restricted access Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith by Studs Terkel (review)
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Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. By Studs Terkel. New York: New Press, 2014. 448 pages. Softbound, $18.95.

Studs Terkel originally published Will the Circle Be Unbroken? in 2001 (New York: New Press). The title takes its name from a popular Christian hymn that Ada R. Habershon wrote in 1907, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken, By and By, [End Page 440] Lord, By and By"; Doc Watson, a blind folk singer and one of Terkel's interviewees, also popularized the hymn. This 2014 paperback edition of Terkel's book includes an invaluable essay by Jane Gross, who found it "beyond daunting" to write a new foreword to the "last book of oral history published by Studs Terkel in his lifetime" (xv). (Terkel did go on to publish four other books—all his own memoirs—after Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times [New York: The New Press, 2003] and three other memoirs.) Acknowledging oral history as a popular literary form, Gross asks what methodology ("modus operandi") Terkel utilized when it came to something as abstract and mysterious as an oral history book on death.

Reflecting back on Terkel's life of deep political engagements and notable achievements, Gross found that Terkel had little to say about the subject of death prior to this work—despite the fact he had undergone a quintuple bypass at eighty-four and survived. Although Gore Vidal first suggested that Terkel tackle this topic as a book as early as 1970, it was the death of Terkel's beloved wife Ida Goldberg on December 23, 1999, that set the project into motion—the book is dedicated to Ida and their sixty-year marriage. It was Dr. Joseph Messer, Ida's cardiologist, who also suggested to Terkel that he take on this oral history project and bring this book to fruition. Terkel's editor of over thirty-five years, André Schiffrin, had traditionally come up with the themes and topics for all of Terkel's earlier oral history books. But this one, Terkel said, was particularly for Ida, inspired by her doctor.

For the Pulitzer-prize-winning griot of oral history, there is more than a touch of irony to writing a book on life and death—having himself been celebrated for celebrating the lives of the uncelebrated over his long career. As America's oral historian, he was the public face of oral history, who used his longevity wisely to record oral histories on aging and activism, despite our society's emphasis on youth and beauty. According to Gross, Terkel asked the deeper questions and helped move the conversation towards the subject of death and dying a good decade before there was a national conversation about the emotional, religious, legal, financial, and traumatic implications associated with aging, and from Gross's perspective, "there is still not enough of that kind of talk" (xix).

As in many of Terkel's other books, the sixty-two interview subjects in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? are mostly from Chicago, ranging widely in ages, religions, and status; they were easily accessible in the Windy City, his hometown. Terkel already knew many of his informants—gospel and folk singers, authors, actors, educators, and activists—some from past projects (for example, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression [New York: Pantheon Books, 1970] and Coming of Age: Growing Up in the Twentieth Century [New York: New Press, 2007]), including Kid Pharaoh, Carlos Cortez, Peggy Terry, Vernon Jarrett, Haskell Wexler, Ira Glass, Utah Hagen, Quinn Brisben, and Bruce Bendinger. [End Page 441]

The concept of circle has multiple meanings within this work, several of which are represented in the chapter "God's Shepherds." Rabbi Robert J. Marx, active in social justice issues close to the Jewish community, formed a Hakafa (circle) at his Jewish Reform congregation, made up of social workers, doctors, writers, attorneys, and caregivers. Carlos Cortez's father—a Mexican Indian—celebrated death as "just a process of the circle" (353). Father Leonard Dubi, a Chicago pastor, told Terkel the reason he became a priest was because of his...