Book Review: Hope Dies Last by Studs Terkel

Despite its inspirational title, historian Studs Terkel’s new book, Hope Dies Last, is not an inspirational tract for the downtrodden. Terkel, who documents the oral histories of the “non-celebrated,” does not shy away from protesting the harsh realities facing so many. The activities, teachers, and humanitarians he interviews are often very specific about what they believe to be the failures of America to provide its citizens with justice and equality. In addition to his oft-asked question “What is America?” Terkel asks these men and women: How does hope work? 

The book begins with Depression-era labor activists and moves through the history of the twentieth century, including the experiences of civil rights workers, teachers, community organizers, recent immigrants, economists, clergypeople, and 1960s idealists. 

Terkel allows the interviewees to tell their own stories; he lets them speak without interjection or prodding. The pleasure a reader finds in his books is above all a narrative pleasure. Discovering that each person not only has a compelling story, but that she or he knows how to tell it, is enough to give hope to any reader. The interviewees’ insights on their experiences are the ones that matter, and what stands out most is their idea of hope as action, as a politically propulsive and personal force. 

In his introduction, Terkel pays tribute to the 1930s labor activists whose stories open Hope Dies Last:”They felt that what they did counted and that they themselves counted. Thus is was that out of the Depression, and during it, hope was springing forth.” A sense of personal worth, then, is entwined with the ability to effect social change. 

And over and over, Terkels interviewees emphasize the importance of feeling that they matter. Tom Hayden, one of the drafters of the Port Huron Statement (the manifesto which in 1962 launched Students for a Democratic Society) and later a California state senator, makes a case for an existential sense of hope, arguing that people act in order to know that they truly exist. Clancy Sigal, a blacklisted screenwriter who had been a labor activist in the 1940s, describes being spurred on by the FBI’s attention, and the fact that his work was important enough to attract the hostility of the federal government. He explains that “J. Edgar Hoover validated my existence; he validated my beliefs for quite a long time.” Sigal hints at a strain of contrariness that seems common to many of the activists included in Terkel’s book. 

Others focus on action itself. Gene LaRoque, a retired US Navy rear admiral who founded and directed the military watchdog group Center for Defense Information, has no interest in palliative hope: “Hope in my view is a wasted emotion. People hope to win the lottery when they buy a ticket. They hope to win it because there’s no chance. If we want a better world, we as human beings ought to do what we can to bring about the change.” Here hope is an activity, not a comfort. 

Many activists stress the importance of experiencing hope in the present, rather than projecting it into a hypothetical future in which things will be better. As Quinn Brisben, a retired Chicago high school teacher, explains, “The one thing I know about utopia in advance is, I am not going to be satisfied with it. The important thing is to have dun while you keep working.” The never-ending, often demoralizing work of community activism requires not only tenacity but also the ability to find satisfaction in the moment. 

But one person’s action means very little on an island of individual solitude or of social isolation. Many of Terkel’s interviewees describe finding sustenance in relationships with other people. Leroy Orang, who spent 19 years in prison for murders he did not commit, focuses not on his lost years, but on the faith he has gained in people of other races during his long fight to be cleared of the charges against him. And towards the end of the book, in which recent immigrants speak of finding hope and of America, the importance of finding connections between oneself and the larger society is made even clearer. Sam Osaki, a second-generation Japanese-American, feels the contradictions of living in a modern super-power whose power has been predicated on its inclusiveness. “We think the world whirls around us. And there are billions of other people. I think it’s great when you walk the streets and you see different shapes, sizes, and they’re beautiful,” 

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