Notes on “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (1984) by Studs Terkel

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Studs Terkel

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the things I’d like to start offering here at the blog is book reviews. “Reviewing” may not be quite the right word for what I’ll be doing, though; I think it will be something more like “making notes.” I should think that either reviews or notes would be interesting for anyone who cares to follow a blog focused on “the intersection of oral history and the documentary arts,” but it’s the latter option that would certainly be most useful for me personally. (That said, you can expect actual reviews from time to time — in fact, I’ve just agreed to review a germane new book for a publication that I’ve written for in the past.)

There are a few practical reasons for not writing reviews as such. Reviews are meant to provide a comprehensive overview and robust assessment of the book under consideration; in these ways, they’re a lot of work for the reviewer. Also, while I suspect that reviews of new books would be most useful for interested readers, I’d like to discuss books both new and old. In addition, there are certainly lots of options elsewhere if you’re looking for formal book reviews.

And, of course, some books don’t exactly need reviewing. Take for instance the great Studs Terkel’s magisterial “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (1984): among many, many other plaudits, it received the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and has been called “the richest and most powerful single document of the American experience in World War II” by no less than the Boston Globe. Am I really going to sing its praises more eloquently or astutely than others already have? Probably not.

What I think I can do that’s at least a little bit different is consider books like “The Good War” through the prism of my interest in the places where oral history and the documentary arts intersect. However, this is not to say that Terkel’s place within this constellation hasn’t already been argued over elsewhere; quite the contrary. Approaching this issue head-on for a 2014 article in the Oral History Review, Michael Frisch writes:

For a long time, many oral historians have had reservations about how seriously Terkel’s work can be taken, whether methodologically, substantively, or theoretically. Many have felt Terkel to be, at best, a figure from the informal prehistory of a rapidly growing scholarly field. He has always seemed to some a popularizer with great appeal but little discipline or depth, or a romantic populist evoking the voice of the people but not engaged with the more complex questions, intellectual and political, that have come to inform studies of orality, memory, and narrative in recent years.

Elsewhere, in the 2014 edition of his essential textbook Doing Oral History, Donald A. Ritchie notes (pg. 129):

Oral historians have expressed suspicion over the popular books of Studs Terkel, who usually removed his own questions and sometimes reordered his interviewee’s answers. When Charles Morrissey questioned some of the Vermonters quoted in Terkel’s American Dreams, Lost and Found (1980), they objected to the way their remarks appeared in print. One complained that Terkel ‘applied his thoughts to my words and came up with the version in his book.’ Another felt that his words had been rearranged ‘in such a way that I can’t make sense of it.'”

Frisch also discusses ways these criticisms have played out within the field of oral history as it has developed. Highlights include “a testimonial plenary at the 1995 Oral History Association annual meeting” that was rocked by “considerable controversy about how, or even whether, to honor Terkel.” Not to mention William Morris’s review of “The Good War” for the Oral History Review, which “[answers] its title question, ‘Oral History or Literary Impressionism?’ by consigning Terkel’s work to the latter.” His books seem to have been viewed very much the same way in journalistic and literary circles as well: as Frisch notes, for instance, the Pulitzer Prize for “The Good War” was “awarded for general nonfiction, not for history (oral or otherwise).”

Terkel and his books have always meant a tremendous lot to me personally, so much so that when I used to visit Chicago (while he was still alive) I would make sure to swing by “Bughouse Square” (aka Washington Square Park) — his favorite spot in the city — just to see if I could spot the man. In addition, during my time as a student of religion, Terkel’s exceptional Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (2001) was one of the books I returned to often.

Having said that, it’s not sentiment alone that makes me dissatisfied with how Terkel and his works have been treated by oral history “gatekeepers.” For one thing, as I mentioned in the aforementioned post from a few weeks back, Terkel famously eschewed the label of “oral historian,” choosing instead to call himself a “guerilla journalist.” Furthermore, describing his work in the introduction to “The Good War”, the author quotes from his own earlier volume, 1970’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (pg. 3 in both books):

This is a memory book, rather than one of hard fact and precise statistic. In recalling an epoch, some forty years ago, my colleagues experienced pain, in some instances: exhilaration, in others. Often it was a fusing of both. A hesitancy, at first, was followed by a flow of memories: long-ago hurts and small triumphs. Honors and humiliations. There was laughter, too.

Terkel’s books are definitely oral histories, but they are not academic oral histories. Holding them to the same standard that we might hold the work of, say, Ritchie or Frisch, then, is really dirty pool.

The mighty Alessando Portelli helpfully clarifies things in the essay “Oral History as Genre” for his 1997 book The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (pg. 18 – 19):

Speaking to specialists implies the use of a more rigorously technical language (including bibliographies, footnotes, etc.); speaking to the community or to the general public requires a more pointed effort toward communication; the former will be more interpretive, the latter more narrative. Ironically, the originary orality of the sources tends to be retained much more extensively in works not intended primarily for a scholarly audience.

Speaking to the community, or targeting a broad, nonacademic audience, then, does not necessarily subtract from the quality of the work. One of the things that makes oral history different is its democratic potential, which can make an oral history project academically relevant at the same time that it is accessible to the general public, not only through readable books, but also through community projects, exhibits…film, video, the theater. Rhetorical strategies vary significantly, however.

To be sure, Portelli continues, “in the case of the community or the general public, attention must be gained and retained — or, if the word does not offend — entertained” (pg. 19).

