A National Book Award Finalist and New York Times bestseller
Studs Terkel’s classic oral history Working is a compelling look at jobs and the people who do them. Consisting of over one hundred interviews with everyone from a gravedigger to a studio head, this book provides a “brilliant” and enduring portrait of people’s feelings about their working lives. This edition includes a new foreword by New York Times journalist Adam Cohen (Forbes).
“Splendid . . . Important . . . Rich and fascinating . . . The people we meet are not digits in a poll but real people with real names who share their anecdotes, adventures, and aspirations with us.” —Business Week
“The talk in Working is good talk—earthy, passionate, honest, sometimes tender, sometimes crisp, juicy as reality, seasoned with experience.” —The Washington Post
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About the Author
Studs Terkel (1912–2008) was an award-winning author and radio broadcaster. He is the author of Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession; Division Street: America, Coming of Age: Growing Up in the Twentieth Century; Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times; “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II; Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do; The Studs Terkel Reader: My American Century; American Dreams: Lost and Found; The Studs Terkel Interviews: Film and Theater; Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression; Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith; Giants of Jazz; Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times; And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey; Touch and Go: A Memoir; P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening; and Studs Terkel’s Chicago, all published by The New Press. He was a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of a Presidential National Humanities Medal, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a George Polk Career Award, and the National Book Critics Circle 2003 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.
Date of Birth:May 16, 1912
Date of Death:October 31, 2008
Place of Birth:New York, NY
Place of Death:Chicago, IL
Education:J.D., University of Chicago, 1934
Read an Excerpt
WORKING THE LAND
An autumn evening in a southern Indiana farmhouse. The city, Evansville, industrial and distending, is hardly fifteen miles away — and coming on fast.
It's a modern, well-appointed house. A grandfather's clock, tick-tocking, is the one memento of a "country" past. His father and his grandfather worked this land. "My father was born on the same spot this house is sittin'. And I was born here. We tore the old house down."
His wife, who has a job in the city, and their fourteen-year-old daughter live with him. His older child, a son, is elsewhere. Though he has a few head of beef cattle, soy beans and corn are his source of income. He describes himself as "a poor farmer."
I farm about five-hundred acres. I own in the neighborhood of two-hundred. The rest of it I sharecrop. I give the owners two-fifths and I keep three-fifths. They're absentee. One would be a doctor. And a bricklayer. One would be a contractor widow. (Glances toward his wife) What would you call Roger? An aeronautical engineer. I guess all of 'em have inherited from their parents. They hold it for an investment. If I owned a lot of farm land myself, if I had that much money, I don't think I'd be farming it. I'd let somebody else worry with it.
For a farmer, the return on your investment is so small now that it isn't really worthwhile. A younger person cannot start farming unless they have help from the father or somebody. 'Cause you have to be almost able to retire a rich man to start out. The only way the farmers are making it today is the ones in business keep getting bigger, to kinda offset the acreage, the margin income. I don't know what's gonna happen in the future. I'm afraid it's gonna get rough in time to come.
Your cities are moving out, taking the farm land. If you want to stay in the farming business, it's best not to be too close to the city. But if you're thinking of disposing of your farm in a few years, why then it's an advantage, 'cause it'll be worth a lot more.
I don't see how I'll keep the thing goin'. As I get older and want to slow down ... Well, that's one way of looking at it, retirement. It's either gritting it out or selling. It seems nowadays a lot of 'em do retire and rent it out to a neighbor or somebody. The end of the day, the older you get, the tireder you get.
City people, they think you're well off. When they drive by, I hear a lot of comments, 'cause most of my friends are city people. They drive by and see a big tractor and things settin' down. They envy me, but they don't know what's behind all that.
Farming, it's such a gamble. The weather and the prices and everything that goes with it. You don't have too many good days. It scares when you see how many working days you actually have. You have so many days to get the crop planted and the same in the fall to harvest it. They have this all figured down to the weather and it's just a few days. You try to beat the weather. It tenses you up. Whether we needed rain or we didn't need rain, it affects you in different ways. I have seen a time when you're glad to hear the thunder and lightning. Then again, I've wished I didn't hear it. (Laughs.)
