In Reading to Myself, which takes its title from Studs Terkel’s memoir Talking to Myself (1977), festival programmer Paul Durica revisits classic Terkel texts in anticipation of Let’s Get Working.
Studs Terkel’s first oral history Division Street: America (1967) focuses on the familiar territory of Chicago although the book’s beginnings can be traced back to a trip to South Africa and a village in China. A budding television career curtailed and a newspaper column dropped as a result of McCarthy-era blacklisting, Terkel had found a safe harbor and receptive audience with his radio show on WFMT. Daily he interviewed people from Chicago and those just passing through—the famous, infamous, and the unknown. The radio work took him to South Africa in 1963 where he interviewed author Alan Paton and African National Congress leader and Noble Peace Prize-winner Albert Luthuli among others at a moment when the majority of Americans were unaware of the harsh realities of Apartheid. The South Africa interviews came to the attention of Andre Schifrin, an editor at Pantheon Books who had worked with Jan Myrdal on Report from a Chinese Village (1963), which made use of oral histories to tell a cross-generational story of life in a single village before, during, and after the Communist Revolution. Schifrin wondered if a similar kind of book could be written about an American city and asked Terkel to write it.
As he makes clear in his preface, there is an actual Division Street in Chicago, but the title should be understood metaphorically. Through the stories of everyday Chicagoans from all walks of life, Terkel traces out a host of divisions based on race, sex, class, education, age, and even geography—the city’s sheer size ensures that some communities must struggle to find a common ground. The book is also very much of its moment, revealing Chicagoan’s divergent views toward urban renewal; the Civil Rights movement; the Vietnam War; nuclear annihilation; and all those families from Appalachia that have suddenly settled down in Uptown.
The book begins with Florence Scala and ends with Jessie Binford, two women united by a shared cause—opposition to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s plan to establish the University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus in the neighborhoods of Little Italy and Greektown—and a love of a place and institution dear to countless Chicagoans, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr’s Hull-House. According to Binford, Hull-House “grew from the bottom up” and created a community that cut across the divisions of class, race, sex, and age. The dissolution of this community in Division Street stands in for a larger pattern wherein residents, as Florence Scala believed, “don’t really feel a part of Chicago today.” But Division Street responds to this pervading sense of isolation through its editing. One of Terkel’s subjects, Lucy Jefferson, speaks of something she calls the “feeling tone,” which allows her to ascertain whether someone she encounters will feel friendly or hostile toward her. The book performs its own version of the “feeling tone” by juxtaposing the stories of seemingly disparate Chicagoans that when read in succession produce a kind of communion. Division Street continually reminds its readers of how much common ground exists at a moment, the late 1960s, when the country at large appeared on the verge of fracturing. As Hull-House once did, Division Street reminds its readers that Chicago “belong(s) to everybody” and that life is often “learned from life itself.”
The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is partnering with Let’s Get Working on two programs. More information to come...
- I arrived in Chicago on an awfully hot July day. Every other place was a saloon, the streets were dirty. The air was heavy. I had left the beautiful Iowa countryside, and I wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake. And no one paid much attention to me. The next morning I said to Miss Jane Addams, ‘I want you to tell me what I am to do.’ And then she said what seemed to m the most wonderful introduction for a young person: ‘I wouldn’t do anything if I were you for a while. Just look around and get acquainted and perhaps you’ll think of something to do that none of the rest of us has ever thought of before.’ I don’t know, it gave me a kind of freedom.
- Andre Schiffrin, on publishing the American edition of Jan Myrdal’s Report from a Chinese Village, wondered whether a similar communication might not be forthcoming from an American ‘village.’ A Chinese village, an American city: why not? I had expected difficulties, of course, but none as formidable as the ones I actually experienced. The problems were not posed by the people I encountered. There was a shyness in many cases, in others a strange eagerness, but always a friendliness—one a few ground rules were established. The problem was the nature of the city itself. And the time in which we live.
- I was born in Chicago, and I’ve always loved the city. I’m not sure any more. I love it and I hate it every day. What I hate is that so much of it is ugly, you see? And you really can’t do very much about it. I hate the fact that so much of it is inhuman in the way we don’t pay attention to each other. And we can do very little about making it human ourselves. What I love is the excitement of the city. There are things happening in the city everyday that make you feel dependent on your neighbor. But there’s detachment, too. You don’t really feel part of Chicago today, 1965. Any more. I don’t feel any.
- You’re talking about teachers. I bet he never had the same teacher twice in two weeks in two years. It’s a disgrace to keep on calling these places schools. I think the best thing we can say about them, these are meeting places where people get up every morning, give their children a dollar, seventy-five cents, or whatever the heck they give ‘em, and these kids go off. Schools you learn in. They could take a storefront on Roosevelt Road or anywhere and clean it up, put some seats in there, and put some books in. But see, you can’t learn anything where there is no books. Melvin went a whole half year at Crane, didn’t have a book. If I woke up in a house that didn’t have a book in, I’d just burn it down, it wouldn’t be any good. To me, they’re my life blood.