IN SELECTING the subject of his latest book, Studs Terkel asks a question of agonizing, perhaps even dangerous, consequence. Terkel wants to know about that fundamental, if undefinable American truism, the American Dream. Terkel, of course, asks what the Dream is, but that is not and has never been the most important issue about this curious and wonderful native invention. The vital question is whether the Dream still exists.
As is his style, Terkel lets others answer the question for him. Those who lived through the Depression told their story in Hard Times; assorted laborers talked about what they did for a living in Working. In American Dreams, Terkel achieves the extraordinary goal for constructing a book with vivid theme without writing more than a few paragraphs of text. Again, his people supply the words, but Terkel's marvellously aggressive listening and sensitive editing combine to form a lush, almost overgrown book about Americans and their dreams.
The American Dream, which Terkel's people define roughly as the ability to take control of one's own life, binds the American consciousness. For the more than three centuries that Westerners have been coming here, the promise of a better life, or at least a fairer chance at it, has been the most seductive enticement over proffered by one land to others. If, then, the idea of coming to America has faded in allure, and, more importantly, in actual worth, then everything has changed about America--and for the worse.
BUT, LUCKY for the country, Terkel's people by and large say the Dream still lives. Not every story is happy--in fact, most have a thin filament of personal disappointment stretched across the top. But the near-universal insistence of Terkel's subject that the Dream is alive somewhere, if not in their own backyards, testifies that the nation has not suffered terminal spiritual damage.
For all the seriousness of his quest and the importance of its ramifications. Terkel's book never strays to meaningless platitudes and unctuous rambling. The book presents people talking about their lives; and "people," given a sympathetic listener, speak sense, not solemn pontifications about "the city on the hill." The author's selection of these people is inspired. Terkel didn't look for the "correct" ethnic or social mix--this is no Miller Beer commercial with the required ratio of three whites to every Black. He wants a cross-section of opinions, not faces.
The first subject, Emma Knight was Miss U.S.A. in 1973 and didn't like it. An unemployed model, she tried her luck in beauty contests. Like so many people in American Dreams, she doesn't like part of her past, but looks back at it with a laugh and without regrets. She concludes
If I could sit down with every young girl in America for the next fifty years. I could tell them what I like about the pageant, I could tell them what I hated. It wouldn't make any difference. There're always gonna be girls who want to enter the beauty pageant. That's the fantasy: the American Dream.
But not to Leonel Castillo, the next talker. This former director of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service saw the American Dream up close: his job was to apportion it. "I'm torn" he says:
I was it in the Peace Corps. when I was in the Philippines. A mother offered you her infant. You're just a twenty-one-year old kid and she says, "Take my child, take him with you to the States." When you see this multiplied by thousands, it tears you up.
The stories that follow meander from the bitter (a traveling folk singer who says, "All the things I remember have been torn away and replaced with bullshit") to the hopeful (a Black defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles who can't bring himself to hit the first successful Black quarterback). Just a list of the people Terkel talks to would make an interesting book: the president of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the night watchman who discovered the Watergate break-in, a rebel United Mine Workers leader, a professional wrestling promoter, a retired president of a Chicago bank, an anti-FDR Black, and ex-gun moll, Ted Turner, Coleman Youn and others. They are not all nice people--the interview with Joan Crawford, conducted in 1963, is particularly damning, given the revelations of Mommie Dearest. Terkel just lets them talk, egomaniacs, saints and sinners. They only differ from a truly representative sample of the nation in that they are probably more interesting--hardly a grave flaw.
THE CUMULATIVE effect of these stories shatters one of the pervasive myths usually associated with the American Dream: the rugged individualist. Not everybody in this book wants to be thought of as a cowboy poking along into the sunset. They tend to value--even rely on--community much more than Americans are supposed to. Take, for example, Sam Lopez, a former gang member, who reformed and eventually became director of a program for ex-offenders. Like many others, he cannot achieve personal satisfaction until he has helped others; he doesn't come off at all preachy, only determined to see that the American Dream is spread as widely as possible. Terkel does have is share of individualists--a race car driver, a libertarian philosopher, a Chicago cop--but he doesn't pretend that the Dream begins and ends with them. For all that the descendants of Jefferson and Thoreau hold sway over popular mythology, the spirit that producer Abolitionism, Populism and the New Deal still holds sway over many lives.
Terkel revels in giving his readers sudden insights from unexpected sources. An ageing actress who performed in the USO shows in Vietnam asks, "Who wants to die cool? Nobody cool ever changed the world." Or the bitter but successful Mexican businessman who says, "The American Dream, I see now, is governed not by education, opportunity and hard work, but by power and fear. The higher up in the organization you go, the more you have to lose. The dream is not losing." Terkel doesn't capitalize the "d" here as he does elsewhere--this clearly isn't his idea of the Dream.
But the sharpest insight, one that casts its shadow over all the other American Dreams, comes from a poor white southern school woman, obviously uneducated. "It's amazing, even in the backwoods, there's a classic tucked away in some country school," she says. "It's funny, poetry has a way of molding people. There's a buried beauty--(suddenly) Gray's 'Elegy' changed my life. Who knows who's buried, who could have been what." The poet is English, but the words animate Terkel's theme: "Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid/Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire." The dream that one nation can kindle the celestial fire dormant in any person is Terkel's American Dream. And for this woman, Studs Terkel, and the reader of his new book, the Dream survives.