Mrs. Walker interjects: "In his busy season, every morning when we get up the radio goes on right away so we can get the weather report. About ten to six every morning. We just eagerly listen to this report. In the summer when he isn't too busy or like in the winter, we never pay too much attention to it. Otherwise, we watch it close."
Weather will make ya or break ya. The crops have to have enough moisture. If they don't have enough, they hurt. If you have too much, it hurts. You take it like you git. There's nothing you can do about it. You just don't think too much about it. My wife says it doesn't bother me too much. Of course, you still worry ... I don't believe farmers have as much ulcers as business people 'cause their life isn't quite as fast. But I'll say there will be more as times goes on.' Cause farming is changing more. It's more a business now. It's getting to be a big business. It's not the labor any more, it's the management end of it.
Your day doesn't end. A farmer can't do like, say, a doctor — go out of town for the weekend. He has to stay with it. That's just one of the things you have to learn to live with. I'd say a majority of the time a farmer, when he comes in at night and goes to bed, he's tired enough he's not gonna have trouble sleepin'. Of course, he'll get wore down.
He touches a weary cadence as he recounts a twelve-plus-hour workday in the fall: up at six (an earlier rising in the spring, four thirty-five) ... "haul my grain to the elevator in town, which takes about an hour and a half ... combine about three or four loads a day ... there's headlights on the combine, so if I start a load, I'll finish it even though it's after dark ... that'll run from fifteen hundred to two thousand bushel ... five hunderd bushels a truckload ... first thing next morning, I'll take the load to town ... " In the winter he "loafs," helping his wife with her housework, preparing the machinery for spring, planning the fertilizer program, and "a lot of book work," getting all the records up to date for "tax time."
We'll soon be storing the fall harvest. Machinery and a lot of equipment and everything ready to go when the crops mature. That's the big problem: machinery. Combine, you're speaking of twenty thousand dollars. And the eight-row planter for the spring, that's expensive. It's such a large investment for what small return you really get out of it. You won't use it but a month or two out of the year.
My father-in-law helps me an awful lot in the spring and a little in the fall. He drives the tractor for me. My daughter, she drives a tractor when school is out. When I was home there on the farm, there was five children, three boys, and we were on an eighty-acre farm. It took all of us, my father and three boys. You can see the difference machinery plays in it.
The number of farmers are getting less every day and just seems like it's getting worse every year. The younger ones aren't taking over. The majority of the people originated from the farm years ago. But it's been so long ago that the young ones now don't realize anything about the farm. What goes with it or anything like that. The gamble that the farmer takes.
The city people, when they go to the grocery store and the price of meat is raised, they jump up and down. They don't realize what all is behind that. They're thinking of their own self. They don't want to put up that extra money — which I don't blame them either. The same way when I go to buy a piece of equipment. I go jump up and down.
Break the dollar down for food and the farmer's down at the bottom of the list. He's got the most invested of all but he's the smallest percentage-wise out of the food dollar. The processors, it seems like that's the big end of it. The ladies like to buy this ready-prepared and frozen and all that, and that costs 'em.
And chemicals in farming, it's getting to be quite expensive. It seems as though we can't farm without it. They're tryin' to outlaw a lot of 'em, but I don't know. From my end of it, I'd hate to be without 'em. Seems as though if we didn't have chemicals, we wouldn't have crops. It seems like the bugs and the weeds would just about take care of 'em if we didn't have the chemicals. But I don't know ... on the other end, either ... whether it's good for our country or not.
What do you call these — organic farming? They have a lot of good points, but I never did see a large organic farm. They're just more or less small operators. I don't think you can do it on a large scale enough to be feeding a nation. You can see many small organic farms. They used to call'em truck farmers. They had routes to town and deliver produce and like that. He more or less retailed his product to individual homes. He just couldn't get big enough, just like everybody else.
