Monday, December 8, 2008

Thomas Sugrue

Thomas J. Sugrue is a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology. Sugrue’s first book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American History, the President’s Book Award of the Social Science History Association, the Philip Taft Prize in Labor History, and the Urban History Association Prize for Best Book in North American Urban History.

His new book is Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
A little over a month ago, the greatest American journalist of my lifetime, Studs Terkel, passed on. It was an untimely death, not because of his advanced age (he was 96), but because his life's work was unfinished. The week after he died, I pulled out my beaten up copies of his books and began re-reading. No one was a truer democrat. Terkel found wisdom, irony, and tragedy in ordinary folks talking about their lives. Terkel was a romantic in his hope that if we only listened to the people, we could learn from them. But he did not condescend to his subjects or whitewash their imperfections. His book, Race, punctured the conventional pieties of "we have overcome" America. Terkel's interviews in Working captured the indignities of working life and the fundamental humanity--the hopefulness but also bitterness--of working people. And his greatest book of all, Division Street, uses one Chicago street and its residents to capture the divided heart of America in the mid-1960s.

Reading Terkel and thinking about the Rustbelt led me back to one of my favorite poets, Philip Levine. Raised a blue-collar Detroiter, Levine captures the grit and vitality of his city in What Work Is. Unvarnished and unsentimental, Levine finds beauty in urban decay, humanity on the assembly line, and despair in the disappearance of the industrial world. His are poems of waiting and rain, anger and hope, soot and sun. His portrayals of ordinary people in verse are every bit as vivid and real as Terkel's.
Read an excerpt from Sweet Land of Liberty, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Learn more about Thomas Sugrue at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue