By NANCY GROCE and STEPHEN WINICK
In March 1933, after being sworn in as America’s 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated his “New Deal,” an extensive and multifaceted array of social, cultural and fiscal recovery programs designed to reform and reinvigorate national life at the height of the Great Depression. Scholars and politicians continue to debate its merits, but there can be no argument that it dramatically altered the physical landscape of the United States and transformed the relationship among the federal government, the states, and individual citizens. Moreover, the New Deal dramatically enriched the holdings of the Library of Congress.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, the American Folklife Center (AFC) in the Library of Congress collaborated with other Library divisions, prominent outside cultural organizations and leading scholars to present a free, two-day public symposium. The event, titled “Art, Culture, and Government: The New Deal at 75” was held at the Library on March 13-14, 2008.
More than 200 people attended the event, where they heard how the Library’s vast holdings—and those of other institutions—generated by New Deal programs continue to inform and inspire innovative scholarship and refine insights about this crucial historical era. They also had the opportunity to view a display of the Library’s New Deal “treasures.”
The New Deal and Library Resources
The New Deal is probably best remembered for building parks, schools, and highways; conducting projects such as rural electrification; and creating mammoth structures such as the Grand Coulee Dam. But its goal was to rebuild all sectors of the American economy, including culture and the arts. Many New Deal cultural programs promoted the creation of new art, but others undertook the documentation of traditional art and culture and mandated the collection of local, regional and personal histories. A great deal of valuable documentary material generated by these groundbreaking cultural programs was submitted to federal agencies, and much of it found its way to the Library of Congress.
Highlights of the Library’s New Deal holdings include more than 2,300 ex-slave narratives (first-person interviews with African-Americans who were slaves before the Civil War); tens of thousands of Farm Security Administration photographs, many of them iconic images of Depression-era America that continue to shape our understanding of the period; unpublished notes and letters by such literary figures as Ralph Ellison, Sterling Brown, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, all of whom worked for New Deal agencies; scripts, notes, and artwork for Work Projects Administration (WPA) theatrical productions involving such greats of the American stage as Orson Welles and John Houseman; letters and musical scores by composers such as Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein; and thousands of audio recordings of traditional singers, fiddlers, banjo-players and other local performers recorded by WPA researchers throughout the United States. Indeed, many of the Library’s curatorial divisions had their holdings significantly augmented by written materials, recordings, photographs, artwork and other forms of cultural documentation generated through enormous and innovative New Deal government initiatives.
The American Folklife Center is a prime example. Today, the AFC Archive is one of the largest repositories of traditional culture in the world, consisting of more than 3 million items from around the globe, including photographs, manuscripts, audio recordings and moving images. But it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, the Library’s Archive of American Folk Song—known today as the AFC Archive—was founded in 1928, and was still in its infancy when the stock market crashed in 1929. When Roosevelt instituted the New Deal in 1933 it was a small and struggling archive. As the 1930s progressed, a steady stream of important documentary materials from the New Deal’s many programs made their way to the folk archive. These included recordings, photographs and manuscripts from the Resettlement Administration (RA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Materials from a wide range of Work Projects Administration or Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs, including the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), the Federal Theater Project (FTP), the National Youth Administration (NYA), and the Joint Committee on Folk Arts were especially important in enriching the collections. Along with the Archive’s own collecting initiatives, these New Deal materials became an unparalleled aggregation of disc-era field recordings. Even the AFC Archive’s item-level card catalog, which provides searchable access to this remarkable storehouse of music and knowledge, was created as a WPA project. All of this helped the Archive transcend its modest beginnings and become the world-class resource it is today.
Preserving the Legacy
The event began on the morning of March 13 with a panel organized and presented by the National New Deal Preservation Association (NNDPA). Welcoming remarks were provided by AFC Director Peggy Bulger, Robert Saladini from the Library’s John W. Kluge Center and NNDPA Executive Director Kathy Flynn.
“We are here to commemorate and honor the individuals who actually participated in these landmark New Deal programs,” said Bulger, who thanked her colleagues in the Library and at NNDPA for their participation.
Well-known journalist and political commentator Bill Press gave a rousing presentation about Roosevelt’s vision and the enduring impact of the New Deal on American culture. He welcomed audiences to the Library’s Thomas Jefferson building, which he called “the most beautiful building in Washington, D.C.” He pointed out that, in an election year, the focus should not be solely on political candidates, but on the questions, “Where are we going, and how are we going to get there?” He stated that the New Deal symposium was “a reminder of how productive, how effective, and how bountiful government can be, when you have leaders who believe in what government can do.” Press believes that America would benefit if it could “rediscover the energy and vision of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said we had a ‘rendezvous with destiny,’ and then charted an outrageously bold course to take us there.”
