Writer Biography: Louis Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel almost defies categorization. He has been an actor, writer, interviewer, and talk show host. He was past fifty when he published his first book, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Born in New York City in 1912, Studs Terkel became synonymous with the city of Chicago for his potpurri of endeavors. Terkel likes to tell people that his birth was the same year the the Titanic sunk.

Raised in a rooming house by his mother in the middle of the city of Chicago, Terkel took an early interest in books and began reading voraciously. His favorite character was author James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan." Terkel identified with Lonigan so much that he began infusing his personality with that of Lonigan. Although his birth name was Louis, Terkel was soon being referred to as "Studs" by people who knew him. It was a name that has endured to this day.

Terkel's academic interests eventually led him to the Univerisity of Chicago, where he graduated from law school. Eschewing a law practice, Terkel gravitated toward acting, appearing in a number of plays and stage productions. He also took part in several soap opera radio productions, often mimicking James Cagney.

As a citizen of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, Terkel was considered a radical and was often shadowed by law enforcement, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His views and his interest in the written word led him to join a writers group, where he had the company of such famed authors as Saul Bellow. Nelson Algren, however, was Terkel's favorite. Algren's chronicaling of the city's sleazy underside and its down and out characters made a deep impression on Terkel. Even today, nearly twenty years after Algren's death, Terkel needs no prompting when asked about the contributions of Algren to the city of Chicago. Terkel will unabashedly praise Algren as the city's greatest writer.

With the advent of television, Terkel hosted a variety and talk show for a stint. He later ended up in radio again, this time as a host and disc jockey for a fine-arts station. It was here that Terkel began utilizing his famed tape recorder and interviewing anyone who would come into the radio station. He interviewed top performers in the areas of blues and jazz music, as well as theatre and stage. When not letting the artists speak, he often played their music and filled his audience in with background on the music. It is not surprising that many people who listened to Terkel's programs heard of such artists as folk singer Woody Guthrie and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson long before the rest of the country did. Terkel was on the cutting edge.

Terkel's proficiency with interviews led him to publish many books, including classics such as "Working" and "Division Street: America". In the former, Terkel took up the topic of labor and let various people speak freely of their occupations and jobs. It became a classic. In 1985, the publication of a book of rememberances and oral histories about World War II would land Terkel a Pulitzer Prize. Called "The Good War", it was ahead of its time and focused on the sacrifices and often uncertain times of a generation that had become tempered by war.

His volumes were revolutionary because the words being printed were not necessarily those of Terkel's. They were the words and feelings of his subjects, often plain-spoken and filled with emotion. It was truly a case of letting one who knows best tell the story.

Today, Terkel is revered in a city that has been the benefactor of so many of his contributions. He is was an institution long before the word became a cliche. Having been tailed by the police in his early years, he now has a street named after him. He has also been honored by the White House for his contributions to American culture. Today, Terkel lives in Chicago and makes appearances in various formats, including television and movies.

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