In this respect, Terkel and his work have much to teach academic historians. As Peter Dreier explains in The Nation:

Terkel was not the first oral historian, but he transformed the genre into a popular literary form. His books reflected Terkel’s genius for interviewing people and eliciting vivid and fascinating stories from everyday persons, a skill honed over the years on his radio program. He drew people out, creating a tapestry of conversation that revealed insights into the American character. Terkel made people comfortable by being respectful, really listening to them… He believed that most people had something to say worth hearing.

Indeed, Ritchie adds that “a new generation of American historians [who] began writing history ‘from the bottom up'” were “[encouraged in] these efforts [by] the best-selling books of Studs Terkel…” (pg. 7). I should think, then, that academic historians could stand to be a bit more generous when it comes to acknowledging Terkel and his influence, in spite of their qualifications about certain aspects of his work.

Of course, this is not to say that he doesn’t have advocates in the ivory tower — he absolutely does. Frisch, for example, has defended Terkel and his books. He even goes so far as to say that the author of “The Good War” is not only an oral historian, but a historian in the fullest sense:

Studs Terkel is a historian, first if not foremost, because he has done so much to document and study our past. His books will remain a cumulative, definitive chronicle of virtually every dimension of modern American culture and history (with the exception of gender, a subject perhaps for the next Studs Terkel). It’s also worth noting, and with a satisfying sense of irony, that Terkel is most appropriately called a serious historian because, however great his distance from the academy and maybe precisely because of that distance, for over forty years he unfolded, in one major work after another, those arguments about history and historical practice recently trumpeted as “discoveries” (and with so much postmodern huffing and puffing): about history as memory and memory as history, about the social construction and historicity of categories like race, about “sites of contention,” the discourses and dialogics of difference, and so on. Important insights all and crucial tools in the broadened interrogation of the past that propels modern historical scholarship, but in stark danger of implosion into the black hole of academic preciousness, preening, and self-imposed isolation.

If there is one book of Terkel’s in which this is all most apparent, it is surely “The Good War” — Frisch is quite right to dub it “the most historically organized and focused of all his books.” (I think it’s probably reasonable to assume that these facts were part of the Pulitzer committee’s thinking when they chose to honor this book of Terkel’s and not, say, 1974’s better-known and much-beloved Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do.) In a career that has produced many more than its fair share of masterpieces, “The Good War” undeniably stands out.

Though it is exemplary in terms of the Terkel hallmarks discussed above, there is something else that really sets “The Good War” apart: the wideness of the net that it casts. The assembled voices include not only the White male veterans whose stories we’re used to hearing in works like Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (1992) or narrator E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (1981), but also those whose stories we’re far less used to hearing even today, thirty-five years after the book’s initial publication. Among many others, we hear from women, people of color (including incarcerated Japanese-Americans), LGBTQIA+ individuals, children, noncombatants, conscientious objectors, and artists.

In other words, “The Good War” is incredibly “woke” for its time. I am by no means a connoisseur of World War II histories, but I have a very strong suspicion that few — if any — other relevant titles from the 1980s will hold up nearly as well as this one.

We can probably attribute some of this to Terkel’s excellent, leftist politics — or, more specifically, one part of their origins. As Dreier explains: “During the 1930s, his political awareness was…nurtured at Bughouse Square, a free-speech area of a local park where an assortment of Socialists, Communists, vegetarians, Christian fundamentalists, and others would mount soapboxes and hold forth.” Much like his old stomping ground in its heyday, “The Good War” offers a remarkable diversity of voices. And thanks to Terkel’s nonjudgmental listening and skillful interviewing, these voices yield an invaluable assortment of thoughts and opinions on a range of topics — everything from the Atomic Age to how movies depict the combat experience to U.S.-Russia relations in the years after the war.

At the same time, “The Good War” never suggests that the reader should adopt some kind of misguided relativism; Terkel’s moral compass never falters, and he is a clear-sighted and stalwart guide through these vast and varied voices. Consider the the scare quotes in the title. As he explains (pg. vii):

The title of this book was suggested by Herbert Mitgang, who experienced World War II as an army correspondent. It is a phrase that has been frequently voiced by men of his and my generation, to distinguish that war from other wars, declared and undeclared. Quotation marks have been added, not as a matter of caprice or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective “good” mated to the noun “war” is so incongruous.

Discussing common themes in the book’s collected interviews, he continues: “In battle, the order of the day was often disorder. Again and again survivors, gray, bald, potbellied, or cadaverous, remember chaos” (pg. 7). Terkel was a veteran himself, though his was “limited service” in the “air force, 1942-1943” due to a “perforated eardrum”; for him, things were “stateside all the way, safe and uneventful” (pg. 4). The relative ease of his own experience notwithstanding, the author has no illusions about what war is and what it isn’t: the romantic jingoism and selective nostalgia that taint so many World War II histories get no quarter here, and “The Good War” is all the greater for it.

I’ll give Frisch the last word, because I don’t think there’s another scholar who understands Terkel quite as well as he does:

As a historian, he never forgot Marx’s enduring challenge that the point of understanding and interpreting the world ought to be to seek to change it. And in the process of making this point to so many millions of readers and listeners, he changed the practice and potential of oral history profoundly — and of American historiography as well. [Terkel critic Edward] Rothstein was right: “He gave voice to many, among them himself.” Studs Terkel’s enduring works of history preserve many voices and present his own, all in a rich, productive, transparent, engaged conversation that readers will continue to find it easy and meaningful to join. Which is exactly what characterizes the best historians and the histories they leave us.

About Daniel Clarkson Fisher

Daniel Clarkson Fisher is a Toronto-based writer and educator whose most recent work is the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project (CJOHP.org), a digital storytelling initiative inspired by his partner Stephanie Lyn and her family. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, and is currently a contract lecturer in that program.
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