Other presentations included reminiscences by Roosevelt’s granddaughter, Eleanor Roosevelt Seagraves, and Civilian Conservation Corps alumnus Walter Atwood. There was a lively account of the New York arts scene by WPA artist Gertrude Goodwin and a paper by New Deal historian Robert Leighninger. Folklorist Stetson Kennedy and other attending WPA alumni were honored and awarded plaques and medals.
The symposium commenced in the afternoon with a session titled “New Deal Resources: Preserving the Legacy.” This panel focused on the New Deal collections within Library of Congress curatorial divisions. Curators gave brief overviews of their holdings, explained how the materials were acquired by the Library, highlighted some of their New Deal “treasures” and identified a few selected New Deal items or collections that they thought warranted greater research.
Following welcoming remarks by Associate Librarian for Library Services Deanna Marcum, attendees learned about the Library’s New Deal holdings in its various custodial divisions. Remarks were made by Walter Zvonchenko of the Music Division, Mark Dimunation of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Ford Peatross of the Prints and Photographs Division, Alice Birney of the Manuscript Division and Bryan Cornell of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
Curators and archivists from other major New Deal repositories spoke about their holdings. William Creech from the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) discussed “New Deal Resources in Washington, D.C.,” and Tom Wiltsey talked about NARA’s “New Deal Resources in Regional Offices.” Supervising archivist Robert Clark represented the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. Andrea Kalin of Spark Media presented a brief preview of her upcoming documentary film “Soul of a People: Voices from the Writers’ Project.”
The final talk of the day was given by folklorist Charlie Camp, who discussed the importance of the unpublished WPA manuscript “America Eats,” which is housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Written by out-of-work writers during the Depression as “an account of group eating as an important American social institution,” the manuscript documents local, traditional cookery found at church functions and community events all across the country. Camp stated that the manuscript is completely unique in its thorough documentation of American food and foodways by a large team of researchers. Their words, he said, “comprise the only account we have, coast to coast, north to south, of American food and culture in any year. Nothing’s been attempted of this scope since.” Camp did note that several authors, including most recently Pat Willard, have published samples of the manuscript, but that most of it remained unpublished. “So there’s about a 1,000 page manuscript, 192 essays, and it’s never been published,” he said. “It occurred to me that if I did nothing better today than to stir some interest or discussion about having this previously unpublished WPA masterpiece find its way into print, we’d all be better off for it.”
Sharing the Legacy
Attendees were given the opportunity to view some of the Library’s most unusual New Deal treasures. Curators from each division were on hand to discuss and explain the items on display.
The Rare Book and Special Collections Division brought a selection of the WPA’s famous “American Guide” series, travel guides for the 48 states, Alaska, Puerto Rico and other territories; first-edition volumes in the “Rivers of America” series; and an unusual WPA book titled “Di Yidishe Landsmanshaften fun Nyu York/ The Jewish Landsmanschaften of New York,” a Yiddish-English roster of New York Landsmanschaften, mutual benefit societies for Jewish immigrants from individual cities, shtetls, or other communities in Europe.
The Prints and Photographs Division displayed political cartoons about the New Deal; impressive full-color posters created by New Deal agencies; lithographs, woodcuts, and other forms of printed artwork; and several iconic New Deal photographs by such photographers as Louise Rosskam and Arthur Rothstein. In addition, they displayed a copy of “Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939-43,” the Library’s publication of color photographs taken for the FSA and the Office of War Information. (The book can be purchased from the Library’s Sales Shop at www.loc.gov/shop/ and a Library exhibition based on the book can be viewed at www.loc.gov/exhibits/boundforglory/).
The Music Division chose notable objects from the Federal Theatre Project archives, including photograph and script material for the famous Orson Welles production of “Macbeth,” which opened in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in 1936; costume designs for another 1936 Welles production, an adaptation of Eugene Labiche’s classic French farce “The Italian Straw Hat”; and set designs for a production of Pinocchio presented in Los Angeles in 1937.
The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division displayed a selection of historical recordings, including an instantaneous disc (an inexpensive and accessible method of recording developed in the 1930s) of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, in which he outlined the need for the extraordinary flurry of legislation that produced the New Deal; an NBC reference disc of one of Roosevelt’s famous radio “Fireside Chats,” in which he reports to the American people his 1938 requests for funding for New Deal programs; and several commercial songs on New Deal themes, such as “C.C.C. Blues,” by musician Robert Brown (“Washboard Sam”).
