Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose searching interviews with ordinary Americans helped establish oral history as a serious genre, and who for decades was the voluble host of a popular radio show in Chicago, died Friday at his home in Chicago. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by Lois Baum, a friend and longtime colleague at WFMT radio.
In 1980, Terkel won a Peabody Award for excellence in journalism. His official title at the station, where he was instantly recognizable by his wayward white hair, red-and-white-checked shirts and well-chewed cigar, was Free Spirit.
In the 1960s, Andre Schiffrin, the publisher and editor who ran Pantheon Books, was looking for a writer to produce the American equivalent of Jan Myrdal's "Report from a Chinese Village," a collection of interviews that shed light on the lives of ordinary Chinese under Mao Zedong. Schiffrin called Terkel and suggested Chicago as a subject.
Terkel went out into the city's neighborhoods, tape recorder in hand, and produced "Division Street," an enormous success and the beginning of a lifelong relationship in which Schiffrin would propose an idea and Terkel would execute it.
"Division Street" consisted of transcripts of 70 conversations that Terkel had with people of every sort in and around Chicago. Peter Lyon, reviewing it in The New York Times Book Review, said it was "a modern morality play, a drama with as many conflicts as life itself."
In "The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream" (1989), Terkel returned to an earlier subject and looked at it afresh. When Random House executives forced Schiffrin out as head of Pantheon, Terkel walked out with him and took his work to Schiffrin's New Press. New Press published "My American Century," a "best of" compilation. It was followed by two more volumes of memoirs, "Touch and Go" (2007), and "P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening," which is to be published on Nov. 11. In 1997, Terkel received the National Book Foundation Medal for contributions to American letters.
In "Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times," Terkel took on his toughest interview, and many critics found the book frustrating for its refusal to delve too deeply into its author's personal life and feelings. Terkel acknowledged the justice of the complaint. "I've met hundreds, no, I've met thousands of interesting people, and I've been so caught up with them and fascinated by them and intrigued with them it's almost like there's no room inside me to be interested in my own feelings and thoughts," he told an interviewer.