Dave Buckhout .
Introduction › The New Deal, Federal One and The Federal Writers Project
In May 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Works Progress Administration. Rising out of the massive Emergency Relief Appropriations Act passed by Congress a month earlier, the WPA built on the smaller successful Public / Civil Works Administrations that came to fruition with the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. The WPA would represent a policy shift. Whereas the private sector was not only the target patient but actively sought as government’s partner in the NIRA – and the National Recovery Administration which was formed to oversee its implementation – a dearth of compromise and willing partnerships had doomed the NIRA to be statistically ineffective. Overall, the NIRA / NRA had provided a boost to national morale and alongside 1933’s Federal Emergency Relief Act helped to diffuse radical tensions amongst labor and the unemployed; but they had done little to ease the economic uncertainly brought on by the Great Depression. (NRA labor codes were eventually ruled unconstitutional by a conservative majority of the Supreme Court in 1935 [Schechter Poultry v. U.S.]). But if the New Deal was anything, it was not complacent. And so, it moved on to ‘phase two.’
What would make the WPA different was its wholesale reliance on public works, with the Federal government as employer instead of a ‘relief roll’ resource. Infused with five billion dollars, no Federal project of such scale as the WPA had ever been attempted in this country on behalf of easing general economic distress. It was aimed directly at helping the average majority. Behind the Social Security Act, it’s fairly argued that the productions of the WPA were amongst the most tangible New Deal results to the average American. Its dependence on work over ‘the dole’ was more true to the American character. And the theoretic argument of public v. private sector aside, earned dollars re-entering the economy via consumer spending by the previously unemployed was a positive thing, however achieved. The Great Depression, well-documented as the hardest of the many economic crises America had endured, was still casting long shadows over everything five years after the market implosions that had helped induce it. Aside from basic stabilization, the vigorous attempts of the Administration and their allies in Congress had stalled in the face of continued institutional imbalances, inequity and the ‘cutthroat’ mentalities that had played such large roles in landing the economy in so sorry a state. Combined with the darkening clouds of political upheaval / unrest then spreading across Europe and Asia, it was a ‘perfect storm’ of ill circumstances within which to muster a sustained economic recovery.
Undaunted by the mediocre performance of past initiatives, the WPA became central to FDR’s ‘new’ New Deal . . . The successes and / or failures of the New Deal have been weighed / scrutinized / documented by historians, economists, pundits and politicians since its inception. The believers, the non-believers and those neutral have combined to produce a mountain of work that runs the ideological gamut: from the overtly positive / negative to incisive critiques to rants conveniently lacking context. To a degree, the success / failure of the New Deal will always remain a matter of opinion. But the reality of 1935 bears certain undeniable truths, one being: if Roosevelt and the Federal government had little to show for its effort economically to that point, the same was true of private enterprise. Something needed to be done aside from “let’s wait and see” . . . And so, the Works Progress Administration moved forward. At its core was FDR’s desire that the government: “quit this business of relief.” If the private sector could not right the economy in lieu of circumstances and create opportunities for the unemployed masses (at points having soared to over a third of the national workforce), then the Feds would give it a try. . . .
It was against this backdrop that Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s hand-picked director for the WPA, announced a revolutionary public works project in the summer of 1935: Federal Project Number One. In keeping with the administration’s desire to democratize all aspects of American life, this sub-project made sure that ‘culture’ was included in that mission: FDR’s underlying wish that all Americans – not just the wealthy – have access to “a more abundant life.”
Federal One would be a ‘New Deal for the Arts.’
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Composed of four sections – the Writers’ / Music / Theatre / Art projects – Federal One was designed around the fact that the Depression had been equally hard on those employed in the creative arts. In NARA curator Bruce Bustard’s “A New Deal for the Arts” (a companion to the 1997 NARA exhibit of the same name), he notes: “Struggling even in the best of times, during the Depression many artists found themselves jobless and without the resources to pursue their vocations.” Just like those unemployed in the more traditional industrial / manufacturing and white-collar fields, artists had to eat, too. And so WPA administrators expanded the notion of replacing ‘public charity’ with working for a salary into the mentioned creative fields.
As with skilled-yet-jobless mechanics or out-of-work engineers, a journalist, trombonist, stage actor or portrait painter had a certain skill-set that required the professional pace of steady work to maintain. The economic dirge that defined the first half of the 1930s had also stunted the growth of young creative talent across the country. Federal One would help fill various voids of opportunity and champion the notion of ‘the arts for all’ as no other government program before or since . . . But such a revolutionary proposition – relief work for artists – would swim upstream for popular and legislative support during its short-lived existence. The project would be praised for its voluminous works and ridiculed as a bureaucratic waste, all the while fighting the notion documented by historian Robert McElvaine that “people had a hard time accepting singing and acting as work.” Anyone who has pursued either professionally realizes the misconception; but so was the average working person’s perception of the arts: a pastime for the well-to-do with time and money on their hands, not a vocation that feeds families. Federal One, it was hoped, could change all that.
The WPA arts project would eventually succumb to focused partisan attacks (which painted the entire venture as a Communist front) and the more pressing need of mobilizing for war. But before the overall project was dissolved in 1939, it would provide work for tens of thousands of previously unemployed creative individuals, incubate the early careers of several celebrated authors, poets, conductors, actors, directors, painters and sculptors, and churn out an enormous amount of work – all of which found its way into the everyday life of what proved to be an ‘arts hungry’ America. If not always pleased with paying for it, Americans nonetheless showed a ravenous appetite for its programs (especially the performance-oriented Theatre and Music sections). Despite the administrative snafus and union-oriented flare-ups, project artists overall proved dedicated purveyors of culture. Efficient and prolific, they produced tangible results on the government’s ‘dime.’ And considering expenditures would not at any point during its existence exceed 1% of the WPA budget, it seems an added bargain that most of it was also pretty good art.
Many have argued that of the four sections The Federal Writers’ Project was the most successful. Though debatable considering the tremendous output of each, the proficient depth of the FWP’s American Guide Series could make the case all on its own. Carl Sandburg is rumored to have claimed the state guides were the “WPA’s finest monument.” Whether he said it or not, the statement rings true.
My original intent was to focus an individual study on each of the project’s four sections, beginning with the FWP. However, while researching my interest in the writers’ section became an all-consuming one. Here then is the story of The Federal Writers’ Project during the Federal One period.
I . Ramping Up
The main inspiration for an all-inclusive Federal arts project rose from several initiatives funded by the Public / Civil Works Administrations. Such projects included the preservation of public records, photographic / historic architectural surveys and the well-respected PWAP mural program (its works still visible on the inner walls of small town post offices nationwide). These proved successful test cases that would provide the Roosevelt administration impetus enough to pursue a broad expansion in ‘arts relief.’ Yet opinions on such an expansion from outside of the administration returned mixed results. When asked about the creation of a Federal ‘creative writers program,’ the famed and notoriously caustic critic H. L. Mencken was skeptical. Even taking into account the late economic calamity most good writers were not wont for work, he claimed, and feared that the administration would be subsidizing the leftover “quacks” instead of real deserving talent. Other established writers proved more supportive, poet William Carlos Williams ruminating: “Wonders might come from such a move . . . for letters are the wave’s edge in all cultural advance which, God knows, we in America ain’t got much of.”
Monty Noam Penkower has written a definitive study of the FWP: “The Federal Writers’ Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts.” In his prologue, Penkower writes of the morale-crushing effect the Depression was having on average citizens: “The sense of America’s uniqueness, of a land where hopes became realities and paupers self-made men, seemed to vanish . . .” It’s possible that this line was placed as foreshadowing; for it underwrites what would become the core mission of Federal One, and the FWP specifically: to recapture the pride embedded in the notion of America as a land where the average is exceptional. Through the arts, Federal One sought to usher in a new sense of spirit, even élan. It aimed to create a sense of ‘cultural democracy,’ fostering an appreciation for / expectation of the finer things, for all. The FWP’s strategy was to place the greatness of the country into the hands of its own citizens. The American Guide Books would be the chief result of the project. Its volumes would resonate with this notion of re-engaging Americans with their country. The FWP would also go on to produce a wide variety of significant surveys / studies, as well as publishing critically-received, yet short-lived journals of literature. But it would be the 48 state guides, the hundreds of additional touring volumes and the thousands of regional / city touring pamphlets for which the FWP would come to be known. The guides, whether pamphlet or volume (most of the WPA state guides weighing in at a hefty 400+ pages) were meant to usher in a new approach to ‘auto tourism,’ prompting Americans to educate themselves about the natural / cultural history in their own backyards.
In line with the overall project, the FWP was an expansion of small-scale projects funded out of the FERA and CWA. The preservation of public documents (New Mexico) and what was at the time only a proposed project involving ex-slaves in the Ohio River Valley, along with a CWA-funded touring book for the state of Connecticut (compiled and published in 1935) gave context to a larger relief project. But it was the “Newspaper Writers’ Project” of Los Angeles that served up the model to be used. Composed of formerly unemployed newspaper staff, the L.A. project did all of these: preserved / recorded public records, conducted field interviews, compiled and documented local history – but did so all under one banner. The project’s results fit right into a 1934 suggestion delivered directly to administration officials by the established Authors League: that relief money could be fed into “a survey of varying aspects of everyday life as it is lived in all parts of the United States.” This was the first spark of the idea that would soon evolve into the FWP and its touring guides. Studies and histories had been done at the local / regional level before; but often the results favored boosterism over reality (often funded by a local economic development club or chamber of commerce, who expected bright shining depictions often sanitized of unflattering facts). The state guides would blend the two, providing an often encyclopedic opening background narrative and grist for tourist via the guides’ in-depth tours (complete with maps, pictures and local attractions). National FWP directors would invite several public confrontations over the myth-dispelling contents that found their way into the state guides. But through it all, they and the local FWP units did an admirable job in steering clear of revisionist pressures. The editors aimed for historical accuracy. They treated both the legends and facts with due respect, Penkower noting that via research FWP workers uncovered “a vast quantity of material which disproved many local tales written on bronze memorial tablets.”
With the introduction of Federal One and its initial $27 million budget (this out of the 1935 WPA appropriation of $5 billion) the FWP’s small slice was put to work by director Harry Alsberg. The section’s first and most influential director, Alsberg’s character itself serves as a solid metaphor for the FWP: at once relentlessly dedicated, yet all-over-the-road. The man had turned away from a rigid pious upbringing and lived his adult life as an itinerant artist. As FWP director he brought that creative wanderlust to bear. Many thought him a flake. He was labeled “an absent-minded professor,” and the more colorful: “colossus of chaos.” (Penkower considers it impressive that the project ran as smoothly as it did, doing so “perhaps in spite of Alsberg.”) Often criticized for weakness in dealing with incidents or project personalities that sapped the effectiveness of FWP productions, his personal work ethic (often bordering on the obsessive) and focus on quality does stand out. A prime example lies in the highly competent / dedicated group he surrounded himself with. He brought in Joseph Gaer, head of L.A.’s “Newspaper Project,” and put the editorial talents of George Cronyn, Lawrence Abbott and Waldo Browne to work, assigning them all lead editorial roles in the FWP. He brought in the well-respected researcher Katherine Kellock, who championed the idea of tours that put tourists onto the backroads and not just the highways. Alsberg’s view on staffing was driven by talent and not the gender or racial stereotypes of the day. He would promote several qualified woman to lead state FWP units and prove colorblind in elevating staff. In the early days of assembling the project this vast diversity also made clear that the scope of the developing project would overwhelm the central staff in Washington, creating need for the mentioned state units (something that would be true of all four sections of Federal One). Hundreds of individual city units would also evolve. But as diversified as the research / writing efforts would become, Alsberg demanded that all copy be run through the national office for final approval – again, prompting several confrontations. Yet insisting on a centralized editorial review was perhaps his greatest act as FWP director. The central staff in D.C. would guarantee a cohesion and familiar voice to the project’s final publications that would not have been possible otherwise. The proof is evident in the state guides, which despite the thousands of staff members employed read as volumes in a set.
It is important to come back to the fact that the FWP was a ‘relief works’ project. It did not award grants to hand-picked artists. It was designed more broadly and generally. It was revolutionary in its mass scope (as minute as it was inside the overall WPA). Nothing like it had been attempted before, or has since. And as the concepts of touring guides / pamphlets and other study sub-projects began to take shape in the second half of 1935, the logistics of assembling enough competent personnel proved a serious challenge. The big cities were not lacking in those previously employed in writing-related fields (mainly news journalism and / or publishing). But finding those with even basic suitable skills in more rural states proved next to impossible. It was especially difficult in southern, plains and southwestern states where outside of the local folk artist, or well-practiced string-band, the ‘organized’ arts were rare finds (and as mentioned, the notion itself often dismissed outright as not ‘real work’). A Georgia administrator in the midst of such staffing difficulties would sum it up well, writing the D.C. office to say that a ‘writer’ in his state was working out to mean “any occupation that involved an understanding of the English language.”
Aside from geographical challenges, another unforeseen difficulty was a directive that required 90% of the project’s staff come off the ‘relief rolls.’ The rule seems political in nature, perhaps drawn up to secure support from skeptics of the arts project in Congress. But in reality it worked to exclude those who had done all they could to stay off relief, in the process excluding those employed in the CWA. This would have eliminated large pools of potential applicants by itself, eventually being eased for practical reasons. A final hurdle in the build-up of staff proved to be the often humiliating ‘means test.’ The test was to be given to all applicants with the notion of determining that those hired were, in fact, in dire straits – of course, reminding the applicants that this was the case in the process. But passing the ‘means’ was not meant to boost morale. That would ideally come with the previously unemployed working and earning a ‘security wage.’
All considered, by late-1935 the FWP had over 4,000 employees busily scouring the country and compiling copy for various projects. In the end it would become well known that a good deal of the staff were not writers by trade (a 1938 report would indicate that only a few hundred had ever pulled a paycheck via the pen prior to the FWP). It was also well known that a good deal of those employed throughout the life of the project should not have been. But the vast majority – writers or not – proved up to the challenge, attaining in the words of Penkower, “a pooling of diverse accomplishments.”
And so, with research and copy beginning to pour in from a variety of staff so wide-ranging in background / competency / talent, the streamlining effort of Alsberg’s editors went into full swing. They would be put to the test.
II . "American Stuff"
Federal One in general, and the FWP specifically, began with grand, idealistic, perhaps even naive expectations. But despite the difficulties and condemnation that were soon to hinder the project, many of those involved remained true to at least one ideal: that through their efforts they would create greater national access to the arts. Penkower explains that a main goal of FWP directors would have the project introduce “a writing style new to America, one ‘restrained and dignified’ . . .” The overall arts project focused solely on American themes, whether natural, cultural, social or historic. An unofficial ‘mission statement’ of the FWP was to write about and document “American stuff.” The reality of the results make the charges of anti-Americanism levied against the project difficult to justify, the main evidence to be presented before committees in 1939 indicative less of a ‘Moscow-based’ Communist influence, as charged, and more of an ‘arts activism’ challenging a great country to be greater. (It’s ironic that the FWP unit most often cited for Communist sympathies [NYC] often proved quite dysfunctional, when compared to other city / state units that escaped scrutiny but were known to staff card-carrying members.) Clearly, there were some results more activist than not; but for the most part project results were uncontroversial, even tending toward ‘American-centric’ nostalgia. Bruce Bustard summarizes: “While there are a few examples of American history being used to promote reform or even radicalism, for the most part New Deal art offered clear examples of community and spotlighted inspirational heroes for a country in the midst of crisis and change.”
FWP publications / works not only focused on, but elevated the diversity of “American stuff.” As the extensive networks of city / state / national staff began to fan out and research the material that would fuel their work, in Penkower’s words they “began to discover that the whole country had a rich variety of folk and folklore only now awakening to discovery.” (An enduring description is the image provided by Harvard professor Daniel Fox, writing of FWP staff whose work took them to all corners of the country and often found them “bumping over dusty roads in battered Model A Fords.”) Preservation was at the root of all efforts. One of the first FWP sub-projects was devoted to the preservation of public documents. Taking the New Mexico and L.A. CWA-era projects national, the Historical Records Survey was authorized under the FWP in November 1935. It would prove efficient, if thinly-staffed. But as was true of many Federal One sub-projects, a small often relentless and dedicated staff would secure enormous returns. Robert McElvaine notes these contributions and the “huge amount of raw material that has proved to be of enormous value to subsequent artists and historians.” (Most all of this ‘raw material’ is still available to the public via the National Archives and Library of Congress.) The quality of FWP research would go on to influence other respected sub-projects, such as the Historic American Buildings Survey (which continues to operate) and the Index of American Design, a historical initiative out of The Federal Art Project that was the first domestic volume of its kind.
In 1961, Daniel Fox’s mentioned work on the FWP appeared in the American Quarterly. Noting that the state guides were and will always remain central to FWP efforts, he nonetheless enforces a vital point: that the ‘encyclopedic’ research efforts of the touring guide teams spun out equally important, often groundbreaking studies. Through our own research with InHeritage it’s clear that ‘social studies’ initiated under the FWP, FSA / RA and other agencies upended a lot of long-standing inaccurate understandings of American life; for instance, the depth of rural poverty at the time was all but unknown to most of the nation (the mentioned studies helping bring this to light much as the plight of the urban poor had been embedded into the national conscience a generation before by such activists as Jacob Riis.) The FWP’s collection of narrative interviews given by, who were then, very elderly ex-slaves falls into this category. They are invaluable. (To read selections, please visit the Library of Congress “American Memory” website’s: Born in Slavery.
Negro Studies’ would prove the most revolutionary of the ‘auxiliary’ sub-projects, as well as the most groundbreaking copy in the state guides – thanks largely to the efforts of poet, Sterling Brown, who championed their inclusion. From 1936-on several key employees would prove instrumental in helping produce / publish the ex-slave narratives and dozens of other works on African-American culture. Chief among them would be Brown, Charles Johnson of ‘FWP Tennessee’ and a team of educators in tandem with Dillard University of New Orleans. In the end charges of “Yankee bias” would be levied by some southern whites, and there were instances of actual bias in the finished copy (this proving without regional boundaries: portions of the Ohio State Guide and various city guides often cited). But to scan the titles published and read selections from the final results shows that, though frank, the works were more often objective, even academic and authoritative, despite an obvious bend towards ‘folksy.’
The notion of uncovering folk studies / folklore and documenting social-ethnic history would occupy centre stage during the Federal One phase of the FWP (1935-1939). In The New Deal, Anthony Badger writes: “The Writer’s Project attempted to capture the folklore culture of those groups who failed to leave written records and who historians ignored.” Despite the labor / union strife that would always plague the New York City unit, it did manage to promote tireless professionals who produced. Morton Royse’s NYC-based ethnic “racial group” studies would be held up as a standard. A similar project would take shape in Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods. Folk-study professionals John Lomax and Ben Botkin teamed up to form the FWP’s “Folkways Project,” which focused on uncovering regional undocumented tales real and ‘tall.’ McElvaine records Botkin who said: “history must study the inarticulate many as well as the articulate few.” This alongside documenting the American experience of minority groups would typify the mixed approach of the FWP’s Folklore Section. Studies focused on Eastern European immigrants, western copper miners, Utah’s Mormons, “Yankee Folk,” and San Franciscans, among scores of others. North Carolina’s William Couch would produce the oral history project “These Are Our Lives,” which received high praise. The NYC unit would produce “Italians of New York,” and publish copies in both English and Italian. For all the accusations of hero-destruction that would fall on the project there were few publications that didn’t celebrate the legend, true or not. Such was the case of the Chicago unit’s exploration of that city’s often exaggerated past in “Baseball in Old Chicago.” Few pastimes / regions / ethnic enclaves went unrepresented (one of the few disappointments being the inability to pull together various Native-American projects, despite—this in light of the successful African-American projects). But all told, the diversity of the country’s character would be thoroughly detailed; and the respectable sales of FWP publications revealed a folklore-hungry America. Putting aside state guides, tour volumes / pamphlets, the final tally of auxiliary project results totaled in the area of 150,000 pages of life histories, 14,000 folklore manuscripts, some 3,000 ex-slave narratives and 1,000 various social-ethnic studies.