They're using airplanes more all the time. We had our corn sprayed this year by a plane — for blight. You hire a plane, he furnishes the material, and he does it for so much an acre. We had it sprayed twice — with fungicide.
When you get a good crop, that's more or less your reward. If you weren't proud of your work, you wouldn't have no place on the farm. 'Cause you don't work by the hour. And you put in a lot of hours, I tell ya. You wouldn't stay out here till dark and after if you were punchin' a clock. If you didn't like your work and have pride in it, you wouldn't do that.
You're driving a tractor all day long, you don't talk to anyone. You think over a lot of things in your mind, good and bad. You're thinking of a new piece of equipment or renting more land or buying or how you gonna get through the day. I can spend all day in the field by myself and I've never been lonesome. Sometimes I think it's nice to get out by yourself.
The grass is greener on the other side of the fence, they say. When I got out of high school I worked one summer in a factory in Evansville. I didn't like it. I've always been glad I worked that one summer. I know what it is to work in a factory for a little while. The money part of it's good, but the atmosphere, confined. The air and everything like that. I wasn't used to a smelly factory. They have a certain odor, you don't have it out in the field.
I might say I've been real lucky in farming. My wife has helped me an awful lot. She's worked ever since we've been married. My girl, she likes it and loves to get out on the tractor. Our boy really worked. He liked the farm and worked from the time he was old enough until he left. He graduated from Purdue last spring. From observing him from the time he grew up, I would say he'd make a good farmer. He's in Georgia now. He's in management training. He realized he could make more money in some other position than he can farming. I hope he isn't putting money ahead of what he really wants to do. He says he likes what he's doin', so ...
It seems like if they once get out and go to college, there's very few of'em do come back. They realize that as far as the future and the money could be made from farming, it just wasn't there. So that was one thing that turned his mind away from it. Of course, he can always change. I'm hoping ...
I do believe farmers are going to have to band together a little bit more than they have in the past. Whether it'll be through a cooperative or a union, I can't say. The trouble is they're too much individual for the rest of the country nowadays. You're bucking against the organized country, it seems like. And the farmers aren't organized, it seems like.
The big complaint you hear is that when you take your product to the market, you take what they give you. And when you go buy on the other end, you pay what they say. So you're at their mercy on both ends, more or less.
I don't like to — farmers really don't want to, deep in their hearts — but when it gets to a certain point, there's no alternative. 'Cause when a person gets desperate or is about to lose his farm, he'll do about anything he wouldn't do otherwise.
I hate to look at it that way, if the farmer is part of an organization, that would take all the — I wouldn't say enjoyment, no — but it'd be just like any other business. When you all had to sell at a certain time and all that went with it. But I believe it is going to come to that.
POSTSCRIPT: "The family farm has never been stronger than it is now, and it has never been better serviced by the Department of Agriculture." — Earl L. Butz, Secretary of Agriculture, in the keynote speech at the 51st National 4-H Congress (Chicago Sun-Times, November 27, 1972).
I walked out of the fields two years ago. I saw the need to change the California feudal system, to change the lives of farm workers, to make these huge corporations feel they're not above anybody. I am thirty-four years old and I try to organize for the United Farm Workers of America.
His hands are calloused and each of his thumbnails is singularly cut. "If you're picking lettuce, the thumbnails fall off 'cause they're banged on the box. Your hands get swollen. You can't slow down because the foreman sees you're so many boxes behind and you'd better get on. But people would help each other. if you're feeling bad that day, somebody who's feeling pretty good would help. Any people that are suffering have to stick together, whether they like it or not, whether they be black, brown, or pink."
