Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Federal Writers' Project: A Brief History

All of this economic meltdown has me thinking about some of the good things that happened during the Roosevelt years (not that I was there, mind you) that helped to keep people gainfully employed during our nation's worst time. This post is a little different, but I hope you'll read it anyway. You may never have heard about this program.

One of the things I studied in my Humanities classes was the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), which was a sub-project of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA). It wasn't popular at first, and as always, it bogged down in the Senate for awhile. When it passed in 1935, though, it put many, many people to work.

The FWP put a lot of writers to work documenting, among other things, their own home state. The resulting American Guide Series documented what made each state unique. Not just encyclopedic information, these guides contained rich essays that described the people, the scenery, and the local color of each state and region. Many other works came out of this project, including slave narratives - an incredibly important piece of history. Former slaves of varying ages were interviewed about their experiences living in the horror of slavery. (The University of Virginia has annotated, online versions of some of the slave narratives here). The slave narratives aren't all morose and painful, though. Many of the ex-slaves talk of the beautiful of work and community with other slaves. The narratives are truly amazing.

I first became acquainted with the FWP when I fell in love with the writing of John Steinbeck and studied his work in college. Yes, this famous writer was employed by this initiative, as were Saul Bellow and Zora Neale Hurston, the latter a writer who gained acclaim during the Harlem Renaissance. Considering how writers are thought of by people with "real" jobs, I was stunned to learn that the government actually found a way to shape a program and pay writers to do what they did best, observe, research, collect, and write, write, write! What would today's USA be like if we had such a program? So many talented writers are languishing in jobs that don't include writing (if they're lucky enough to have jobs) because they either don't think they're good enough or because it doesn't pay the bills.

There were many program under the umbrella of the WPA, but I have always been most interested, of course, in the FWP. The thought that the government cared about the arts during times of trouble has always fascinated me, particularly when in today's world the arts seem to be so devalued. Look how many schools have lost funding for music programs! And were there ever writing programs in school or was that all just lumped into the rest of the curriculum? Would we ever, in today's world, create such an initiative to help writers and artists in these tough times? Doubtful.

It took vision, respect, and a great deal of appreciation for the arts to create a program like this, and I just don't know if we have it in today's government. They'd rather bail out Wall St. fat cats and let the rest of us starve. It's kind of a throwback to Reagan's "trickle-down theory of economics", hoping that if they shore up those high up, it will stimulate the rest of the economy. It didn't work during the Reagan years, and it won't work now. I hope that some of what Obama hopes to do works, but I also wish someone, anyone, had the kind of appreciation for the arts that Roosevelt did during the Great Depression.

I know a lot of writers who would be glad to get a job updating those American Guides, don't you? Better yet - there could be a great blog project that documents the USA (and the world, for that matter) through the eyes of bloggers. Most of us already do this for no pay (don't let the BlogHer ads fool you; I haven't earned a cent here!). Imagine what we could create if this helped our bottom lines!

I'd love to hear your thoughts about all of this. Maybe we could start our own Blog Initiative! Do you think our new president would pay us?

I hope you enjoyed this little bit of history - Peace - D

[photo credit]


Daryl said...

I remember a lot of this from history classes ... when the going got tough the government didnt play partisan games they put aside silly party differences and worked together to get the country back on its feet .. if you havent seen Sullivan's Travels, rent it. I wish someone would buy the rights and update it ... its so spot on its scary

Maggie May said...

I'm not really up on American history.(Better to be honest about it.) I really do hope that president Obama gets things sorted out.
Things are far from good in America or England right now. Will probably take more than one man to get things on the right tracks and a good while, I should think.

Fat, frumpy and fifty... said...

very interesting post D.thank you...

are you more mellow and feeling ok?you sound it certainly.

TheWritersPorch said...

D.......I have three of the Slave Narrative books. What a great project that was for those of us who love history!

SandyCarlson said...

Fascinating stuff. I will use this in my class. Too good! Thank you.

the walking man said...

I don't remember how or where i became aware of the FWP and The Slave Narratives, but the recordings of the latter can be found if you wander through the Library of Congress web site.

RiverPoet said...

Daryl - I've added it to my queue on Netflix.

Maggie - How true! I hope he gets it straightened out, too. He has to get the Republicans to budge first, though. It's disgusting, truly.

FFF - I'm alright. The things I could write about in regards to that would be boring, though, so I found something else.

WP - Yes, I'm a huge history buff, like another Doris (Kearnes-Goodwin).

SandyC - Oh, please tell me how it turns out, how the kids feel about it!

Mark - Thanks! I will definitely check that out...

Peace - D

lakeviewer said...

Fantastic bit of history we can all use these days. Thank you

Jeni said...

You know, the Writer's Project along with other work incentive projects in the 30s (think the CCC and WPA) all might be very relevant and useful to try to help the economy get back on its feet again. I think the idea you suggested -the blogging along the lines of the Writer's Project -would be a great way to give a little boost to lots of things -the economy for openers, but also to show more of the history of the country, piece by blogging piece.