But the constant thread of the FWP’s research efforts, and the thing that would keep the vast majority of staff busy, would always be touring literature and the American Guides Series. As early as 1936, finished results were beginning to appear. Though Alsberg had set up regional directors and there was much talk of regional guides, they never came to pass. The concentration would always revolve around states / cities, the natural project hierarchy. Despite this, one of the first publications was Katherine Kellock’s guide to the “Intracoastal Waterway.” She would go on to produce a similar non-state / city volume for “Route 1,” the Atlantic Coast-long roadway. Evident was her focus on tours “off the beaten path.” The first ‘volume’ to be completed was the Washington D.C. Guide (“The City and Capital”). It was massive. Weighing several pounds, it was almost 1,000 pages long. Heavy on government background (as well as to carry) the format was unique when compared to the standard rhythm state / city guides would set. It was also unique in that it would prove one of the few guides actually published by the government (Government Printing Office). Realizing the need for haste and the political benefit of NRA-era cooperation, Alsberg and others agreed to send publication of the guides out to bid via the discretion of state directors. Though this would prove controversial in various occurrences of fraud by state publishing ‘sponsors’ or ‘committees,’ overall it proved wise. The majority of contracts were picked up by established firms with the capacity for large runs, such as Houghton-Mifflin, Viking, MacMillan, Oxford and Hastings House. Several volumes were often awarded in a single contract. All of the mentioned houses published multiple volumes. Still, dozens of other contracts were awarded to small local firms. One of these was the publisher Caxton who would print the very first state guide.
Vardis Fisher, an established author of historical fiction / westerns and director of the Idaho state unit, brought a contentious attitude to editorial meetings with the central staff. He was several times accused of using the project for his own ends, Fisher himself often laughing off the D.C. staff as weak-willed. (His battles with George Cronyn over final state guide copy would become legendary ‘pissing matches.’) But Fisher also employed an obsession in seeing the Idaho State Guide through to completion. It was the first state guide, rolling off the presses in January 1937. (To keep Fisher from unceremoniously resigning his post [which he threatened to do several times] the unveiling of the D.C. Guide, though completed first, was held up so Idaho could take top honors.) An excerpt of the opening narrative, taken from Penkower’s Federal Writers’ Project, shows Fisher’s colorful style and disdain for popular ‘pulp’ notions of the West:
The lusty and profane extremes of it still live nebulously in the gaudy imbecilities of the newsstand pulp magazines and in cheap novels, wherein to appease the hunger of human beings for drama and spectacles, heroines distressingly invulnerable are fought over by villains and heroes . . .
The plates of several other guides were already on the presses. And, already, the frank presentation of facts was creating ripples. But Alsberg and the other FWP directors stood their ground before demands to ‘soften the edges.’ Penkower writes of how “this more probing self-critical approach” brought “condemnation of an emerging new standard.” The condemnation was thick and undoubtedly led to certain edits of the more controversial material. But in all, directors stood fast. The Connecticut director summed up the firm stance stating, frankly: “Are the Guides to be concerned only with sweetness and light?” They would not, to the protest of chambers of commerce nationwide. This ‘new standard’ took great care to focus on FWP folk / ethnic studies in its narrative, as well as traditionally controversial topics – such as labor strife (inclusions that would cause much pain during the 1939 HUAC committee hearings). In hindsight, state guide narrative appears to fall in with the larger ‘sea change’ in historical study / writing at the time. This reinvention, fronted by such celebrated historians as Richard Hofstadter, Bruce Catton and C. Vann Woodward, chose to peer deep beneath the surface, relying more on archival research and the raw unpolished fact than the update of national myths. The state guides helped to instill a more complete rendering of the American story and did so without dampening an optimistic, often jovial rhythm.
Though each state was free to tailor copy according to its specific character / traits, the guides were true to a standard table of contents. The guides’ opening narrative detailed a wide array of social / cultural history, as well as specifics on technology, transportation, industry / agriculture, arts, architecture, communications, recreation. The inclusion of natural history was a unique addition to tour books at the time, WPA guides including geographical evolution, as well as the standard geology and flora / fauna. (For instance, the tourist could read about how Ice Age glaciers pressed mountainous ranges in Maine to the water line of the Atlantic, thereby creating the state’s rocky or “sunken” coast.) A “general background” piece opened each guide. These were at once soaring lines of verse and light introductions for the touring visitor:
From the Georgia Guide’s “Georgians at Home” . . . Since it may designate any Georgia citizen or the most slovenly of the poor-white class, the visitor would be wiser not to thank his hostess for her delightful cracker hospitality.
From the Massachusetts Guide’s “Clues to its Character” . . . To the seeker of a clue to the character of the Massachusetts people the rubric of the east wind may be useful . . . It wafted the first rebels to Cape Cod . . . It burst forth steadily through most of the 18th century, when victories were won not only for political freedom but for educational and religious toleration.
As mentioned, the most groundbreaking – and controversial – sections were the ethnic backgrounds that found their way into the opening narratives. This was especially true of the sections devoted to African-Americans. Titled “The Negro,” the Georgia Guide’s section is a frank honest assessment. From a modern perspective, the guides’ studies seem objective, well-researched and supported by statistics (despite an obvious ‘steering clear’ of the maladies of a segregated society). However, in the Jim Crow South such documentation was, regardless of its accuracy, not entirely welcome. Inclusion of ‘negro-studies’ confronted head-on the emotions that the race-issue generated across the region; and in highlighting groups that “historians ignored” they also worked to explode popular but prejudicial myths that had long been accepted and enabled as fact. It is perhaps the most courageous product that the various sections of Federal One would produce – more so given the fact that it lifted the race-issue out of regional boundaries and addressed it nationally. The Maine Guide’s “Racial Elements” seems tame by title comparison only, but its contents are equally frank and honest (despite the great numerical gulf between African-American populations North and South, and the more direct impact that played in race relations across the old Confederacy).
