During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when as many as one out of four Americans could not find jobs, the federal government stepped in to become the employer of last resort. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), an ambitious New Deal program, put 8,500,000 jobless to work, mostly on projects that required manual labor. With Uncle Sam meeting the payroll, countless bridges, highways and parks were constructed or repaired.
The WPA included a provision for unemployed artists and writers: the Federal Arts Projects. If they were poor enough to qualify, musicians, actors, directors, painters and writers could work directly for the government. The New Deal arts projects made a lasting impact on American cultural life and none contributed more than the Federal Writers' Project. At its peak, the Writers' Project employed about 6,500 men and women around the country, paying them a subsistence wage of about $20 a week.
The Writers' Project provided jobs for a diverse assortment of unemployed white-collar workers including beginning and experienced writers--those who had always been poor and the newly down and out. Among those Federal Writers who went on to gain national literary reputations were novelists Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow and John Cheever, and poet May Swenson. Distinguished African-American writers served literary apprenticeships on the Federal Writers' Project, including Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright.
During the Project's early years, the Federal Writers produced a series of state guidebooks that offer a flavorful sampling of life in the United States. Now considered classics of Americana, these guides remain the Federal Writers' Project's best-known undertaking; many have been reissued in the past decade. But the Federal Writers' Project also left a hidden legacy. In the late 1930s, Federal Writers recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations and ethnic groups.
People who told stories of life and work during the 1930s include an Irish maid from Massachusetts, a woman who worked in a North Carolina textile mill, a Scandinavian iron worker, a Vermont farm wife, an African-American worker in Chicago meat packing house, and a clerk in Macy's department store.
Many Americans in the thirties remembered the nineteenth century as vividly as some people now recall the Depression years. The life history narratives tell of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the Chicago fire of 1871, making the pioneer journey to the Western Territories, and fleeing to America to avoid conscription into the Russian Czar's army.
These accounts were meant to be published in a series of anthologies that would form a mosaic portrait of everyday life in America. There were projected volumes on granite carvers, western pioneers and tobacco workers, among others. But by the end of the Depression, the New Deal arts projects were under attack by congressional red-baiters. Following America's entry into World War II, the Writers' Project came to a halt. A vast store of unpublished material was housed in the Library of Congress and was overlooked until recently.
This collection of life histories does not include photographs of the individuals who told their stories. In order to illustrate the narratives in this interpretive program, we have reproduced portraits of other individuals taken during the same time period, identified as "surrogate images."
Most life histories were gathered under the direction of Benjamin A. Botkin, the folklore editor of the Writers' Project. Like many intellectuals of his generation, Botkin was horrified at the rise of fascism in Europe and worried about possible consequences of that trend at home. By assembling occupationally and ethnically diverse life histories, he hoped to foster the tolerance necessary for a democratic, pluralistic community.
Although Federal Writers were not supposed to do their own creative work on Project time, many found that the Writers' Project experience offered considerably more than a meal ticket. Benjamin Botkin regarded the life history narratives as "the stuff of literature" and he expected Federal Writers to draw on them as raw material. No fan of "ivory tower writing," he shared the desire of literary realists to move "the streets, the stockyards, and the hiring halls into literature."
Many Federal Writers' field research did influence their subsequent fiction. Passages in Nelson Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side echo his interview with a Chicago prostitute. Mari Thomasi, who collected life stories of Vermont granite carvers, based her novel Like Lesser Gods on that experience. Sam Ross, who interviewed jazz musicians, wrote Windy City, a novel that describes the Chicago music scene as he knew it as a Federal Writer in the 1930s.
Federal Writers learned from the act of collecting narratives as well as from the stories themselves. The life history interviews were conducted before the days of tape recorders, so the stories had to be reconstructed from notes and memory. Botkin encouraged Federal Writers to listen for characteristic speech patterns and vernacular language.
In his Writers' Project interviews, Ralph Ellison began to experiment with ways of capturing the sound of black speech that he refined in his novel Invisible Man. "I tried to use my ear for dialogue to give an impression of just how people sounded. I developed a technique of transcribing that captured the idiom rather than trying to convey the dialect through misspellings." A Pullman porter Ellison interviewed in a Harlem bar told him, "I'm in New York, but New York ain't in me," a refrain he later borrowed for Invisible Man.
Botkin stressed the process of conducting interviews, directing his Federal Writers to "make your informant feel important. Well-conducted interviews serve as social occasions to which informants come to look forward." Each Federal Writer interpreted this advice according to his or her own inclinations. Said Ellison: "I would tell some stories to get people going and then I'd sit back and try to get it down as accurately as I could."
Federal Writer Stetson Kennedy recalls interviewing people in their Florida homes over a glass of beer. After establishing rapport, he would tell them "their lives were so interesting they should be written down. Most people agreed and the more notes you took, the better they liked it."
Since the Federal Writers themselves were on relief, they were viewed sympathetically and frequently accepted as equals by those they interviewed. Betty Burke recalls feeling that bond with the packing house workers she talked to in Chicago. "We were poor ourselves and these people were, if anything, even poorer, so I was very close to them. I understood every word they said with all my heart."
The accuracy of most of these memories can't be confirmed, but perhaps it is more useful to ask instead, what do these stories express? Personal recollection has a significance of its own and offers a window onto the ways people shape their identity and see the world around them.
This special presentation was written by Ann Banks and produced by Joanne B. Freeman and prepared for the World Wide Web by Jane Leslie Bossert. The sound recordings were produced by Joan Murphy Stack and engineered by Rob Attinello. The actors who read the manuscripts were Clement Cottingham, Billie Durand, George A. Jackson, Jr., Margaret Root, Edward S. Stout, and Edna Jeweline White.
© 1980 Ann Banks