By GUY LAMOLINARA
The New Deal arts projects of the Great Depression have provided a seemingly inexhaustible font from which writers and film producers continue to draw for inspiration. More than 70 years later, the output of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), in the years 1935-1939, is still being mined for stories of the hard times and broken dreams that have a particular resonance today.
“The Library of Congress is a major repository of the New Deal projects,” said John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book. “One of the reasons we are so rich in these collections is that a Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, was a New-Dealer who realized the value of these collections that would no longer have a home.” According to Cole, MacLeish “volunteered the Library” to house the Work Progress Administration collections.
Thus it was only natural that the Center for the Book and the American Folklife Center co-hosted “Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America,” a multimedia program that included a discussion of the book (published by Wiley) and a screening of excerpts of the documentary film (Smithsonian Channel) of the same name.
The Center for the Book and the American Folklife Center have sponsored many WPA-related programs over the years, including “Amassing American ‘Stuff,’” a 1994 conference that brought together veterans and observers of the New Deal arts projects (see Information Bulletin, Feb. 6, 1995), and “Art Culture and Government: The New Deal at 75” (see Information Bulletin, April 2008).
Andrea Kalin, the film’s director and co-producer, noted that the April 28 program was being held on the eve of the 100th day of the Obama administration, when Americans would be wondering about the effects of the multibillion-dollar economic stimulus package: “While people are evaluating what the stimulus will do, they are again turning their attention to the WPA.”
She then introduced the film excerpt. A section called “Hard Times” began with historian Douglas Brinkley noting that “somebody once said that the great oxygen of the United States is optimism. Well, if that’s the case, what happens when the oxygen gets depleted?”
Narrator and actress Patricia Clarkson said over the film’s striking images of despair and hope, “In the 1930s, the United States sat down with pen in hand and began to write, giving voice to its hopes and fears. Its subject was what made ‘America’ America.… Generations would see [the New Deal’s] legacy in roads and bridges, but less obvious was another program, one that would become the largest cultural experiment in the nation’s history: The Federal Writers’ Project.” The point was also made that the egalitarian ethos of the FWP moved African-American writers such as Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright from the “fringes” to the heart of American literature.
Much of the work of the FWP resulted in state and city guidebooks. No one expected these books to amount to anything important, much less controversial, according to the film. Yet the guidebooks were controversial. Some of the writers were accused of being communists, of writing subversive texts. And some of the guidebooks, such as the one for Washington, D.C., weighing more than 5 pounds, received raves. The California guide became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
But some people did not understand why the federal government was funding such a project, and why it was paying people to write stories that documented the wretchedness of American life for those most affected by the Depression. When opponents began spreading stories that the guidebooks were in fact subversive, officials took action. The funding for the Wisconsin volume, for example, was cut off and a newspaper wrote that the guide contained writing that was “juvenile, inaccurate and loaded with socialist propaganda.”
“The irony is that the Federal Writers’ Project gets attacked as being un-American when in truth it was an orgy of Americanism,” says Brinkley in the film. By May 1939, the editor of the guides, Henry Alsberg, was defeated by the forces allied against him and was fired. The project continued nonetheless and the remaining guides were eventually published.
Following the film clip, Kalin joined David A. Taylor, the author of the book and co-producer of the film; Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center; and David Royle, Smithsonian Channel vice president for programming, in a panel discussion. Bulger noted that the Library’s WPA collections were key resources in the production of the film and book. Taylor told how “excited” he was to work with the more than 400,000 WPA items in the Library’s Manuscript Division. Royle explained why the project grabbed his attention:
“When I first came to America as a young student, it was to North Carolina, and that was the first time I encountered [the gathering of] folklife and folklore and oral history. … I think of it as a peculiarly American trait. … It is so democratic, going across America and getting people’s stories.”
A member of the audience wanted to know how the writers were selected. Taylor replied that “nine-tenths of the writers had to be on relief; you had to prove you had no income. … One-tenth were recruited from working writers.” Kalin added that only
1 percent of all the New Deal project funds went to the Federal Writers’ Project, “so the controversy was not over money being spent but over the kind of story the [writers] were telling. The question was whether [Americans] were ready to hear that.” Bulger said that these unvarnished stories of people living on the edge were so revolutionary for the time that they were considered controversial.
“Writers like John Cheever cut their eye teeth on the Federal Writers’ Project,” she continued. “It was a great way to get training.”
The April 28 program can be viewed on the Library’s website at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
The collections of the Library of Congress are especially rich in photographs, documentation and artifacts from the New Deal projects of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Many of these collections are available online in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (www.loc.gov/rr/print/catalog.html) and in the American Memory website at www.loc.gov/memory/. These include photographs from Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information, American Life Histories of the Federal Writers’ Project and slave narratives conducted during this period. A web-based research guide, “New Deal Programs: Selected Library of Congress Resources,” is online at www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/newdeal/.
The Library has also made many of its Depression-era photographs more widely available through the photo-sharing website Flickr (www.loc.gov/rr/print/flickr_pilot.html).
Guy Lamolinara is the communications officer for the Center for the Book.