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Collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1940

About this Collection

This collection of life histories consists of approximately 2,900 documents, compiled and transcribed by more than 300 writers from 24 states, working on the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program that was part of the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) from 1936 to 1940. Typically 2,000-15,000 words in length, the documents vary in form from narratives to dialogues to reports to case histories. They chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, grueling factory work, and the immigrant experience. Writers hired by this Depression-era work project included Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, May Swenson, and many others. The documents often describe the informant’s physical appearance, family, education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores. Pseudonyms are often substituted for individuals and places named in the narrative texts. The life histories comprise a small part of the larger Manuscript Division collection titled United States Work Projects Administration Records.

About the Federal Writers' Project

The Federal Writers' Project materials in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division are part of a larger collection titled The U.S. Work Projects Administration Federal Writers' Project and Historical Records Survey. The holdings from Federal Writers' Project span the years 1889-1942 and cover a wide range of topics and subprojects. Altogether, the Federal Writers' holdings number approximately 300,000 items and consist of correspondence, memoranda, field reports, notes, graphs, charts, preliminary and corrected drafts of essays, oral testimony, folklore, miscellaneous administrative and miscellaneous other material.

Well over one-half of the materials in this record group pertain to the American Guide, the sobriquet for the critically acclaimed state guides. The remainder of the material reflects other areas of interest that developed as the project grew in maturity. They include a rich collection of rural and urban folklore; first-person narratives (called life histories) describing the feelings of men and women coping with life and the Depression; studies of social customs of various ethnic groups; authentic narratives of ex-slaves about life during the period of Slavery; and Negro source material gathered by project workers. In addition, drafts of publications and intended publications are included. These publications express concern with the direction America was taking and with the preservation and communication of local culture. Titles include Hands That Build America, From These Strains, Lexicon of Trade Jargon, and Pockets in America.

The arrangement of the larger collection generally reflects the division of work within the Writers' Project such as material relating to The American Guide, the Folklore Project, Social-ethnic Studies, and Slave Narratives. Other series are compilations for archival purposes such as administrative papers or Negro studies material. Still others are groups of similar material such as printed matter and the like.

The plight of the unemployed writer, and indeed anyone who could qualify as a writer such as a lawyer, a teacher, or a librarian, during the early years of the Depression, was of concern not only to the Roosevelt Administration, but also to writers' organizations and persons of liberal and academic persuasions. It was felt, generally, that the New Deal could come up with more appropriate work situations for this group other than blue collar jobs on construction projects. To the Administration's liking were plans generated from a series of meetings held in 1934 between Jacob Baker, Harry Hopkins' chief Civil Works Administration assistant in charge of special and professional programs, Henry Alsberg, Bakers' assistant, Katherine Kellock, a writer familiar with international and social organizations, and others. The outcome of these sessions was a project for all the "arts," (labeled Federal One), divided administratively by each specialty and headed by professionals in the field. The Writers' Project, later characterized by some as the federal government's attempt to "democratize American culture," was approved for federal monies in June, 1935. Baker chose his assistant, Alsberg, as director. As the Project continued into the late thirties, the director was powerless to stop increasing criticism by reactionary Congressmen who were intent on shutting down the enterprise. In October 1939, the Project's federal monies ceased, due to the Administration's need for a larger defense budget. After 1939, emasculated, the Project sputtered along on monies funded to the states, closing completely one year or so after America's entry into World War II.

Researchers should note that the American Memory collection presented here is a coherent portion of the Library's larger Federal Writers' series and the WPA collection. It includes the life histories and corollary documents assembled by the Folklore Project within the Federal Writers' effort.

About the Folklore Project and the Life Histories

Within the Federal Writers' Project, material relating to folklore and social-ethnic studies was collected and shaped through the efforts of John A. Lomax, Benjamin A. Botkin, and Morton Royce. The activity documented in writing traditional statements, expressions, songs, essays, stories, and the like, with tilt toward accounts of frontier and pioneer life. The Folklore Project filed its material under the general headings "traditional" and "life histories."

The Writers' Project staff variously described the life histories as life sketches, living lore, industrial lore, and occupational lore. The narratives were meant to reflect the ordinary person's struggle with the vicissitudes of daily living.

This American Memory presentation is limited to the Folklore Project life histories. Similar accounts may be found in the Social-Ethnic portion of the WPA collection; these may be digitized in the future.

At the time, Botkin said, the collected lore and narratives were to be used as the basis for anthologies which would form a composite and comprehensive portrait of various groups of people in America. The entire body of material provides the raw content for a broad documentary of both rural and urban life, interspersed with accounts and traditions of ethnic group traditions, customs regarding planting, cooking, marriage, death, celebrations, recreation, and a wide variety of narratives. The quality of collecting and writing lore varies from state to state, reflecting the skills of the interviewer-writers and the supervision they received.