Monday, September 05, 2016

Alan Wieder, former Clevelander authors an oral history about Studs Terkel

Roy Berko

Alan Wieder, Brush High School grad and former resident of South Euclid, is a renowned oral historian.  The author of such books as Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid,  Wieder’s newest volume is Studs Terkel Politics, Culture but Mostly Conversation.

As an oral historian, Wieder interviews the subjects of his books and/or those who knew them in order to address issues, themes, and time-periods through the lives/words of people who lived them. His goal is to let people tell their stories, or not tell their stories, as they see fit, so that the reader can get to know the real person.

 He became interested in oral histories in the mid-seventies when he was in graduate school and had no desire to do a traditional dissertation.  Instead Wieder interviewed Jews of his grandparent’s generation to tell stories of their educational & occupational aspirations and lives and how it influenced their children and grandchildren.  This led to an interest in relating the lives of people, ordinary, as well as the well-known.

As he read more and more about the process of oral histories, he came across the works of Studs Terkel.  As Wieder says, “I was blown away by Hard Times but even more by Division Street America.”

He relates, “Most of my recent work is different than Studs. The last book where I used first-person oral histories, vignettes, was Voices from Cape Town Classrooms.”

“I did interviews with teachers who fought the apartheid regime from various political perspectives – it was about progressive voices of what Studs called the ‘uncelebrated.’  During that project I was moved to do a book on one particular teacher/politico, Richard Dudley, who stood out as someone who taught  at a coloured school for 45 years and was the head of the Trotskyist organization in South Africa.”

Wieder explains, “I refer to the Terkel book as a narrative/oral history, not a biography.  He also shared, “Part of what I do leads to meeting and sometimes later becoming friends with people who are quite special – uncelebrated and celebrated.”

In the Acknowledgements to the Terkel book, Wieder states, “It was Studs Terkel’s books that made my work possible.”  He explains, “In the 1970s oral history did not have academic credibility, even in history departments and certainly not in educational schools. I think that my [advisory] committee was good with what I did because of Studs’ books.”

How is this book about Studs Terkel different from Tony Parker’s volume, Studs Terkel:  A Life In Words?   Wieder explained, “Tony’s book was straight interviews. My book is a collage combining the interviews I did, Studs’ radio interviews, his books, people interviewing him, as well as articles about him.” 

Studs relied on “scouts” to find people to interview for his various volumes. They were people that Studs either knew or someone put him on to who could introduce him to people and sometimes act as his guide.

How did Wieder find the sources to be interviewed?  He related, “Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers are Chicago people and they provided great contacts. From there I just contacted people. Interestingly, well-known people as well as those you’ve never heard of were keen to talk about Studs. For instance, people like Stephen Schwartz (author of the musicals Pippin and Working) and David Schwimmer (of television Friend’s fame) were thrilled to talk about Studs.  So was Ken Burns (award winning documentary film maker) and Christy Heffner (former Chief Executive Officer of Playboy Enterprises). A Chicago guy, Jamie Kalven, who Studs referred to as a ‘guerilla journalist,’ gave me great insights into Studs’ view that ‘democracy could only exist through conversation/debate.’” 

Wieder related several Studs “factoids” that he uncovered in his interviews.  Included were” “one word to describe Studs’ world view is ‘underdogism.’ He was a lifelong supporter of labor, and unbeknown to many, he fought against white supremacy his entire life.”  “When Barack [Obama] ran for the Senate he [Studs] was a vocal supporter. By the time he ran for President, Studs only thought that it was amazing that we would have a black President.”

What in Terkel’s background appears to have turned him into a rebel with a cause?

“The people who lived in his parent’s men’s hotel, Wobblies, were fanatics who argued and debated.   He listening to political speakers at Bughouse Square – Chicago’s orator’s place.  Other influencers were his father’s love of Eugene Debs (an American labor leader), the Depression, Bill Broonzy (Blue’s singer) and Mahalia Jackson (gospel singer).  Above all his wife Ida whom he viewed as his ultimate teacher.”

Breakbeat Poet Kevin Coval calls Wieder’s book ”revelatory and beautiful” and his prose, “appropriate and stunning.” 

How did Wieder react to that praise?  He stated, “I was taken aback.  Sort of glossed over the words at first but then Joanie [his wife] said, ‘read this again.’  It made me like the book, my book, more than before as does the reaction from so many people, mostly in Chicago.”  

What does Wieder want readers to carry away from Studs Terkel Politics, Culture but Mostly Conversation?  He states, “I think the book accomplishes three things that are unique:
1.    A critical mass of Studs’ stories. Everyone who ever met him has a story but this is the first time they are in one place.
2.    His life long commitment to anti-racism – beginning as a teenager and ending when he died four days before Obama was elected.
3.    The marriage of conversation and democracy. For Studs, you couldn’t have democracy without conversation/debate.”

Wieder will discuss his book on Tuesday, September 20 at 7  PM at MacsBacks Books, 1820 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights.  Admission is free, reservations are not required.