The American Folklife Center displayed a hand-painted program from the 1939 “Americans All” Folk Festival in Pennsylvania; “A Check-List of Folk Songs” containing information on the thousands of songs collected by fieldworkers in the New Deal era; field notes and photographs compiled by the eminent folklorist Herbert Halpert, when he was employed by the WPA; and several other original recordings and photographs that have since become American icons.
The Manuscript Division brought photocopies of original items, which allowed audience members to handle them. Their items included FWP reports from Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Nelson Algren, documenting slices of life such as children’s ball bouncing rhymes, New York City cabbies’ anecdotes, industrial folklore from Chicago and reminiscences of a slave wedding in Eufala, Alabama; a photostat of an unknown four-page manuscript containing an 1864 speech by Abraham Lincoln, discovered by a New York State WPA researcher; and a photograph of orator and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass.
Also on display was the Library’s 1983 publication “Amassing American Stuff: The Library of Congress and the Federal Arts Projects of the 1930s,” an illustrated monograph by John Y. Cole, director of the Library’s Center for the Book. Originally written as an article for the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, this essay has long been a standard tool for researchers interested in the Library’s New Deal collections. Copies of the book were displayed along with materials related to the Library’s 1994 New Deal symposium.
Studying the Legacy
The symposium resumed on March 14 for a day devoted to exploring “The New Deal Legacy and Contemporary Scholarship.” Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin delivered the keynote address on “The New Deal and the American People.” Kazin touched on the politics surrounding the early years of the Roosevelt administration and the building of a popular idea of the American people.
“The idea that Americans composed a united or nearly-united people, who came together across religious and ethnic boundaries, and that this people formed a bulwark of opposition to economic elites who threatened democracy, was essential to the building of the New Deal coalition,” Kazin said. He went on to show how this image of America and Americans emerged from the political left and entered the mainstream. He concluded by demonstrating that this same image of Americans transcended both the left and the New Deal, and was adopted by subsequent populist politicians across the political spectrum, most notably Ronald Reagan and other Republican leaders. In so doing, he set the stage for the rest of the day’s papers.
The first panel began with remarks by Center for the Book Director John Y. Cole, who spoke about the proceedings of the 1994 New Deal conference. He introduced Mindy Morgan from the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University. Morgan’s paper, “’Please Remember that I, Too, Am an Indian’: Locating Native American Voices in the Federal Writers’ Project,” examined the participation of Native American communities in projects supported by the FWP, including the “American Guide” series and other regional works. She focused on community members at Fort Belknap Reservation, who were employed by the Montana Writers’ Program in the early 1940s and compiled a tribal history by interviewing elders and collecting oral histories. Their work, she argued, offers a critical counter-narrative to other works by non-Native writers from that period, which focused on cultural loss. Her presentation also explored how these Native American fieldworkers used the FWP as an opportunity to represent their local communities during the early 20th century, and how their documentation contests established notions regarding Native American cultures at the time.La
ura Katzman of James Madison University followed, with a presentation on “Picturing Puerto Rico Under the American Flag: The New Deal Photographs of Edwin and Louise Rosskam, 1937-38.” Katzman’s study investigated the work of the two New Deal documentarians, who photographed Nationalist party activities and social conditions in Puerto Rico for both Life magazine and the Farm Security Administration. Their images of the island, according to Katzman, reflect an encounter between progressive, middle-class U.S. photographers and the underclass peoples of Puerto Rico.
“Edwin and Louise Rosskam’s New Deal photographic project in Puerto Rico constitutes a rich case study of how the North American documentary mode of the 1930s looked, circulated, and operated in an American context beyond the continental borders of the United States,” she said. “It was a tense and disorienting encounter, with shocking extremes of poverty and wealth which they had encountered nowhere else, and which left an indelible impression on their book and photography projects that tackled race and class issues in America.”
After lunch, the second panel was introduced by folklorist Catherine Hiebert Kerst from the American Folklife Center, who talked about the wealth of New Deal holdings in the AFC Archive. She focused on the fieldwork and contributions of important New Deal collectors such as Sidney Robertson Cowell, who collected and documented traditional culture in Wisconsin from 1935 to 1937 for the Resettlement Administration, and in Northern California from 1938 to 1940, while working for the WPA. In 1997, Cowell’s multi-format ethnographic field collection from California became the first American Folklife Center contribution to the Library’s online American Memory Project. The presentation, titled “California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties,” is accessible online. It is one of several collections of New Deal field recordings available for online listening at the Center’s Web site.
