A couple of weeks ago, I shared an instructional video from 1948 called You and Your Work. This film painted an ideal (and idealized) view of the workplace and the worker’s role in it. But we all know work isn’t really like that, right? Yes it’s important to work hard, and yes it’s important to maintain a positive attitude, but jobs and careers are complicated. They make up a huge part of our lives, yet most of are ambivalent about the work we do.
Studs Terkel’s Working
Two years ago, I read and reviewed Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, which featured excerpts from over 100 interviews the author conducted with those who lived through the 1930s. Terkel spoke with all sorts of people: old and young, rich and poor, famous and not-so-famous, liberal and conservative. These folks paint a picture of that era in their own words. Hard Times was fascinating.
Well, Terkel published a whole series of these oral histories, including a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. It’s sort of like a grown-up version of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?, one of my favorite books from childhood. In Working (published in 1974), Terkel collects stories from average joes and janes about what they do at their jobs, how they like it, and what they want to do in the future. For two years, I’ve been meaning to read this book, but I’ve never made time for it — until now.
At the end of January, I stumbled upon a graphic-novel adaptation of Working put together by Harvey Pekar, who was best known as the writer of the autobiographical American Splendor comics (and movie, a movie I love). Working with a variety of illustrators, Pekar (and a handful of collaborators) adapted Terkel’s Working into graphic novel form. It’s awesome.
I truly believe, in the words of Brenda Ueland, that everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. To me, it’s the personal histories that make up History (by which I mean the grand tapestry of world events). Without your story — and mine — the larger story doesn’t exist. The mass movements of kingdoms and cultures are built on the backs of you and me.
No wonder, then, that I love Studs Terkel’s work. Though he has an obvious progressive (or liberal) bias, so what? He gives everyone an equal say. In Hard Times, he gave voice to the residents of Depression-era shantowns and the stockbrokers who thought the whole thing was exaggerated. In Working, he does the same.
What Do People Do All Day?
Here are a few excerpts from Pekar’s graphic-novel adaptation, which collects 28 stories from Working:
Tom McCoy, proofreader
Elmer Ruiz, gravedigger
Nick Lindsay, carpenter (son of Vachel Lindsay)
Nick Salerno, garbageman
David Reed Glover, broker
Roberta Victor, hooker
Steve Hamilton, professional baseball player
Maggie Holmes, domestic
In Praise of Quotidian Life
Don’t read Working — the original book or the graphic novel — if you’re expecting massive revelations about the human condition. You won’t find them here. Working is merely a mundane account of what it’s like to do a nine-to-five job. But that’s why I like it so much.
In the preface to the graphic novel, Harvey Pekar writes:
I was especially pleased to work on this project because Studs Terkel puts a great deal of emphasis, as I do, in writing about quotidian life. The so-called normal aspect of human existence is underemphasized in every form of literature, yet that is the aspect that most readers are familiar with and can most easily identify with.
The style of life I myself am familiar with is the quotidian.
But just because one writes about everyday life doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting; in fact, I find it’s most fascinating, because it is so seldom written about. Virtually every person is potentially a great subject for a novel or a biography or a film. Bravo to Terkel for documenting these fascinating lives.
Is Working great literature? I don’t know. I like it, and that’s what matters to me. Others seem to like it, too.
In fact, I was surprised to learn that Working was made into a musical, with a book by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote lyrics for Godspell, Wicked, and the popular 1990s Disney films (such as Pocahontas). Don’t believe me? Here’s soul singer Patti LaBelle from 1978 singing the part for the “domestic” worker, Maggie Holmes:
(And here’s another song from the show: “Father and Sons”, sung by a millworker. This was written by James Taylor.)
For years, I’ve harbored a secret dream. I want to marry two of my passions: personal finance and comic books. I would dearly love to write a graphic novel that somehow instructed readers in sound financial habits. I’m not sure that’ll ever happen. Until it does, I can at least be happy knowing that Working exists.
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