American Dreams: Lost and Found, Studs Terkel, The New Press, New York, 2004
As I have done on other occasion when I am reviewing more than one work by an author I am using some of the same comments, where they are pertinent, as I did in earlier reviews. In this series the first Studs Terkel book reviewed was that of his “The Good War: an Oral History of World War II".
Strangely, as I found out about the recent death of long time pro-working class journalist and general truth-teller "Studs" Terkel I was just beginning to read his "The Good War", about the lives and experiences of, mainly, ordinary people during World War II in America and elsewhere, for review in this space. As with other authors once I get started I tend to like to review several works that are relevant to see where their work goes. In the present case the review of American Dreams: Lost And Found serves a dual purpose.
First, to reflect on the lives of working people (circa 1980 here but the relevant points could be articulated, as well, in 2008): the recent arrivals to these shores hungry to seek the “streets of gold”; those Native Americans, as exemplified in Vince DeLoria’s story, whose ancestors precede our own and who continue to bring up the rear; those blacks and mountain whites who made the internal migratory trek from the South and, in some cases, found more in common than in difference; and, others who do not easily fit into any of those patterns but who nevertheless have stories to tell. And grievances, just, unjust or whimsical, to spill. Secondly, always hovering in the background is one of Studs’ preoccupations- the fate of his generation- ‘so-called “greatest generation”. Those stories, as told here, are certainly a mixed bag. Thus, there is no little irony in the title of this oral history.
One thing that I noticed immediately after reading this book, and as is true of the majority of Terkel’s interview books, is that he is not the dominant presence but is a rather light, if intensely interested, interloper in these stories. For better or worse the interviewees get to tell their stories, unchained. In this age of 24/7 media coverage with every half-baked journalist or wannabe interjecting his or her personality into somebody else’s story this was, and is, rather refreshing. Of course this journalistic virtue does not mean that Studs did not have control over who got to tell their stories and who didn’t to fit his preoccupations and sense of order. He has a point he wants to make and that is that although most “ordinary” people do not make the history books they certainly make history, if not always of their own accord or to their own liking. Again, kudos and adieu Studs.