U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Terkel and the Problem of Perspective in History

Another retrospective by Edward Rothstein of Studs Terkel’s life and work appeared today in the NYT, this time pointing out his affiliation with the left. The article notes that as an oral historian, Terkel anticipating much of the movement in academic history to tell history from below. But it goes further and notes that as an oral historian, he might have been expected to hold up a glass to the working class whose experiences he sought to record. In fact, Rothstein explains that Terkel’s perspective on the left filtered his oral histories, providing not just the impulse for his work but the context for his editing and the ultimate rhetorical effect of his history. “It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel’s political vision from the contours of his oral history,” Rothstein explains. “You grow more cautious as you keep reading. Mr. Terkel seems less to be discovering the point latent in his conversations than he is in shaping the conversations to make a latent point.” I think this is both an astute reading of Terkel’s work and displays a kind of naivete about the working and mechanisms of objectivity in history. It might be a nice way to start a conversation about history and objectivity in an undergraduate class. –DS

One Thought on this Post

  1. This would also be a particularly good article/topic in light of how undergraduates tend to believe that first-hand/primary evidence is indisputable. Still, it’s harder to sway oral histories—done properly and ethically—to the interviewer’s perspective than when one writes their own history. – TL

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