Usually topping out at 100 + / – pages, this ‘general’ background was more than most anyone, in general, had ever come to understand about the places they visited. The standard tour-book model at the time had been imported from Europe to America: the popular Baedeker series (named for German publisher Karl Baedeker). Concentrating mainly on populated areas in the U.S. and mainly in small book / pamphlet form the ‘Baedekers,’ though sharp touring guides, provided very brief, if any background. The approach of the WPA Guides was the very opposite: to re-engage Depression-weary Americans with their country by sending them off on their tours with a better understanding of what they were to see. The narrative fed directly into the actual tours. These were usually presented in ‘city’ (or ‘metro’) and ‘country’ sections, with a level of detail (including a fold-out map) that at the very least rivaled Baedeker guides. Often two-thirds of each finished state guide was devoted to the individual tours. Depending on the size of the state, there was an average of 30-40 tours per guide. Each tour was designed to take a long afternoon by automobile, including several stops along the way. In most of the guides, there was also a ‘recreation’ section. Its inclusion was driven by publishing firms weary of the background-heavy approach. It certainly helped to engage a wider audience while keeping true to the notion of a more complete rendering of a particular state’s character. This was especially true of those more rugged states where sportsmen and outdoor recreation were tradition: the Rocky Mountain states and Alaska, for instance. Alaska, though not yet a state, did see a WPA Guide published – as did the U.S. territory: Puerto Rico. The state guide volumes would be augmented by hundreds of additional touring volumes / pamphlets published on behalf of city tours. The New Orleans guide is often singled out as one of the best. Overall, the FWP would issue nearly 300 volumes (including state guides) and over 1,000 pamphlets dedicated to the ‘educated tour.’ They were in the words of Bruce Bustard, “the first attempt at comprehensively describing the history and culture of the 48 states for a popular audience.”
The state guides rolled off the presses with consistency throughout the remainder of the decade, most often doing so to great praise. The Massachusetts Guide was one of the first of the region to premier, but did so inside a highly publicized controversy. The state governor, Charles Hurley, who had obviously not read the guide, initially lauded the accomplishment. He was soon after informed of the guide’s honest frank approach to the state’s history. (This included detailed descriptions of the infamous Sacco / Vanzetti anarchist case and several vicious strikes.) Hurley, not pleased with honesty over boosterism, threatened to scrap the entire first run. Foreshadowing an accusation that would soon doom the entire section, he levied accusations of Communism at the very mention of anything not sanitized and ‘gleaming.’ Revisions were suggested. Alsberg and the other directors stood their ground, approving very few. Hurley, perhaps having scored the political points he was after, relented. The guide was soon garnering very favorable reviews. It would prove one of the most successful of the state volumes. All six of the New England state guides came out in close proximity to one another. Penkower documents their receiving “almost unqualified praise.” Very few of the guides would not be met with, at least, in-state pride. (Both of the Dakota guides, each state suffering the earlier mentioned lack of qualified personnel, are often singled out as weaker than most.) Bruce Catton labeled the New Mexico Guide “a first rate job.” The National Education Association began to recommend state guides. The New Republic, The Nation, Time and the New Yorker magazines included several volumes in their yearly “best of” lists. Even anti-New Deal newspapers: The New York Herald Tribune and Baltimore Sun, awarded the guides praise. Penkower notes that both “blasted away at the WPA on page one and heaped laurels on [the guides] in the book review section.” The proof of the worth of the FWP could be made solely on the titanic achievement of publishing an encyclopedic touring guide for each of the 48 states and major U.S. territories inside of six years (the final guides completed in 1941 under direction of Alsberg’s successor, John Newson). But in the end partisan politics, not the catalog of FWP publications, would prove the arbiter of the project’s worth.
There was one more piece to the already sprawling depth of the FWP. Though it would always be given ‘niche’ status within the section, FWP personnel would manage to write and publish a good deal of creative writing. As it turned out the FWP would in the end contain some serious talent, many of whom thought the work of the guides dull and unsatisfying. In all FWP literary works seemed a mixed bag. Some pieces received critical praise. Others were panned. The most prevalent form of publication was the literary journal. Most of these would include both short fiction and non-fiction essays (given the sheer amount of solid work pouring in from the field). The national office encouraged state / city units to pursue journals wherever they could be supported. “Material Gathered” and “The Coast” began the trend by compiling work from staff of the west coast units. Several state units had brief (some claim forgettable) journal runs, among them: Alabama, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Vermont. The FWP would have success, albeit limited, with the publication of national journals (perhaps realizing the power of “pooling diverse accomplishments.”) “Direction” would be the first success of the initiative. This would lead to the literary publication for which the FWP would be remembered. Appropriately titled: “American Stuff,” its first printing included a challenging autobiographical essay by a young African-American writer out of the Chicago unit on the effects of ‘Jim Crow.’ The author was Richard Wright and the positive attention he received would launch his impressive career.
Despite the success of the first runs of these journals and another volume dedicated to poetry and verse, ‘literature’ would take a back-seat to completing the Guide Series. This became even more common as Roosevelt, in the face of the anti-New Dealers’ successful attempts to chip away at WPA appropriations, began to initiate cut-backs during the late 1930s for fear of deficit spending. This forced budget cuts and several phases of Federal One layoffs (called “being 403’d,” the code for the federal pink slip). The ‘literary focus’ gained a brief respite with the publication of “Story.” Born out of an internal FWP writing contest (and judged by a panel of professionals outside the project that included Sinclair Lewis) its contents again featured the rising star, Richard Wright, as well as a short novel by another young writer, Meridel LeSeuer. Yet in the end, most of the literary journals would see no more than a single issue. Due to a need to produce ‘functional’ product so as to survive in the face of skeptics, creative writing would prove a minor component of the FWP. In contrast to The Federal Art Project section of Federal One, which contained a robust ‘fine arts’ initiative, Penkower summarizes: “The FWP had limited value for professional writers.”
