Feeling good

Michael Rogin

  • The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream by Studs Terkel
    Hamish Hamilton, 439 pp, £15.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 241 12667 3
  • More than Bread: Ethnography of a Soup Kitchen by Irene Glasser
    University of Alabama Press, 180 pp, $22.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 8173 0397 9

Ronald Reagan left office more popular than any departing President since the end of World War Two. The same month Americans interviewed in a telephone poll achieved on a happiness scale the highest score in decades. Reagan’s popularity and American self-satisfaction have not risen together because of any general improvement in the standard of living: the rich are richer than they were a decade ago, the poor are poorer, and the average American stands about the same. It is not prosperity that accounts for the return of American happiness, but rather the terms on which the inhabitants of the United States connect their private lives to their sense of national well-being.

The great divide, as Studs Terkel uses the phrase, cuts Americans off from any disturbing connections to their forebears, their contemporaries and even themselves. First and most obviously, the great divide separates the rich from the poor, white from black, those with tolerable food, clothing and shelter from the underclass guests at the Tabernacle Soup Kitchen. Second, the mass choice of private security over public amenities, as recounted in Terkel’s interviews, atomises neighbourhoods and starves public institutions which sustain collective pleasure. As the number of American billionaires doubled, a Californian county closed its library system for lack of the money to support it. At the same time, the dream of the stable, home-owning family has receded from the horizon of expectation.

The great divide, in another of its meanings, points to the gap between the actual existence of Americans and the fantasies they inhabit. ‘Instead of saying, It’s Chase Manhattan that created Wisconsin Steel’s closing, it’s not you,’ explains the director of a neighbourhood association, ‘we live in the world of Dallas, of daytime soaps, in a world of fantasy. So we don’t have to deal with the real world.’ A college teacher reports that his students come late to class so as not to miss All My Children, and talk about the characters in the soaps as if they were their real friends. As Americans live through the rich and famous, the boundary between real and fictional examples becomes even harder to draw. President Reagan’s popularity and American happiness rose together – ‘the man is our whole nation,’ one young man tells Terkel – because the former actor’s success in surmounting the reality principle, in the television series centred on the White House, provided a model for popular imitation.

The great divide also points, as in Vice-President Dan Quayle’s denial that the holocaust happened in this century, to a present cut off from the past. Terkel describes an ‘amnesia’ over American history, a ‘collective Altzheimer’s disease’. Americans keep alive their mythic vision of the country by closing their eyes to historical transformations: as the former President rides off into the sunset, his Administration’s farm foreclosure policy (its consequences are detailed in Terkel’s pages) obliterates the family farm.

More than Bread hardly seems calculated to lighten the mood, for sociologist Irene Glasser, a participant-observer in the soup kitchen of a small New England city, forces on our attention the impoverished, alcoholic, physically disfigured and mentally disturbed inhabitants on the other side of the great divide. The decline in state assistance for the poor, the rise of a permanent underclass discouraged from looking for jobs (as employment comes to depend less on willingness to work), the elimination of shelter (through the de-institutionalisation of the mentally ill and the destruction of low-income housing), and the mutual reinforcement between life on the edge and physical and mental disabilities, have all contributed to generating a larger soup-kitchen clientele than at any time since the Thirties. But the misery which in those days drove Americans to soup kitchens was shared across all walks of life. Whatever their problems with making ends meet, with children, shelter, divorce and illness, few readers of More than Bread, or of this review, will recognise themselves in the soup kitchen.

The guests in the Tabernacle Soup Kitchen are also on the other side of the great divide in a more unexpected way. As Studs Terkel’s subjects lament community decline, Irene Glasser finds community re-forming in the soup-kitchen. Unlike the professionals in social-service agencies, soup-kitchen workers wear no uniforms, make no diagnoses, keep no records, and establish only the most minimal rules (no fighting in the soup kitchen, and no drugs that have not already been ingested). Bizarre clothes and personal behaviour, talking to oneself, waving one’s arms, smoking and hallucinating: all these are uncritically accepted, and it is in this atmosphere that those who are totally alone find refuge. One-third of the soup-kitchen guests return year after year, and large numbers show up well before the mid-day meal.

