Terkel's 'Coming of Age': The power of memory


"Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It," by Studs Terkel. New York: The New Press. 468 pages. $25 If you watch much television and read the glossies, you're told that mainstream America is an altogether homogenous place, everyone with the same values, laxative and minivan. True, there are crooks, nasties and homeless minority welfare mothers just around the corner, but TV's virtual reality keeps them in their place.

Studs Terkel tells you otherwise. He offers oral histories of real people, authentic Americans, with all their splendid diversity and quirkiness, and their varied experiences. He's the perfect antidote for the emulsifying pap that Hollyvision and People and Vanity Fair magazines offer as American history and culture.

He has an extraordinary gift for finding interesting and eloquent people. "Coming of Age" is just as good as his earlier books, including "American Dreams, Lost and Found," and "The 'Good War' - an Oral History of World War II." It's the memories of people aged from their mid-70s to 99 - the whole 20th century.

This is a Studs Terkel book, so most of his subjects are good lefties, with a firmly liberal and sometimes socialist view of history, and that, too, is a refreshing change.

The oldest, a black lady called Carolyn Peery, begins, "Oh yes, I remember when the Titanic went down. It was so sad. There was hardly a dry eye anywhere."

She also said, "My mother-in-law remembered seeing the slaves get behind the door, jumping up and down, saying 'God bless Mr. Lincoln. God bless Mr. Lincoln.'" It was a revolution when she and her family abandoned the Republicans and started voting Democratic in the '30s.

A recurrent theme is the old one that those who forget history are destined to repeat it. They lament that the younger generation has no memory, often blaming television. "I think they're frighteningly ignorant. They have no sense of history. What's worse, they don't think it matters. 'Way back then' is a phrase that keeps coming up. They can't imagine fifty years ago. They can't imagine five years ago."

People who survived and surmounted world wars and the Depression have probably earned the right to a certain acerbity.

Others speak warmly of the young, but fear they are in for a rough time - and there's an underlying theme that it would do them good to listen to their elders occasionally. Mr. Terkel has distilled some of that available wisdom for them.

Inevitably, there's a tone of regret in most of these interviews. Nobody wants to get old. Most of them are sharply critical of various aspects of modern culture. America, they say, is less charitable, less kindly than it used to be; but they've seen worse. It's a better place than it was when Jim Crow ruled, and that's just a generation back, and though McCarthyism is ever-present, it's much less powerful than it used to be.

One man said, "At my memorial service, they'll have wine and cheese and Mozart." Another offered a draft obit for himself: "Norman Corwin, age 124, was killed yesterday in a duel with a jealous lover. His gun jammed."

That's the way to go.

Patrick Brogan has written five books including "The Captive Nations: Eastern Europe 1945-1989." He is a reporter for the Herald (Scotland). He has worked as an editorial writer and a foreign correspondent for the Times (London), he reported from Paris and Washington.

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