Regardless, the FWP’s staff rolls were filled with the names of some of that generation’s sharpest talent. If not involved in creative / narrative writing, the FWP nonetheless helped them hone and keep up skills that would shape the results of noteworthy careers. Several unit directors were already, or on their way to being well-established: Vardis Fisher, as mentioned, Conrad Aiken in Massachusetts, John Cheever and Orrick Johns in New York, John Conroy in St. Louis, Dorothy Fisher in Vermont, the celebrated Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White, and Douglas Southall Freeman in Virginia, who would go on to a distinguished career as a historian. But the rolls of the regular staff turns up an equally impressive list: Maxwell Bodenheim, Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel and Saul Bellow. Bellow, who recalled his time on the project favorably (unlike Algren who remembered the Illinois unit to which he was attached as a “badly fink-ridden operation”) would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Richard Wright would win tremendous recognition for his courageous best-selling work of fiction, “Native Son,” which is still revered as a classic. He along with six other former FWP staffers would go on to win Guggenheim fellowships, one of the most prestigious achievements in American letters.
If the final results of The Federal Writers’ Project during the Federal One period say anything, it is that the section was prolific in a way few Americans rarely attribute to Federal government agencies. In its brief life, the FWP cranked out over 12 million words that eventually found their way to print.
III . Politics
One of the greatest obstacles the Federal Writers’ Project faced was the tentative, often hostile way it was viewed by WPA directors at the state level. Several administrators demanded that they be the ultimate authority of state FWP units; in Penkower’s words, they would “tolerate this sideshow only if control rested in their hands.” Though the Federal One period of the FWP would be marked by a central control what often amounted to the expectation of local control, ‘regardless of what D.C. said,’ would lead to several instances of directors attempting to utilize the writers’ efforts for their own political benefits (the Missouri project often held up as an example of such insider-manipulation). As minimal as this was in the overall picture, it still provided grist for those who believed the entire venture nothing but a leftist propaganda mill . . . The FWP rose out of a political mandate; and the more unsavory side of partisan politics would dog it throughout its existence. A main deciding factor in choosing the state guide format was to assuage skeptics by producing works that could be embraced despite political affiliation. But even the general ‘common man’ / American-centric approach was not enough.
The WPA had blocs of enemies and the specific notion of subsidizing artists / writers drew unbalanced condemnation when compared to the criticism of the WPA generally. (Whereas detractors marketed the notion of WPA laborers as ‘shovel-leaners,’ FWP staff was likewise tagged as lazy ‘pen-chewers.’) Alsberg and the rest of the central staff’s firm stance against chamber-of-commerce style edits only expanded the grumbling. It can be said that local city / town guides and pamphlets often fell into the booster rhythm; but the more local the focus, the more often a guide will lean towards the ‘touristy’ and return-on-investment expectations of local sponsors. Still, the publications of the FWP would elevate narrative over advertising and prove more inclusive than not. The research, studies and guides of the project ‘pooled the vast diversity’ of a politically disparate, yet ‘United’ States and turned out a more complete rendering in the process . . . But you can’t please everyone. A few driven detractors would mount a public campaign against Federal One and the FWP specifically. Though the project would continue to produce critically-received publications throughout its life, the charges levied by opponents would bring an end to the WPA arts project.
In FWP units across the country, the bureaucracy of the program left a predictably acrid aftertaste. Anthony Badger recounts the constant re-organization, shifting rules, regulations and the paperwork it created as a never-ending spool of red-tape. Often thrust on the directors, the wearing effect it had when passed to employees – who were busy enough cranking out millions of pages of research / copy under deadlines – could not be quelled via the ‘absentee-leadership’ that would define Alsberg’s style. Ideally, FWP employees were not hired to fill administrative roles or file paperwork. But the self-interested demands of employees in answering the demands of bureaucracy, and the editorial micro-managing of central staff, didn’t help matters. Internal battles within the big city units arose immediately . . . In-fighting is an inevitable by-product of large productions employing scores of employees. Someone is bound to run afoul of procedures or take offense at a opinion, etc. Such was the case with the dysfunctional NYC FWP unit. The big cities were not wont for individuals who had once earned a living in the writing / journalism / publishing fields, especially those who had done so on a freelance basis. In New York City, these numbers were so high that several unions rose up to support the unemployed. The Unemployed Writers Association, later re-cast as the Writers Union, was the most active. Its members filled out the roles of the NYC FWP and would cause much unwanted discomfort and publicity for Alsberg, the central staff, and local directors. Almost immediately the Union went head-to-head with the Authors League, a well-established (often viewed as haughty) organization whose members had pushed the Roosevelt administration for Federal support of a subsidized writers’ program back in 1934. Though the public scrap was over qualifications (the League taking Mencken’s lead in tagging Union members as less-than-deserving), the real battle was over control of the NYC unit. And given that indeed more Union members were unemployed, the Writers Union became the dominant source of employees. It would be the Union’s prickly relations with just about everyone that brought on the unwanted, eventually toxic publicity. Leftist agitators clearly influenced their approach, infusing an attitude of ‘revolt for revolt’s sake.’ That this was a relief project meant to move government wards back into the workforce often escaped Union members in the NYC FWP, who seemed so willing to do battle with their federal stewards that they would in time directly contribute to the whole thing being dissolved. In 1937, they were the driving force behind sit-down strikes they hoped to take nationwide (from “Boston, Massachusetts, to Portland, Oregon”) in response to layoffs, a result of Congress’s first major appropriations cutback of Federal One funds. The strikes went so far in achieving hoped-for publicity that they induced a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began its inquiry of the project in 1938, testimony documenting the leftist-influenced strikes was held up front-and-center. The Writers Union soon found most of its FWP employees unemployed instead of just the initial round of those ‘403’d.’ Instead of walking out by choice, they were walked out by a mandate from Congress.
