Studs Terkel's Legacy: A Vivid Window on the Great Depression

Historians in the News

After the great crash of 1929, the Wells-Grand Hotel in Chicago began losing guests. The ones who remained had more time for idle pastimes. “The decks of cards were wearing out more quickly” and “the black and red squares of the checkerboard were becoming indistinguishable.”

Those are the recollections of Studs Terkel, from his classic oral history of the Great Depression, “Hard Times.” I found myself re-reading the book this week because of the confluence of two unhappy events: the economic downturn and the death of Mr. Terkel on Oct. 31. He was 96.

I knew Mr. Terkel a bit — enough to appreciate his gentle nature, his deep interest in people of all sorts and his drive to reform the world. As I turned the pages of “Hard Times,” I was struck by the remarkable fit between historian and subject.

In Mr. Terkel’s wide-ranging interviews, the horrors of the Depression come through vividly. A manual laborer on the San Francisco waterfront recalled that when a sugar refinery offered four jobs to a crowd massed at the gates, “a thousand men would fight like a pack of Alaskan dogs” over them.

Dorothy Day, the Catholic social activist, told Mr. Terkel that in 1933 and 1934, “there were so many evictions on the East Side, you couldn’t walk down the streets without seeing furniture on the sidewalk.” An African-American hobo, Louis Banks, said that when he rode on top of boxcars, there was a railroad policeman who wouldn’t ask him to get off the train; he would just shoot....
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