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My American Century Essay, Research Paper
My American Century
In Studs Terkel s My American Century the aspect of personal evolution and
change surfaces through the characters. Change as the American Heritage Dictionary
says is: To give a completely different form or appearance; to transform. There are many
different ways that one change, and My American Century explores a few of them. One
way was the way that Claiborne P. Ellis transformed. C.P. Ellis chaged himself from the
exalted cyclops of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with a racial and parocial
outlook on life, to an openminded, educated business manager of the union. One can
chage in the manner that E.B. Sledge did. Sledge was a World War II veteran and had
been transformed from an innocent boy to a war torn veteran. Wallace Ramussen
evolved as well. Starting off as a Nebraskan country boy growing up in the Great
Depression and working his way up to become CEO of Beatrice Foods and a winner of
the Horatio Alger Award. Between these three characters in Studs Terkel s My
American Century, personal evolution is portrayed in both the moral sense and the
financial status sense as well.
Claiborne P. Ellis rough life started at the age of seventeen. His dad worked in a
textile mill in Durham and died at the age of forty-eight. Somebody had to support the
family of three. So C.P. Ellis quit school in the eighth grade to support his mother and
sister. From the beginning C.P. Ellis life was difficult. His father never made very much
money, could barely afford clothes for C.P. Ellis, and had a drinking problem on top of it
all. To make a little money C.P Ellis got a job pumping gas. Eventually He got married
and felt the need to have children. Four to be exact, one was blind, and one was retarded
which did not help his financial status. to support the family he went on a bread route on
top of working at the gas station. After barrowing money from the bank and buying the
gas station, he had a heart attack. Nothing ever seemed to go right for C.P. Ellis.
Tryin to come out of that hole, I just couldn t do it I really began to get bitter.
I didn t know who to blame. I tried to find somebody. I began to blame it on
black people. I had to hate somebody. Hatin Americais hard to do because
you can t see it to hate it. You gotta have somethin to look at to hate. The
natural person for me to hate would be black people, because my father before
me was a member of the Klan. (pg 64)
So C.P. Ellis joined the Ku Klux Klan. He was wanted there, he fit in among the
low-income whites. He started off as a member and ended up as exalted cyclops
(president). It got to the point where he was holding guns to black kids heads. Once he
found out that low-income whites, and low-income blacks were being used by the
wealthy so that the wealthy could maintain power. Eventually C.P. Ellis got elected to
the school comittee. Infact he was co-chairman with Ann Atwater a large black activist.
So now a Klansman and an civil rights activist were co-chairpeople of the school
comittee. C.P. Ellis decided that he was sick of fighting. So him and Ann Atwater set
their differences asside and they did their best to fix the schools. He had evolved. C.P.
Ellis had started to see people for who they are, and not for the color of their skin.
C.P. then decided to get his highschool diploma, so he went to afternoon classes
in a Past Employment Progress program. He got his diploma, and was working maitnence
at Duke. Finally C.P Ellis ran for business manager of the union. At first people used his
past Klan life against him. In the end his transformation made more people believe in
him. The change from an eighth grade drop-out, president of a Klan chapter, to a union
business manager hiring low-income black people is pretty remarkable.
E.B. Sledgehammer Sledge starts his story about World War II in a negative
manner. He was just nineteen when he entered the war and mst of his colleagues were
under the age of twenty-one. All of them were pretty young and had alot of life left that
was now on the line.
The only way to get it over with was to kill them off before they killed you.
The war I knew was totally savage. The Japanese fought by a code they
thought was right: bushido. The code of the warrior: no surrender: you
don t really comprehend it until you get out there and fight people who are
faced with an absolutly hopeless situation and will not give up. If you tried
to help a Japanese, he d usually detonate a grenade and kill himself as well
as you.(pg 197)
E.B. Sledges description of the war shows how primal it actually was. Is was a fight for
suvival. The only ways home were if you were injured, dead, or lucky enough to be
relieved. At the end of the Okinawa campaign the found a Japanese soldier with nothing
but a G-string on. Assuming that he could not get up they did not take him as threat. The
Japanese soldier than pulled out a grenade from his G-string and pulled the pin to try and
kill E.B. Sledge, his buddy and him self. He probably would have been successfull in
doing so if Sledge s buddy had not shot him between the eyes first. The Japanese had no
mercy and all of the unsportsmanlike warfare turned the American soldiers, including
Sledge to become savages, . . .you became callous. (pg198) Sledge talks about the
soldier thowing chunks of coral into a skull, just like a little kid throws stones into a
puddle. This was just a mild mannered kid who was now a twentieth century
savage. (pg201) The other war story that sledge tells us is about an old Japanese woman
with a large wound in her abdomen which had been infected with gangrene. She
requested for Sledge to shoot her but he would not. On the other hand his friend was
happy to shoot her. We had all become hardened. Sledge explained. (pg 202)
Not only Sledge, but the rest of the young soldiers went into the war has young american
soldiers, but came out of the war as war-torn, calloused, savages.
Wallace Rasmussen started his life in Nebraska, growing up in the midst of the
Great Depression. My only ambition in life was to be just a little bit better off the next
day than I was the day before. And to learn a little more than I did the day before. From
the begining Wallace had a gift for fixing things. He would read Popular Mechanics
whenever he could. If things were broken people would bring them to Wallace even in
school. Eventually Wallace left Nebraska and went to California. He got a job delivering
handbills after that proved to be unsuccessfull he got a job on an alfalfa ranch which
payed ten dollars a month with room and board. They gave me a letter that they owed
me twenty dollars to take to the owner of the ranch, and he d pay me. Dumb me, I gave
him the letter and I never got my twenty dollares. Through all of these hard times
Wallace was learning how to get by. Due to the failure in California he moved back to
Nebraska and got a job shucking corn, one putting cedar chests together, and one cutting
out jigsaw puzzels. All of these jobs he had worked, all of which to fail yet the made him
a little money and taught him a new skill. At the age of nineteen Wallace got a job at
Beatrice Foods. He started out pulling ice out of a tank. He was using an electric hoist to
pick of 400 pound cans. The maximum weight the hoist could pull was 100 tons, but
Wallace wanted to pick up more. He was not afraid of breaking it because he could fix
it. He kept up all the equipment in his ssection. The chief engineer recognized his
mechanical ability and gave hive the job of maitnence in the creamery. Wallace was
allways persuing work. After he found out how the creamery worked he went to his boss
and said he did not have enough work to do. The chief engineer put him incharge of the
dairy and the creamery and when that was not enough work Wallace began to work
maitnece in the ice cream deparment as well. Eventually Beatrice Foods offered him a
job as chief engineer at the plant in Vincennes, Indiana. On July 1,1976 Wallace had
worked hiself up to CEO. Going from a farm worker in Nebraska to the CEO of
Beatrice foods is a respectable accomplishment. This financial transformation, and
evolution in status effected Wallace s life dramatically. He had learned many lessons
and many skills along the way. He was always a little, and sometimes alot better off then
he was the day before.
C.P. Ellis, E.B. Sledge and Wallace Rasmussen have all gone through a personal
evolution. Their final person was greatly effected by the expieriences that they had been
through. There are moral transformation as C.P. Ellis and E.B. Sledge demonstrated.
Then through mental determination there are status evolutions as Wallace Rasmussen
showed. It is never to early, or ever to late for a person to change the lifestyle to become
a better person.
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