They're holding on: Ordinary people, extraordinary lives | People & Places | Smithsonian

They're holding on: Ordinary people, extraordinary lives

Long ago, they found a talent or a cause, a way of life or a way of work, then stuck with it—and said to hell with what other people think

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"Eccentrics, visionaries, dreamers, believers: men and women in pursuit of something, and holding on to that at all costs" — these, writes David Isay, are the people he and Harvey Wang are drawn to. For three years Isay, who produces pieces for National Public Radio, and photographer Wang traveled the country, turning the spotlight on such homegrown originals as hobo elder statesman "Steam Train" Maury Graham, and Virginia Belle Brewer, curator of Brewer's Bell Museum in Canton, Texas; Jim Searles, president of the Brooklyn Elite Checker Club, and Lydia Emery, an Oregon doctor who hasn't raised her fees since the 1940s; Charlie DeLeo, "keeper of the flame" in the Statue of Liberty's torch, and dozens more.

First aired by NPR as part of the American Folklife Radio Project, Isay's Peabody Award-winning interviews are now excerpted in a new book, Holding On, published by W. W. Norton. Together with Harvey Wang's penetrating photographs, recently exhibited at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, they capture the dignity and passion, pain and even obsession of these proud survivors. (A Holding On CD released by Shanachie Entertainment, hosted by NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg, features ten of the interviews broadcast between 1990 and 1994.) In an insightful preface to the book, Henry Roth, whose 1934 classic novel, Call It Sleep, preceded his second novel by almost 60 years and who knows about surviving, writes that the subjects of Holding On are "people who still exercise their creativity, their artistic or collector's or storytelling skills, and don't shirk what they are still capable of doing. . . ." Or, as Isay and Wang concluded, "there was a single, simple criterion we'd been using all along for inclusion in this book: these were all people we'd fallen in love with."

By Suzanne Crawford

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