Doing right by Studs Terkel | Bleader

Doing right by Studs Terkel

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The book in question
  • The book in question
Reviewer Richard J. Evans is called out by Chicagoan Marc Geelhoed in the new issue of the New York Review of Books for overlooking a set of quote marks. The matter isn't as petty as it sounds.

In the October 11 issue of the NYRB, Evans began his discussion of two books on World War II on this note:

"Ever since it began, World War II has been seen as 'the good war,' to borrow the title of Studs Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize—winning oral history. In sharp contrast to World War I, remembered mainly for its terrible conditions in the trenches of the Western Front, its tragic waste of a whole generation of young men, and its disastrous consequences in Europe, leading to the rise of fascism and communism and the triumph of Hitler, World War II is remembered as the defeat of dictatorship by democracy, racism by tolerance, nationalism by internationalism, extremism by moderation, evil by good. It is a memory that is buried deep in the political consciousness and identity of the modern world and in particular Britain and America."

A footnote explained the reference:

Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (Pantheon, 1984).

But that is not the title of Terkel's book. The correct title is "The Good War": An Oral History of World War Two.

A letter by Geelhoed, who is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's resound coordinator, appears in the November 5 NYRB. It makes much of this lapse. Geelhoed writes:

While Richard J. Evans is certainly correct to include Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” in any review about books concerning World War II’s effect on the average soldier, he incorrectly lumps it in, I feel, with other fist-pumping books that celebrate the war’s supposed goodness. In their footnote, Evans and the editors miss the very deliberately placed quotation marks around the title, an intention described by Terkel himself in a note “not as a matter of caprice or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective ‘good’ mated to the noun ‘war’ is so incongruous.”

My first thought was that Evans had borrowed not only Terkel's title but also his irony, a possibility Geelhoed was choosing not to consider—perhaps because any opportunity to champion Terkel to the perfidious east needs to be taken. Then again, getting Terkel's title wrong was a telltale lapse. And as Evans's exercise—a discussion of The Second World War by Antony Beevor and Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov by Geoffrey Roberts—wound to its conclusion, I wondered if Geelhoed had been too gentle.

"Was it a good war?" Evans asked in all sincerity. "After many hundreds of pages of relentless depiction of death and destruction, cruelty and incompetence, terror and suffering, it is no surprise to find that Beevor considers World War II 'the greatest man-made disaster in history.' . . . The dead included six million Jews (Beevor has two good chapters on the Holocaust), twenty million inhabitants of the Soviet Union or more, and up to fifty million Chinese, victims of a savage civil war as well as of the Japanese. World War II, Beevor concludes, has been given the mantle of a 'good war,' but 'provokes mixed feelings because it could never live up to this image, especially when one half of Europe had to be sacrificed to the Stalinist maw to save the other half.' Nor did it bring peace to the world, as civil wars and anticolonial conflicts broke out, spilling over into larger conflicts in Korea and Vietnam."

Evans presses on. "Yet it would be wrong to go so far as to condemn the war as either pointless or unnecessary, nor does Beevor do so. Given the aggressive intent and unbounded military and imperial ambitions of Germany and Japan, there was no way out other than through resisting them."

You want to give the man a gold star for working all this out on his own. World War II had to be fought, yet it was an utter calamity, an absolute nadir in human history. Evans has fiercely thought his way to a conclusion (you have to hope he's not just echoing Beevor) that I'm pretty sure has been the conventional wisdom for half a century. Yes, Virginia, war is hell, a point Studs Terkel was able to make with a set of quote marks back in 1984.

(I notice that Amazon also overlooks the quotation marks, though they're clear as day on the book jacket Amazon reproduces. Will remedial subtlety have to be taught in our colleges?)

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