The title of Studs Terkel's new book of oral historiesWill 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." Butlike 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.