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Reading to Myself: Division Street, America

Paul Durica

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...