According to Mom, I was born on a cotton sack out in the fields, 'cause she had no money to go to the hospital. When I was a child, we used to migrate from California to Arizona and back and forth. The things I saw shaped my life. I remember when we used to go out and pick carrots and onions, the whole family. We tried to scratch a livin' out of the ground. I saw my parents cry out in despair, even though we had the whole family working. At the time, they were paying sixty-two and a half cents an hour. The average income must have been fifteen hundred dollars, maybe two thousand.
This was supplemented by child labor. During those years, the growers used to have a Pick-Your-Harvest Week. They would get all the migrant kids out of school and have 'em out there pickin' the crops at peak harvest time. A child was off that week and when he went back to school, he got a little gold star. They would make it seem like something civic to do.
We'd pick everything: lettuce, carrots, onions, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes — all the salads you could make out of vegetables, we picked 'em. Citrus fruits, watermelons — you name it. We'd be in Salinas about four months. From there we'd go down into the Imperial Valley. From there we'd go to picking citrus. It was like a cycle. We'd follow the seasons.
After my dad died, my mom would come home and she'd go into her tent and I would go into ours. We'd roughhouse and everything and then we'd go into the tent where Mom was sleeping and I'd see her crying. When I asked her why she was crying she never gave me an answer. All she said was things would get better. She retired a beaten old lady with a lot of dignity. That day she thought would be better never came for her.
"One time, my mom was in bad need of money, so she got a part-time evening job in a restaurant. I'd be helping her. All the growers would come in and they'd be laughing, making nasty remarks, and make passes at her. I used to go out there and kick 'em and my mom told me to leave 'em alone, she could handle 'em. But they would embarrass her and she would cry.
"My mom was a very proud woman. She brought us up without any help from nobody. She kept the family strong. They say that a family that prays together stays together. I say that a family that works together stays together — because of the suffering. My mom couldn't speak English too good. Or much Spanish, for that matter. She wasn't educated. But she knew some prayers and she used to make us say them. That's another thing: when I see the many things in this world and this country, I could tear the churches apart. I never saw a priest out in the fields trying to help people. Maybe in these later years they're doing it. But it's always the church taking from the people.
"We were once asked by the church to bring vegetables to make it a successful bazaar. After we got the stuff there, the only people havin' a goodtime were the rich people because they were the only ones that were buyin' the stuff ..."
I'd go barefoot to school. The bad thing was they used to laugh at us, the Anglo kids. They would laugh because we'd bring tortillas and frijoles to lunch. They would have their nice little compact lunch boxes with cold milk in their thermos and they'd laugh at us because all we had was dried tortillas. Not only would they laugh at us, but the kids would pick fights. My older brother used to do most of the fighting for us and he'd come home with black eyes all the time.
What really hurt is when we had to go on welfare. Nobody knows the erosion of man's dignity. They used to have a label of canned goods that said, "U.S. Commodities. Not to be sold or exchanged." Nobody knows how proud it is to feel when you bought canned goods with your own money.
"I wanted to be accepted. It must have been in sixth grade. It was just before the Fourth of July. They were trying out students for this patriotic play. I wanted to do Abe Lincoln, so I learned the Gettysburg Address inside and out. I'd be out in the fields pickin' the crops and I'd be memorizin'. I was the only one who didn't have to read the part, 'cause I learned it. The part was given to a girl who was a grower's daughter. She had to read it out of a book, but they said she had better diction. I was very disappointed. I quit about eighth grade.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Working"
Copyright © 1974 Studs Terkel.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Other Books by Studs Terkel,
WORKING THE LAND,
A PECKING ORDER,
DID YOU EVER HEAR THE ONE ABOUT THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER ?,
THE DEMON LOVER,
JUST A HOUSEWIFE,
THE QUIET LIFE,
THE SPORTING LIFE,
MA AND PA COURAGE,
REFLECTIONS ON IDLENESS AND RETIREMENT,
THE AGE OF CHARLIE BLOSSOM,
CRADLE TO THE GRAVE,
THE QUIZ KID AND THE CARPENTER,
IN SEARCH OF A CALLING,
FATHERS AND SONS,