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Who is Studs Turkel?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2018
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Louis “Studs” Turkel is a famous American historian, most remembered for his oral histories of working class Americans. In addition to being an author and historian, Studs Turkel is also a broadcaster, and worked in and out of various radio stations for most of his life. His books include the Pulitzer Prize winning The Good War, a series of interviews about the Second World War, along with numerous other collections of oral history from Americans. They are widely used in high schools and colleges all over the United States to lend voices to history.

His nickname comes from Studs Lonigan, a fictional character in a trilogy by James Farrell. Studs Turkel was born on 16 May 1912 in the Bronx neighborhood of New York. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Chicago. In Chicago, Studs Turkel was introduced to a variety of working class people through the boarding house his parents ran, and he became interested in workers rights, living conditions among the lower classes, and other issues. In 1934, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a law degree, but he ended up going to work for the Works Progress Administration instead, as a writer and broadcaster.

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He wrote columns about jazz and working class life in several newspapers, and also had his own show, the Studs Turkel Program, by 1952. The show ran until 1997, and featured hour long interviews with a variety of Americans, ranging from ordinary members of society to Bob Dylan. In 1953, Studs Turkel was investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy. When asked to testify against other left wing activists, Turkel politely declined. This set the stage for a lifetime of political activism.

In the 1960s, Studs Turkel first became interested in the possibilities of oral history as a method for preserving information about American life. He interviewed numerous people in and around Chicago, focusing on working class life, and published a variety of compendiums on interviews including Working and Hard Times. The books provide colorful and interesting images of what life is and was like in America. Excerpts from the work of Studs Turkel are frequently included in other texts, although most of them also remain in print for those who wish to read them in entirety.

In 1939, Studs Turkel married Irene Goldberg, and they had a single son, Paul. At the age of 95, Turkel continued to fight government intrusion into private life, writing new books, and speaking out about issues which he deemed to be important. His legacy of extensively documented oral history is extremely valuable, and archives of his recorded interviews and conversations are kept in several locations to ensure that they will be accessible to future generations.

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