November 18, 2009
The FBI kept a close watch on Studs Terkel, but didn’t seem to learn anything from him
by Dennis Johnson
Studs Terkel, as everybody know, was a man of the people, a champion of the working class, whose every great book, such as his classic bestseller Working, was composed of interviews with the man and woman of the street, which must be why … the FBI kept him under surveillance?
Sad but true, according to a report from the New York City News Service. Apparently, he was that old bugaboo: a “suspected communist” and so the FBI kept him under watch for 45 years.
A Freedom of Information Act request has resulted in the release of those files, which are available via the New York City News Service story, or at least, 147 of the 269 pages contained in the file. (The agency “said many of the documents should remain sealed because of privacy and other reasons,” according to the news story.) The “paper trail spans 1945 to 1990 — covering everything from Terkel’s McCarthy-era blacklisting to his involvement with Paul Robeson and third-party presidential candidate Henry Wallace to a birthday party toast he once made,” says the report.
Terkel, who died last year at age 96, apparently knew he was being watched, says New Press publisher Andre Schiffrin, Terkel’s publisher and friend, in an Associated Press wire story. Schiffrin says Terkel was “very proud” of the file.
Final irony: the file reveals that Terkel had actually applied for a job at the FBI in 1934 as a “student fingerprint classifier.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.