In March of 1933, a newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special session of Congress and began the first hundred days of enacting his New Deal legislation. You probably had a history class that talked about the almost daily bills that were passed, including the Emergency Banking Act, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. It seems more incredible today in a time when Congress has so many problems agreeing on and passing any legislation.
One of the New Deal’s cultural programs that may not have gotten any attention in history class is worth noting. That is the Federal Writers’ Project. It is a program that would seem almost impossible to get support for in the current administration.
The project employed more than 6,600 out-of-work writers, editors, and researchers. Some of the names are familiar — Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Conrad Aiken, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, May Swenson, Richard Wright — but many of them were struggling writers who were not famous and did not become well known.
The benefits were minimal subsistence wages of around $20 a week.
One of the main writing projects was the American Guides Series. They were guidebooks to to each of the existing states of the time, as well as Alaska, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and several major cities and highways. But beyond being travel guides, they also had essays on various subjects from geography and history to architecture and commerce.
Another project was to collect the life histories of more than 10,000 Americans under the direction of folklore editor Benjamin A. Botkin. The writers interviewed people of all socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. They also collected first-person accounts of more than 2,300 former slaves, which were assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the 17-volume “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.”
Not everyone saw value in the FWP. Opponents of President Roosevelt thought the New Deal would ruin the country, and some considered the New Deal a Communist plot.
Poet W.H. Auden called it “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state.”
The FWP produced 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and 340 “issuances” — assorted leaflets, radio scripts, and articles. Although states were permitted to continue Writers’ Project programs until 1943, the federal program was terminated in 1939, due to the country’s need for a larger defense budget.
A National Endowment for the Humanities-funded documentary about the Federal Writers’ Project, entitled Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story premiered on the Smithsonian Channel in September 2009. The film includes interviews with notable American authors Studs Terkel, Stetson Kennedy, and popular American historian Douglas Brinkley. The companion book is Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America.
The Slave Narratives are represented by the HBO documentary, Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives which features actors such as Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson performing dramatic readings of the transcripts.
The 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, by Tim Robbins, while depicting the events of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), dramatizes the attacks against Federal One (via the House Committee on Un-American Activities) which helped shutter both the thaeter (FTP) and the writers (FWP) projects.
Source: The Writer’s Almanac