terkel, "I said I wanted all that to be over with and forgotten about because my God is forgiving and in order to be forgave of my sins, I must forgive—that's my belief."

Haywood was still selling drugs at the time of this incident, and he continued to do so for a while. "But in spite of everything," Terkel says, "he had somehow absorbed those values from his religious upbringing."

TERKEL CALLS himself an agnostic, which he defines as "a cowardly atheist," but this book about death became a sort of solace for him when his wife, Ida, died in the middle of the writing. "We were married for 60 years," Terkel said, "and she was like a girl, right up to the end, even though she was almost my age. I continued the work on the book and it became a personal palliative."

Most of the voices in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? express some variety of transcendent faith. Terkel was asked if he made an effort to include divergent points of view in his books. "Of course," he said, "my point of view is always there in the introductions. But if I just had ‘my people' in the book, it wouldn't be much of a book. It wouldn't be worth anything. In fact, the best interview I ever did was with a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, a guy named C.P. Ellis. I had to understand what made him tick as a poor, white man. That's what is really interesting, those stories."

Finally, Terkel was asked to answer his title question. Agnostic or not, will the circle be unbroken? "It will be in one form or another," he said. "Let me tell you a story that says what I mean. Before this book, I did a book called Working, which was all people talking about their jobs. There's a waitress in there who talks about how humiliating her job could be. Well, one day after that book came out, I got stopped on Michigan Avenue by this businessman. He kind of cornered me up against the wall, and I thought, ‘Oh boy, I'm done for now.' Then the guy said, ‘Since I read that book of yours, and read what that waitress said, I'll never, ever talk to a waitress the way that I did before.' Now that is immortality for me. I've influenced that guy, and he's going to outlive me, and maybe he'll pass that attitude on to someone else before he's gone, and so on. And they may not remember my name, but what I did will live on somehow."

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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