Forty years ago this month, Studs Terkel published his epic oral history, Working: People Talk About What They Do all Day and How they Feel About What They Do. Today, the book reads like dispatches from a lost world.
Chicagoans knew Terkel, who was 96 when he died in 2008, as a legendary broadcaster and master interviewer. Nationally, his reputation rested on his oral histories – books of edited interviews, mostly with unsung Americans, about their lives during the Depression, in World War II, or in old age. One of them, “The Good War,” won a Pulitzer Prize.
Working was probably Terkel’s best and best-known book. It includes interviews with 137 persons, from steelworkers to truckers to stewardesses (as they were called then) to jockeys to bosses. Recurring themes run through the book, and it is these themes that make it ancient history. There's no better way to gauge the changes in working life than to re-read how it seemed then.