BOOKS

Lost in America

Chronicling the heartland’s broken dreams

November 21 1988
BOOKS

Lost in America

Chronicling the heartland’s broken dreams

November 21 1988

Lost in America

BOOKS

Chronicling the heartland’s broken dreams

THE GREAT DIVIDE: SECOND THOUGHTS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM By Studs Terkel

(Random House, 439 pages, $25.95)

They are voices from the heartland, the mythic Middle America of Norman Rockwell’s paintings and Ronald Reagan’s roots—the setting for the great self-sustaining American Dream. But few of the people in Studs Terkel’s latest book, The Great Divide, speak of that dream anymore, except in the past tense. Instead, they pour out their grief for the America they knew and loved and which they now believe is lost to them forever. They recognize that they are leading tougher lives than their parents did and are more than half-certain that their own children will lead tougher lives still.

“When I was in high school,” says laid-off Chicago steelworker Ike Mazo,

“they told you: ‘Go out, work hard, make something of your life.’ Now they’re tellin’ you you’re not a good citizen if you’re not willing to accept less. The whole country’s supposed to accept less .... I’m workin’ harder, makin’ less money, got less of a future.” Those comments reflect the prevailing tenor of The Great Divide, the latest—and the bleakest—of the septuagenarian author’s oral histories of his country.

Best-known for his 1974 book, Working, and for his 1985 Pulitzer Prizewinning best-seller, The Good War, the Chicago-based Terkel builds books rather than writes them. Apart from introductions, some transitions and the occasional aside from the author, the 90-odd real-life characters who populate The Great Divide speak for themselves—about what their lives are like, about what they see and what they make of it, about what is right and wrong with their world. For many, a lot more is wrong than right. Describing the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in the United States—“the great divide” of the title—Chicago laborer Brian Devlin says: “There’s not gonna be any middle class

too long. You’re either makin’ big bucks or little bucks. There’s nothin’ in between.” Throughout the book there is an overwhelming sense that the United States has abandoned its value system, the one that sustained it through previous crises, including the Great Depression. “There’s a meanness in the land that wasn’t here in the thirties,” says Minnesota farmers’ advocate Lou Anne Kling, a fourthgeneration farmer herself. “We’re losing a

feeling as a people.”

Terkel himself distills a difference: in the Depression years, the dispossessed were called victims; now they are called losers. “It is more than semantics, it is attitude,” he writes. “Then, the words of the winners reflected discomfort in the presence of the more unlucky. Now they reflect a mild contempt. And fear.” Terkel describes how, in the course of his research, he left his Midwestern stomping ground and ventured to Wall Street, where he confronted that new American ethic in its purest form. New York Stock Exchange trader Rex Winship, who is worth approximately $400 million, tells him: “Without loss, no one

can win. Unless you have losers you cannot have winners.”

For different kinds of ugliness, Terkel does not have to stray far from the heartland. Another Minnesota farmer, Peter Ryan, blames his—and all farmers’—troubles on communism. “It’s the five big grain companies,” Ryan explains. “Most of them have summer homes in the Ukraine, Russia. They’re all communists.” Ryan also points the finger at Zionists, declaring, “They want to set up a messianic kingdom, with them as masters and the rest of us as slaves.”

Yet Terkel manages to retain some oldfashioned American optimism. He quotes 15year-old Charlie Waters who, despite the cynicism and apathy he feels around him, tells Terkel, “I hope I won’t ever get to the point where I say to myself there’s nothing I can do, so why try?” As The Great Divide progresses, Terkel’s fanfare for the spirit of the common man and woman grows louder and prouder. In his final interview, he talks to Jean Gump, a Chicago-based grandmother who led a raid on a missile base, defaced a Minuteman n silo and then sat down and waited to be arrested. “Oh God, I have tremendous hope,” says Gump. “I figure if somebody like me can put aside her selfish interests and do something, anybody in the United States can.” Gump, whom Terkel ironically describes as “an enemy of the people,” is serving six years in a West Virginia prison. Clearly, for Terkel, his country is still producing people whom he reveres as uniquely American heroes: ordinary people who have risked their personal freedom, their livelihoods and even their lives to do what they think is right.

JOHN GAULT