Studs Terkel exemplifies the indefatigable. At age ninety-three, he is still interested in the myriad viewpoints and stories contained in the experiences of his fellow men and women. Hope Dies Last is his eleventh collection of oral histories. Terkel interviews people from all walks of life about the concept of hope, what the word means to them, and how they keep hope despite living in "troubled times". The title of the book itself is the translation of a saying related to him by one of the interviewees: La Esperanza muere ultima.
Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times
The New Press
Available from Powell's Books.
Those expecting a cuddly feel-good read, given the title's humane implications, obviously don't know Studs Terkel. He has written oral histories on a number of subjects -- the Depression, working, death, jobs, et cetera -- but has always shied away from supplying his readers with easy answers to any of these issues. Terkel always gains a multiplicity of perspectives, in part by presenting a wide range of interview subjects. He also avoids allowing too much of his own persona to be present in the books; most of his questions to interview subjects are scrupulously edited out. That said, there is a pervasive sense of unease in Terkel's oeuvre. The Great Depression and personal tragedies have imparted fatalism to his world view. While he is an ardent proponent of progressive causes and has been an outspoken opponent of many social injustices throughout his life, part of Terkel's style of presentation relies on imparting a sense to the reader that all is not right with the world, that our society has messed up but good and we'd better wake up and do something about it.
For many of us, Studs is preaching to the choir in this post-millennial era. But where's the hope in all this? Well, unlike the simplistic idea of keeping hope alive for hope's sake, many of Terkel's interview subjects keep hope alive despite waging war upon the world's injustices, poverty and inhumanity on a daily basis. People like Elaine Jones, from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, give moving testimony of personal courage in their stand against racism and our judicial system's inequities. Alderwoman Hellen Shiller finds hope in seeing young teachers working to keep children attending at inner city schools. Congressman Dan Burton relates his childhood experiences growing up in an abusive household, demonstrating how it has framed his career a public servant in government, from advocating for the rights of abused spouses to his views on foreign policy. "I think of myself as a person who wants to do the right thing. I don't think that we should be bullies... this is a terrible thing to say, but I've developed a hatred toward bullies, any bully".
Terkel interviews people from all walks of life in Hope: custodians, young people he meets on the street, priests, pastors, lawyers and doctors. Some of those advocating causes come off slick, perhaps too well-prepared; many of the most touching responses that he receives are from those who are clearly not used to telling their story. "Maria" and "Pedro" are two Guatemalan illegal immigrants who were given sanctuary in a Catholic church in Chicago. Both passionately want to be part of the American experience; they illuminate the plight of America's growing population of undocumented workers with eloquent simplicity.
Two failed presidential candidates -- Dennis Kucinich and Jerry Brown -- weigh in as well. Both of them speak with great poise and dignity about the importance of hope in the face of personal trials, even in the face of failure. Two folkies are aboard too -- Pete Seeger talks about the importance of hope in the quest to repair our wounded environment, focusing on his work cleaning up the Hudson. Arlo Guthrie gives a rather spiritual take on the concept of hope, connecting his experiences with hope to wisdom learned from his ancestors, the artist's role in conveying hope and the importance of a reflective life in regaining and retaining hope.
Hope Dies Last refuses to provide a one-size-fits-all course for restoring hope to battered souls. While this may cause it be unpopular with the self-help set, the book's tough vision of the world today and uncertain picture of the future are tempered by the many inspirational stories it contains. This may or may not be nonagenarian Terkel's valedictory, but either way, the book is a poignant work of tremendous dignity and integrity that stands proudly beside his best writing. In many ways, its overarching message can be contained in the simple aphorism uttered by Dr. John Oldershaw: "Stay the course".
-- Christian Carey
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