The Seed and the Story: Studs Terkel’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Studs Terkel taking his usual bus journey to work in Chicago. Photograph: Chris Walker/AP

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring oral history, community life, traditions, sustainability in the Yell County area. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier. Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading.

The late Studs Terkel is best known for his books about the lives of everyday Americans. An interviewer and long-time radio host, Terkel had the unique ability to capture the complexity and unique voices of all those he interviewed.  He got his start working with the WPA Federal Writer’s Project and went on to host multiple radio shows in his hometown of Chicago. In 1985 he published the Pulitzer Prize winning, The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, which shared accounts of those involved, directly or indirectly, with the war. Many of other works followed.

His books touch on the undercurrent of American life, often helping the reader see something of themselves in the lives of others, no matter how categorically different they seem initially. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression was published in 1970 and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, came out in 1971. In 1992 he published Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession.  I recently picked up a copy of his 2001 work Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death and Dignity. In an interview with public radio host Bob Edwards, Terkel explained the impetus for this book as a desire to examine that one experience we all will face yet are never able to discuss with one another. With its focus on life as a “finite process,” he described the book as his most “alive” work to date.

Made up of over 60 interviews, each ranging from two to five pages each, the book is filled with stories of the somewhat famous and the not-so-famous discussing the first time they became aware of death, their own experiences dealing with loss and grief, and their fears, or lack thereof, surrounding thoughts of their own mortality. The stories range from heart wrenching to peaceful. Taken as a whole the book can feel overwhelming at times. It’s not exactly depressing or even morbid, but it is emotionally weighty, delving into topics we often attempt to ignore.

Some of the interviews are with well-known writers and musicians, such as Kurt Vonnegut and Doc Watson. Public radio host Ira Glass is featured as is Vine Deloria Jr., the famous Native American writer.  You may recall a previous column about Arkansas ballad singer Almeda Riddle. She is interviewed alongside the great African American Sea Island Singer Bessie Jones, both of them sitting down for a conversation in-between performances at a folk festival. Riddle talks of losing her husband and son in a tornado. Bessie Jones talks of rituals surrounding death in the African American community where she grew up. They both discuss the role singing can play in helping survivors with grief.

Others speak of near death experiences; there are interviews with rabbis and ministers. The book opens with conversations with medical workers and soldiers, those on the front lines of death. Two sections near the end discuss the struggles of those facing what Terkel refers to as “plagues”: Aids and Cancer.  Some people approach their discussion of mortality from a place of faith and belief in some form of the afterlife, while others are agnostic or atheist. Regardless of your own beliefs, and whether you agree or disagree with the interviewees’ perceptions of death, there’s something humbling about reading their words and their willingness to share and discuss such a difficult, ever-present, topic.

Terkel was in his eighties when he wrote this book. He thought it might be his last, yet he went on to write four more. He had recently lost his own wife, to whom the book is dedicated. In the introduction he writes that while the book is about death, he believes it also about it’s “long prelude, life.”

Are you a fan of Studs Terkel? Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Click here to hear a 2001 interview between NPR host Bob Edwards Studs Terkel discussing the book and the events that led up to it. 

More information about Terkel here: Studs Terkel: Conversations with America.