There is surely something distorted in a characterisation of the contemporary United States which finds hope in a soup kitchen and despair in the rest of the country. Undercurrents in The Great Divide – only some of them intended by the author – run against the general gloom. Unlike Terkel’s previous, less jaundiced collections, this one takes shape from a thesis; and one may sometimes wonder whether the oral historian is passing off his own disenchantment with the direction of American society as the representative voice of the country. Terkel himself, moreover, undercuts his own disillusion. Once he has presented his thesis, in the introduction and through the mouths of his first subjects, the vitality of the oral histories takes over; and by midway through The Great Div-ide he has reanimated the depressed reader. The greatest divide that emerges from this book is that separating the vividness of Terkel’s ordinary Americans (even those one wants to despise, like the teenager who made money by buying Union Carbide when its stock fell after the Bhopal disaster) from the empty, denatured clichés in the language of the governing classes.

The revival of religious fundamentalism, a nightmare of the Eighties in the United States and everywhere else, contributes to the gloom of the book’s early pages. High-school students in Girard, Pennsylvania and college students in Little Rock, Arkansas all reject evolution. (Not having heard of the Tennessee Scopes trial of 1924, they don’t know that it was supposed to have marked the apogee and subsequent decline of provincial religious superstition.) Fundamentalists ban books (including Terkel’s), and persecute a church-going, Middle American librarian. A self-satisfied suburban minister sells tape-recordings of his sermons to his congregation.

Instead of serving as Terkel’s culprit for the great divide, however, religion is the single alternative discourse to the cash nexus that Terkel hears. A radical Lutheran minister protests against the closing of the Pittsburgh steel mills. (Applying the parable of the loaves and fishes, unemployed steel-workers place fish in Mellon bank deposit boxes: let the bank which avoids its responsibility for the closures deal with the stink.) A career woman (‘I was a pre-yuppie yuppie’) returns to religion as her church offers sanctuary to El Salvadorian refugees. (It was prosecuted by the Reagan Administration for transporting illegal aliens.) Jean Gump, a Catholic for 32 years, commemorated Good Friday by pouring blood on a Minuteman missile. The book’s concluding section contains only two interviews: Jean Gump’s husband, Joe, describes how he followed his wife’s example, and 0378-045, Jean Gump, talks by telephone from jail. They are accorded a privileged place which Terkel hasn’t given to any of his subjects before now.

The religious turn in these two books is troublesome, not because it endorses fanaticism but to the extent that it registers retreat. Those meeting Glasser’s subjects for the first time are most likely to be struck by the bleakness and physical misery of their existence. The occasional life is significantly improved through the soup kitchen; and many others are sustained there. But social connection should not be confused with political or economic action; it is good work in bad times. If we speak the language of religion, Proudhon explained, it is because we have no other. But Proudhon, like Terkel’s activists from the Thirties through the Seventies, transformed religious roots into secular political visions. They were fighting battles at the centre of society, not bearing witness at its margins. Ed Sadlowski challenged bosses and conservative union leaders as a militant, employed steelworker: he was not, like Pastor Douglas Roth, saving the unemployed from suicide. Sam Lovejoy toppled a tower announcing a nuclear power site, educated his judge and jury about nuclear risks, and won his own acquittal. Jean Gump, refusing to reimburse the Government for damaging its property (she proposes that the state pay her $524.28 fine and save taxpayers the $300,000 cost of her imprisonment), will spend a decade in jail. Calling attention to foreclosed farmers, unemployed steelworkers, Central American refugees, urban street people, omnipresent and invisible missile silos, those who bear witness in these two books testify to the general indifference that surrounds them.

Studs Terkel’s America came of age in the Thirties, in working-class organisation, urban neighbourhood and rural community. That America created the welfare state, whose agencies for helping the poor Irene Glasser now finds less supportive than the traditional church. When Studs Terkel stands with religion, the America organised around the New Deal legacy has come to an end.