THE BLOG
05/20/2013 09:32 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

What Studs Terkel and Rebecca Solnit Taught Me

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

I worked for years as an editor at Pantheon Books. Its publisher, maybe the most adventurous in the business, was André Schiffrin. Among his many accomplishments, he "discovered" Studs Terkel (already a well-known Chicago radio personality), published his first oral history (Division Street: America), and made him a bestseller. Sometime after I arrived at Pantheon in the mid-1970s, he asked me to take a last look at a new manuscript by Studs. It was the equivalent of sending the second team onto the field, but it began my own long relationship with the famed oral historian. He was an experience -- a small man who, when he wasn't listening professionally in a fashion beyond compare, never stopped talking. In doing so, he had an almost magical way of making those around him feel larger than life. Later, I would be the editor for two of his oral histories, one on death and the other on hope (in that splendid order and the second with the Studs-appropriate title Hope Dies Last).

Last October, Bill Moyers interviewed me about the dismal state of American politics. As our conversation was ending, he suddenly asked: "What keeps you going against all the evidence?" At that moment, Studs came to mind. I mentioned editing "one of the greats of our world" and responded this way: "It turned out that when he wrote his book about hope, it was all about activists and the basic point he made was: in good times you could just be hopeful about your life. You didn't have to be an activist. You didn't have to be an anything. In bad times, if you want to be hopeful, you have to take a step. You've got to take some step to do something in the world. And in that sense, TomDispatch is my medicine against despair. So what makes me hopeful is doing TomDispatch."

All true. But I realize now that it wasn't quite a full response. I had left out one crucial figure in my life: Rebecca Solnit, who taught me how to hope in a world that seemed dismal indeed. She was the one who -- I've written about it before -- slipped through the barely ajar door of my life in May 2003, at a moment as grim and dreary as any in my political experience. The largest antiwar movement ever to protest a war that had yet to happen had just packed its tents and gone home in despair, while Baghdad was occupied by American troops and George W. Bush and his top officials were in their "mission accomplished" triumphalist mode. Many activists then feared that they would remain so forever and would have dismissed out of hand someone who suggested that their Pax Americana dreams of domination would begin unraveling in mere weeks (as happened), not decades or centuries.

Ten years ago, exactly to the day, I published Rebecca's miraculous piece "Acts of Hope," which she would later expand into her book Hope in the Dark. It was written to welcome that "darkness" which seemed already to be enveloping us. It was written with a sense of how the expectable unravels, of how the future surprises us, often enough with offerings not of horror but of hope.

With few people can you ever say, she (or he) changed my life, changed the very way I understand our world. For me, she's one of the few -- and she's still doing it with her miraculous new book (out in June), The Faraway Nearby. She taught me how to look into that future darkness with hope. Like Studs, she taught me that acting, even while not knowing, is a powerful antidote to despair. So it means the world to me that she's returned to the subject of hope to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her arrival in my life and at TomDispatch in her latest piece, "Too Soon to Tell."

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