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Speaking of Jobs: Studs Terkel's "Working"

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 13, 2011 04:00 PM

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Jobs are in the news a lot right now -- and, almost always, they're talked about in the abstract, as a general quantity. If you want to learn about the concrete, specific, real jobs ordinary Americans do, you can't do better than Studs Terkel's classic book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Published in 1974, it contains interviews with dozens of ordinary people from a representative sampling of American workplaces. Waiters, policemen, telephone operators, truckers, welders, salesmen, farmers, field workers, supermarket baggers, stewardesses, jockeys, editors, actors, and gravediggers are only some of the workers interviewed. Each person talks about his or her working life in their own words. It's revelatory.

Studs Terkel, oral historian.

Many of the interviews take place in Chicago, but Terkel traveled all over the country to get them; he talks to a female ad writer on Madison Avenue, and to an actor in Hollywood. Everyone, he discovers, struggles for a little independence on the job; almost everyone finds his job to be a source of dignity; and most people feel the sting of being bossed around by customers or superiors, except for those at the top, who fear competition from below. You learn a lot about the day to day minutiae of being, say, an apartment super. But the book is also a time capsule, preserving ordinary people's experiences of race, class, and gender in the late sixties and early seventies. Often, the jobs themselves were different because of gender attitudes: Terry Mason, a stewardess, explains that she's expected to be "lively," playing cards and chatting with passengers on long flights. (A followup, Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, was assembled and published by a team of historians in 2001; it includes interviews with people working more contemporary jobs, including a UPS deliveryman, a telemarketing supervisor, a temp, a tofu manufacturer, and a crime scene cleaner.)

Over at NPR, you can hear some of Terkel's actual interview recordings. Dolores Dante, a waitress, tells Terkel: "I do this sort of self-hypnosis, in order to enjoy my job.... I feel like a ballerina. If I drop a fork, there is a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it." There are interviews with a few famous people in the mix: Pauline Kael talks about being a film critic; Rip Torn about being an actor; George Allen about being a football coach. But the focus is squarely on ordinary working people -- people who are never asked to talk about their jobs, or about themselves. Working makes a simple, fundamental point: Every job is important and meaningful to the person who does it.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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