Studs has described himself though as a guerilla journalist. It’s not exactly a term that journalism professors or newspaper editors would embrace. But I like the notion that it conjures up—journalists who don’t necessarily follow the same well-worn paths as other, journalists who instead navigate the streets and back alleys of our small towns and crowded cities, journalists who make it their mission to penetrate the heart and soul of this country, honestly and squarely. At a time when we in this profession are so obsessed with the rich and the beautiful, where we ponder such weighty matters as where Martha Stewart is going to go to prison or how long Britney Spears’s new marriage will last, or the outcome of the latest episode of Survivor, Studs reminds us of where we should be focused. He captures the rhythms of everyday life, of everyday dreams. The stories he’s collected, strung together over the past 40 years, are a riff on the American way of life. Striking notes of hope and despair, of laughter and tears, of stubbornness and transformation, Studs once said of his own work that it’s “…History from the bottom up, rather than history written by the generals.” It is, most simply put, ordinary people talking of extraordinary moments. Studs is also fond of quoting Bertolt Brecht, in fact, so much so that I went back and found a speech of his where these have become his own words at this point. What he often says, and he quotes this poem from Brecht, “When the Chinese wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gall, was there not even a cook in the army? When the Armada sank, King Phillip wept; were there no other tears?” Studs, as Brecht suggests, celebrates the uncelebrated. He recognizes that there is a poetry in the everyday lingo and stories of everyday people, or the people whom he’s referred to at times as “the etceteras.”
If you wanted to travel and to understand the American landscape of the past century, the place I would go to would be Studs’s books, from Working to The Good War to Hard Times to my personal favorite, American Dreams. It’s the soul of the nation captured on these pages, a look at America from the inside out. The personal, it has been said, is the political, and nowhere is that more evident than in the people Studs has interviewed. He has recognized that often outsiders have a much clearer and cleaner perspective on what’s going on on the inside. However one characterizes Studs and his work, what is clear is this: Studs, like Elijah Lovejoy, operates out of a deeply felt and deeply held conviction, and this is not to be confused with partisanship. With the general cacophony of the uncivil, shoot-from-your-hip voices on today’s bestseller lists, there is at the moment, I think, too much shouting going on, too much ranting, too much stay-at-home, here’s-what-I-think, I-know-what’s-best diatribes from writers who have little curiosity of the lives of people at all different from their own.
Don’t get me wrong—as you can see from this clip, Studs holds very strong political beliefs; that’s pretty self-evident. Shoot, he still talks about his time with Norman Thomas in 1948, and not long ago when he was in the hospital I had visited him and I remember he said to me (I had visited him just a few weeks earlier)—”How’s it look?” And I thought of course that he was speaking of himself, so I told him that he had gotten some color back, he was looking a little bit more himself, that his speech was more recognizable. And he said, “No! How does it look? The election!” Even from his hospital bed out of surgery, he was fully engaged with the world.
Studs, like Lovejoy, operates not out of a partisan framework, but rather out of a resolute and clear sense of how the world should operate—and how it shouldn’t. It is a journalism which comes of a moral view of the universe, out of a sense of fairness, a sense of justice. As Lois Baum said in the film, the wish is that life be fair to everyone.
Here is the other rather clear characteristic I think of Studs’s work. It has, as Bro mentioned in the citation, taught us how to listen. And I don’t mean that glibly. If you’ve had the good fortune to spend any time with Studs, you would quickly realize that this is a man who likes to talk. I have a friend who regularly travels with Studs and he tells me that to put himself to sleep he’ll recite the names of all his friends who have departed, which, as you might imagine, gets longer and longer, or the rosters of his favorite baseball teams, like the 1928 New York Giants—and there is Bill Terry at first base, Andy Cohen at second, Freddie Lindstrom at third, Shanty Hogan behind the plate. He is a man for whom listening does not come easy, and he recognizes that for all of us. It’s something that he’s clearly worked at, developed it into an art, a discipline. And now, as you can tell, it comes rather naturally to him.
At that same visit at the hospital, when I finally figured out what he was asking me about when he was asking me how things looked, he then went on to tell me that he was quite worried because his I.V. nurse, whom he liked a lot, and his cardiologist, whom he depended on, both told him that they were voting for Bush. But where Studs differs from our contemporary pundits, Studs did not lecture them or cajole them. Instead he did what he does best, which is ask them questions. He wanted to know why they were leaning toward Bush; what would make them change their vote? He was filled with curiosity, though I suppose that he also hoped that by asking the right questions he would get them to realize their misguided foolishness. Studs is not a passive listener; he’s not some vessel into which people pour out their hearts. He engages, he pokes and prods, he pushes and probes. He is the master of helping people make sense of their lives. Perhaps rather than thinking of Studs as a masterful listener, maybe it’s more appropriate that we consider him a kind of grand inquisitor. He is, as Margot Fonteyn suggested, a dancer—he improvises, and yet he does so with discipline, with such respect for his partners, and with such a terrific ear for the music at hand.
I want to tell you a little bit about how I first met Studs. I of course met him through his work; I read Working when I was in college, but, as was alluded to in this tribute, Studs for forty years had a daily radio show in Chicago. He was kind of a Terry Gross before there was a Terry Gross. He would interview authors and musicians, philosophers and scientists, and it was an extraordinary event. And one time, in the late 1970s, he had my father on. My dad is a writer, a novelist and a memoir, and Studs had him on to talk about one of his novels, The Boardwalk. And so when I moved to Chicago in 1984, one of the first things that I did was to go down to WFMT to get a tape of that interview. And I learned things about my dad that I had never known. It was the first time, for instance, that he ever spoke publicly about his experience in the war. And it was a rather unsettling one, in which he was a lone survivor in a platoon after an ambush by the Germans. But somehow Studs, in the hour that they had together, managed to draw him out, to open him up.