Continuing with the theme of American vernacular music, Massachusetts photograph historian and researcher Richard Remsberg and New York music scholar Henry Sapoznik presented “’All I Got is Gone’: Roots Music Photos from the Farm Security Administration,” a paper on documentary photography of American folk musicians during the Great Depression. The speakers explained that the “images were created by the Farm Security Administration at the moment in history when the peak of vitality – in some cases the last vestiges – of a number of roots music traditions met the impulse and technology to document them.” The images, they contended, “represent the best visual documentation of American vernacular music at a seminal period of America’s musical history and cultural development.” They explained that “the stories behind the photos are largely unknown.”
Remsberg and Sapoznik’s research also unearthed additional information gathered at the time by folklorists and other researchers, or subsequently acquired through interviews and archival research, which helps to better contextualize and explain these iconic images. For example, a photograph Remsberg had seen before of a woman playing the fiddle turned out to be Samantha Baumgardner, “the first person to record old-time music, in 1924.” He had seen the photo, and heard Baumgarner’s music, but never knew they were the same person. Paging through the hundreds of untitled, uncaptioned photos in the collection, he came across a fiddler he recognized as Cajun music pioneer Leo Soileau. The photos also put flesh on the bones of history for Remsberg. Showing the audience a photo taken by Marion Post Wolcott, he commented, “As long as I’ve been reading about blues history, I’ve been reading about the murals in blues clubs, but until now I’d never seen any historic ones. As far as I know, this is the only photograph of a blues mural before 1970 or so.”
John Edgar Tidwell, from the English Department at the University of Kansas, delivered a paper titled “Negro Fictions, Fictitious Negroes, and Sterling A. Brown’s Quest for Authenticity on the Federal Writers’ Project.” In 1936, the poet, writer and intellectual Sterling A. Brown “brashly accepted the position of racial custodian,” according to Tidwell, when he was appointed to the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) as editor on Negro Affairs. “Officially,” Tidwell explained, “[Brown’s] charge was to guard against the proliferation of black racial stereotypes that infected the guidebook copy written by the federal, state and local units of the Federal Writers’ Project. [Brown] took this half-time appointment and expanded it into a monumental enterprise that combined editing, research, historical writing, and other duties, essentially defining what he called a mosaic of the Negro’s participation in American social history.” Tidwell traced the debates that Brown engaged in, including charges that his work was communist-inspired and the proactive steps he took to document the participation of African Americans in order to create a truer mosaic of the social history of America.
Beverly Brannan, curator of 20th-century documentary photography in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, introduced the third panel. She gave the audience a glimpse of the vast New Deal holdings that make the division one of the key repositories of images from 1930s and 1940s America.
Colleen McDannell of the University of Utah presented “Religious America and New Deal Photography.” She traced how the “Historical Section,” (under the auspices first of the Resettlement Administration, followed by the Farm Security Administration and finally under the Office of War Administration), documented the effects of the Depression and the New Deal through photography.
McDannel noted that the documentation of religious subjects was neither random nor entirely representative of religious diversity in America. The Historical Section’s director, Roy E. Stryker, who wanted to produce a composite picture of American society, sent out “scripts” to his photographers that focused on certain aspects of faith while ignoring others. The “eyes” of Stryker’s photographers, McDannell argued, were shaped by their own personal biographies, their understanding of the project’s mission, the reigning standards of art of the period and the changing American political environment. Although Stryker and his photographers were not pious themselves, they produced a striking portrait of religious America during the Depression and New Deal period.
The symposium’s final paper, “Reconfiguring Race: The Jubilee Singers of the Buffalo Historical Marionettes,” was presented jointly by two professors from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Beth Cleary of Macalester’s Theatre and Dance Department, and Peter Rachleff of the History Department, spoke on a little-known chapter of WPA history, which, they contend, provides an important window into the relationships between art and politics during the Great Depression. The Buffalo, N.Y., marionette project employed some 200 women and men, including carpenters, seamstresses, painters, writers, musicians and marionetteers. Among them were eight African Americans who modeled themselves after the earlier Jubilee Singers. “Their repertoire, performed for free at schools, on playgrounds, in nursing homes and even in Attica prison, consisted of three productions based on well-known American stories involving race in U.S. history: “Eli Whitney and the Invention of the Cotton Gin,” “The Life of Stephen Foster,” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The presentation featured images from several of these shows, an analysis of the playscripts and supporting documentary materials, which they located through extensive research at the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
Following the panel presentations, the audience was treated to a firsthand account of collecting folklore for the New Deal from Federal Writers’ Project alumnus Stetson Kennedy. The Florida native is best known for infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, publishing a scathing 1955 memoir titled “I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan,” (later re-titled “The Klan Unmasked”). Prior to the book’s publication, Kennedy had established himself as a folklorist and cultural documentarian by directing the Florida Folklore Unit of the Federal Writers’ Project between 1937 and 1942. Along with his WPA research team, Kennedy conducted important field research throughout the state, documenting hundreds of traditional stories and songs, studying regional occupational cultures such as turpentine making and sponge diving and recording many other aspects of Florida’s diverse cultural heritage. Among the many folklorists who worked under Kennedy’s direction was the celebrated African American novelist and playwright Zora Neale Hurston.
