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BOOKS & THE CULTURE What Lasts rif he American Century. The Century of the Com mon Man. The century of the common billionaire, of downsizing and inse curity, of workfare with out work, of a White House for sale and a Congress already bought and paid for. Irrepressible Studs Terkel, struggling to be hopeful, sums up the century as he has known it by anthologizing his introductions to eight of his books, his introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Grapes of Wrath, and his interviews with some four dozen representative Americans of varied ethnicity and social status. Now an institution and hence, perhaps, judged harmless, bemedaled at the White House by a President without principle, Terkel constructs a view of the millennium’s end that is closer to reality than any version by politicians, columnists, or talking heads. Terkel is at once unique and a typical Chicagoan. He went to Chicago at age nine in 1921, by day coach from New York. His mother was an impecunious immigrant hotel-keeper, but he himself managed to attend law school \(unhappily and unsuccesspaid for and William Rainey Harper \(the U. school, as a small-time actor and big-time media personality, Terkel has been around. He can talk to anybody and get anybody talking, too. The President without principle, when he gave Terkel the Humanities Medal in September, called him a “true American original,” said he had “defined the art of the oral history.” Without access to the tapes that Terkel worked from, it’s hard to say much about, his editing or to say how much of a printed voice is Terkel’s and how much the interviewee’s; but if the President had read Terkel’s work and understood it, he should have been disturbed by vox populi. As the holders of the nation’s pursestrings harry the arts and humanities, Clinton recognizes October as “National Arts and Humanities Month.” Anticipating the celebratory interval, he made September 29 a big day at the White House, where he distributed Arts and Humanities Medals to such eminences as TV detective Angela Lansbury, Robert MacNeil \(late of the News Hour for preserving “the woods around Walden Foundation. Clinton spoke to the medalists at 9:45 a.m. in the Rose Garden and at 8:43 p.m. “on the State Floor at the White House,” where “the Arts and Humanities Medal Awards Dinner” was held. The same day, his Press Secretary released a “Message on the Observance of National Arts and Humanities Month.” The drumming repetition of “Arts and Humanities” was accompanied by the predictable stream of Clintonisms. “We take pride in the power of imagination that animates our democracy,” our “nation of creators and innovators,” of “artists and scholars.” The “enduring worth of our Nation lies in…our soaring spirit,” with its “values of tolerance, pluralism, and freedom.” “In this challenging time, we look to our artists and scholars,” including the True American Original, who will “advise the White House Millennium Program on the best way to collect family and community histories, a project we will launch with the NEH this spring.” That same September 29, Clinton commented happily on the “the Income and Poverty Report.” “Rising incomes,” he said, were “lifting families out of poverty,” as he and Hillary went about “preserving the American dream, restoring the middle class, reclaiming the future for our children.” It was Carl Sandburg, a Chicagoan like Terkel, who wrote long ago, “I love to see a good four-flusher work.” Studs Terkel doesn’t indulge in Clintonian mythography. The first of the books that he draws on to compose My American Century is entitled American Dreams: Lost and Found. Part III of My American Century begins with excerpts from The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream. The material from Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression precedes “We Still See Their Faces,” Terkel’ s introduction to the chronicle of the Joads “and all their lost neighbors, tractored out by the cats.” The last interview reprinted from Hard Times is with Peggy Terry, a hillbilly domiciled in Chicago. “I think,” Peggy said, “that’s the worst thing that our system does to people, is to take away their pride. It prevents them from being a human being…. I don’t think it’s right for a handful of people to get ahold of all the things that make living a joy instead of a sorrow.” Though we can’t know much about Terkel’s editing, he does say a good deal about his ways of finding interesting people like Peggy and getting them to talk. “His search,” says Robert Coles in his useful “Foreword,” “has been uniquely broad and deep, an achievement that has required a lifetime to realize.” That’s pretty fancy talk about a man who makes no pretense to scientific method or statistical sophistication. When Terkel sets out on a project, he knows in general what he’s looking for -fortyyear-old memories, say, of the Great Depression. He gets what possibly useful advice he can about how to find what he wants, arms himself with the tape recorder that he’s never really learned how to manage, and heads out. Sometimes he looks doggedly for the precise person he’s heard or read about; sometimes he just stumbles on people by the luck of the skilful. But he knows he wants to talk with all kinds, from low-ranking musclemen for the Syndicate to chief executives, the musclemen of rich corporations. His interviews themselves are intuitive Terkelian History vs. Clintonian Mythography BY JAMES SLEDD MY AMERICAN CENTURY. By Studs Terkel. The New Press. 532 pages. $25.00. 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 19, 1997