Arts & Culture | Working with Studs Terkel | WPRN Staff
“Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” by Studs Terkel is not just a book; it’s a journey into the heart of America’s workforce, a vivid mosaic of the working life, its struggles, joys, and everything in between. In this opinion piece, we delve into the essence of Terkel’s work and its enduring contributions to understanding the American work ethos.
Terkel’s approach was revolutionary for its time. He didn’t just interview people; he listened to them, allowing the space for stories often unheard in the grand narratives of economic and social history. By doing so, Terkel crafted a literary symphony of voices – from the mundane to the extraordinary, from the factory floor to the executive suite.
One of the most striking aspects of Terkel’s work is its raw authenticity. There’s Sarah, the factory worker, whose story isn’t just about the monotony of her job but the resilience it breeds. It’s about finding meaning in the repetitive, a theme that echoes across many of Terkel’s interviews. Then there’s Michael, the Wall Street broker, whose narrative offers a stark contrast. His world is high stakes and adrenaline, a different kind of grind where the toll is more mental than physical.
But Terkel’s book isn’t just a collection of disparate stories; it’s a commentary on the American Dream. It’s about how work shapes our identity, sense of self-worth, and societal place. The stories are as diverse as America, yet there’s a common thread – the search for purpose, recognition, and a sense of belonging.
What makes Terkel’s work timeless is its exploration of the human condition through the lens of work. It’s about the teacher who finds joy in the spark of understanding in a student’s eyes, the farmer whose life is governed by the rhythm of the seasons, and the actress chasing dreams in a city of stars. Each story is a piece of the larger narrative about the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment.
Terkel’s work also serves as a reminder of the often-overlooked segments of the workforce. He brings dignity to every job, challenging the hierarchy that often devalues manual labor or the so-called ‘mundane’ jobs. He elevates the conversation about work from mere economics to a more profound social and philosophical discourse.
Reflecting on Terkel’s contribution, it’s evident that his work goes beyond mere storytelling. It’s a sociological exploration, a historical document, and a celebration of the human spirit in the face of the daily grind. Terkel’s work teaches us to look beyond the superficial aspects of a job title or the economic output of a profession. He invites us to see the person behind the job, their hopes, fears, and aspirations.
In conclusion, Studs Terkel’s “Working” isn’t just about work; it’s a narrative about life itself. It makes us ponder over the roles we play, our choices, and our work’s impact on our identity. It’s a powerful reminder that every job has its story, every worker their voice, and in these narratives lie the true essence of the American spirit. This book is a literary achievement and a vital social document that continues to resonate and inspire.
The book opens with an introduction that sets the stage, describing the diversity of the American workforce. Terkel explains his mission: to uncover the uncelebrated lives of ordinary people. He speaks of the dignity in all work and the often-overlooked significance of what people do for a living.
The first chapter delves into the life of a car park attendant in Chicago. He talks about the monotony of his job yet finds a unique sense of purpose in it. He describes the cars he parks, the conversations he overhears, and his dreams of leaving the parking lot one day for something bigger. Despite the mundanity, he finds moments of joy and pride in his work.
The second chapter shifts to a school teacher in a small town. She discusses the challenges and rewards of teaching. Her story is one of passion and frustration, dealing with bureaucratic limitations while trying to inspire her students. She talks about the individual stories of her students, their struggles, and her efforts to make a difference in their lives.
In the third chapter, Terkel introduces us to a factory worker. This worker describes the physical and mental toll of his job. He talks about the repetitive nature of his work, the noise of the machines, and the camaraderie among his coworkers. Despite the hardships, he takes pride in the skill and precision required in his work.
The fourth chapter focuses on a corporate executive. This person talks about the pressures of the corporate world, the constant race for success, and the isolation it can bring. He reflects on his moral and ethical dilemmas and the often blurred line between right and wrong in business decisions.
The fifth chapter presents the story of a farmer. He discusses the connection to the land, the unpredictability of farming, and the changes in agricultural practices over the years. He talks about his love for the open fields, the satisfaction of harvest, and the challenges modern agribusiness poses.
In the final chapter, Terkel brings together the themes of the book. He reflects on the common threads in the stories: the search for meaning, the dignity of labor, and the universal desire to be recognized and valued. He concludes with a powerful statement on the importance of understanding and appreciating the work that sustains society and the need to give voice to those often unheard.
“Working” is not just a collection of interviews; it’s a mosaic of the human experience in the labor force, a testament to the complexity and diversity of work, and a profound commentary on the human condition.
1. John, a steelworker in Pittsburgh, begins his day before sunrise. His job, demanding and dangerous, is also a source of pride. He speaks of the satisfaction in seeing a tangible product at the end of each day, the steel beams that form the skeletons of skyscrapers. Yet, there’s a weariness in his voice, a longing for something more fulfilling than the repetitive, grueling labor.
2. Maria, a school teacher in Chicago, shares her passion for shaping young minds. Her days are long and often extend into evenings with lesson planning and grading. She talks about the joys of teaching, the moments when a student’s eyes light up with understanding. But there’s also frustration with the bureaucracy of the education system and the lack of resources that sometimes hinder her ability to teach effectively.
3. Tom, a corporate lawyer in New York, sits in his high-rise office. His days are filled with meetings, negotiations, and endless paperwork. He talks about the thrill of closing a big deal, the intellectual challenge of his work. Yet, beneath his confident exterior, there’s an undercurrent of discontent. The long hours and high pressure have affected his personal life.
4. Lucy, a waitress in a small-town diner, greets every customer with a smile. Her job is physically demanding and the pay is modest. She speaks about the sense of community at the diner, the regulars who’ve become like family. However, she admits to feeling stuck, unable to break free from the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.
5. Ahmed, a taxi driver in San Francisco, navigates the busy streets easily. He shares stories of the diverse passengers he meets and the snippets of life he witnesses from behind the wheel. There’s a sense of freedom in his work but also isolation. He speaks of the long hours spent alone, the uncertainty of income, and the struggle to find a sense of belonging in a job that’s always on the move.
6. Sarah, a nurse in a busy hospital, moves with a sense of purpose through her shifts. She talks about the deep satisfaction of helping people, of being there in their most vulnerable moments. Yet, there’s a shadow of exhaustion in her eyes. The emotional toll of her job, the long hours, and the often thankless nature of her work weighs heavily on her.
7. Miguel, a farmer in rural Iowa, surveys his fields with a knowledgeable eye. He speaks of the connection to the land, the rhythms of nature that dictate his days. There’s a simplicity and authenticity to his work that he cherishes. But there’s also worry – about the weather, the markets, and the future of his family farm in an age of industrial agriculture.
8. In these stories, Terkel captures the essence of work in its many forms. The pride and the hardship, the fulfillment and the frustration. Each person’s story is a thread in the tapestry of the American workforce, a reflection of the complex relationship we have with the work we do and how it defines us.