The 93-year-old recalled writing his classic 1942 book on Florida folklore, “Palmetto Country.” He recounted his experiences gathering one-of-a-kind sound recordings from ordinary men and women and spoke about what the New Deal and its programs meant to him and others like him during the depths of the Depression. He also responded to questions posed by the audience and AFC’s head of Research and Programs, David Taylor.
Kennedy joked that he had “invented Independent Studies by dropping out of the University of Florida,” because the people there seemed unconcerned with helping their fellow Floridians through the Great Depression. “I shipped a trunkload of books to Key West, and hitchhiked after it,” he remembered. “That was my higher education.” Kennedy then signed on to the Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA. “Every WPA employee had to take a pauper’s oath,” he recalled. He raised his right hand. “No property, no job, no money, and no prospects of getting any of those things. So I was highly qualified!”
“Zora [Neale Hurston] came along about a year later,” he continued. “We both had the job title of ‘junior interviewer,’ and the pay was $37.50 every two weeks. Zora got five dollars less than I did, because some bright lad had figured that it cost five dollars less for her to live in Etonville than it did for me to live in Jacksonville!” In fact, the WPA’s national folklore editor, Benjamin Botkin, put Kennedy in charge of Florida folklore, oral history and ethnic studies, making him in effect Hurston’s boss.
Although the Florida WPA was mandated to employ six black fieldworkers, Kennedy recalled that there was seldom a full complement. Furthermore, the black employees were not allowed to come to the all-white state office; their collections and paychecks were carried by delivery boys.
“Our state director came out into the editorial room, and announced that Zora was signing on,” Kennedy remembered. “He said she had been feted by New York literary circles, and was therefore given to putting on certain airs, such as smoking in the presence of white folks, and we would have to make allowances! It was the first time an African American had come into the office. But Zora came, and Zora smoked, and we made allowances!”
The heart of Kennedy’s folklore work in Florida, he said, was the idea that “cultural well-being is just as vital to any people and nation as their physical and mental well-being.” The documentary materials gathered by Kennedy, Hurston and the rest of the FWP’s Florida Unit, including recordings, photographs, researchers’ notes and reports, are preserved in the AFC Archive. Much of it is accessible in a multiformat online presentation titled “Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections."
The symposium concluded with remarks by historian Christopher Breiseth, director of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park and member of the NNDPA board. Breiseth spoke about “Lessons from the New Deal for the 21st Century.” Breiseth believes that the ideas and the specific projects of the New Deal can serve as examples for the next president, Congress and the world.
“If there is one image of Franklin Roosevelt that I would have us think about, it is that he was very concerned to extend the democratic values implicit in the New Deal to the whole world, by our example of what we did for our own people, as a social contract renewed. That is what we have, for the last two days, seen remarkable instances of, from the work of artists and photographers, to great builders of buildings and highways. The model is there for us to think about.”
The New Deal Web Guide and Other Online Resources
The symposium included the official launch of “New Deal Programs: Selected Library of Congress Resources,” a Web-based research guide. Associate Librarian for Library Services Deanna Marcum took part in a “virtual ribbon cutting” for the new guide.
Prepared by Laura Gottesman of the Library’s Digital Reference Team, with the help of colleagues throughout the Library, the comprehensive guide facilitates the process of identifying, locating and accessing the Library’s vast New Deal collections.
The American Folklife Center’s Web page for the New Deal symposium is accessible online. The site contains a program schedule; biographies of the symposium participants; and a bibliography of publications on folklife, traditional music, and related topics based on the AFC’s New Deal collections. Plans are underway to update the site with webcasts of the symposium.
"Art, Culture and Government" was produced by the American Folklife Center, in collaboration with the Center for The Book, the John W. Kluge Center, the Prints and Photographs Division and the Digital Reference Team, with assistance from the Manuscript Division, the Music Division, the Rare Books and Special Collections Division and the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Additional assistance was provided by the National Archives and Record Administration, and support was provided by the National New Deal Preservation Association in Santa Fe, N.M.
Stephen Winick is a writer and editor in the American Folklife Center. Nancy Groce is a folklife specialist in the American Folklife Center.