In hindsight, it’s hard to determine what exactly the Union and like groups sought to accomplish. Even then, their leaders had to realize the more accepting Roosevelt administration was the only government entity who cared enough to see its members, regardless of political affiliation, back at work in the field they desired. But perhaps motivations did rest more with causing disruption as a matter of course; for that is all they accomplished. And even this did not hold back others within the unit. NYC FWP still managed to produce despite the disruptions. As mentioned, Morton Royse’s work set standards for social-ethnic studies, while the New York City American Guide Series volume arrived to critical acclaim and in time to make a big splash at the renowned 1939 World’s Fair. The existence of American Communists amongst the NYC unit and other city / state units is irrefutable. But any study must weigh actions versus the end results. Controversial history and propaganda are often taken as one-in-the-same when passed through a political filter. And in the 1930s, anti-New Deal congressmen viewed any mention of labor history as proof of Communist infiltration. That the history of American labor movements and its European counterparts were often divergent, and that a majority of American socialists at the time were disgusted by the brutal turn the U.S.S.R. had taken (much the way Americans who had fervently supported the French Revolution 150 years earlier came to view that revolution’s bloody excesses) proved immaterial to adversaries of the New Deal. Federal One opponents had a single goal in mind. Controversial content could be re-packaged to make their political point. HUAC members would carefully select specific passages from the guides in stringing together their prosecution of the arts program. The final copy of FWP units known to employ ‘radicals’ included challenges to the traditional historical script. Of this there is no doubt. But it took politics to spin different and controversial into ‘anti’ or ‘un-American.’
In the end, the main result of Communist influence on the FWP was the administrative hassles they caused. Pressure from Alsberg, who was rightly questioned for his weakness in the face of endless disruptions, might have caused agitators to seek other outlets. But so long as there were layoffs, they kept at it . . . The actions of the more radical Union members seems so short-sighted it makes a rational person scratch their head. For each public outcry or strike led directly to additional cutbacks and the further mobilization of anti-New Deal enemies who sought to dissolve the project for good.
Another more sinister trait that put crosshairs on the arts projects was the prejudice of the era. Anti-Semitism had pinpointed the WPA for political harassment since its inception, the New Deal itself often referred to as the “Jew Deal” by opponents then operating in D.C. Yet it was less the energies of anti-Semites and more the fanatic resolve of segregationist politics that worked to discredit Federal One. Anthony Badger reminds us: “The arts projects did blur the color line.” Though African-American employees were mostly attached to the city units and the overall percentage of black artists was small, they were nonetheless on the official rolls and were provided institutional support. (Where else could Richard Wright have found such backing for his work: “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” a direct challenge of the ‘institution.’) Such support by a government agency was no small matter in the 1930s. To those politicians who had made a career of defending racist social codes, the fluid mostly color-blind mixture of black and white artists within the various sections of Federal One was a high cultural crime. It is hard to separate those critics driven by fear of Communist infiltration in the program and those who just couldn’t stand for the notion of federal dollars subsidizing artists of a race they deemed inferior. Public charges always leaned on Communism and ‘radicalism.’ Yet a more concentrated look finds this charge just as often a red herring used to generate public outcry against a program so progressive in promoting African-American talent. By invoking Communism and fear of a state-controlled media (a fear made real by Hitler’s Third Reich, as well as Stalin’s Russia) New Deal opponents found ample opportunity to discredit a program that, through example, showcased equality of the races not just possible, but practical. There is little doubt that such root inspiration guided noted segregationists in Congress as they lined up behind the ‘red menace’ campaign. Their public denunciations ranged between rabid fear-mongering to open mocking. It all seems motivated more by opinion-poll opportunism than any patriotic intent. In fact, spin via public relations seems all that detractors had. Any attempt to demonstrate the FWP’s uselessness was proven very difficult given the mountainous stacks of research and publications produced versus the minimal government funding spent to produce it.
Chamber-of-commerce boosters had always topped the list of FWP’s detractors. They held that FWP directors had spurned their desire to utilize the project for commercial advertising in favor of dull histories and natural facts. Bruce Bustard gives insight into this thinking, noting one tourism group who loudly denounced the project’s “efforts to tear down traditional heroes and popular legends.” Anti-New Deal politicians were on the hunt for anything that may bring political harm to the FWP; and they picked up on this conflict. Whether their motivations were commercial or social supremacy, calls soon echoed long and far on the need to scrutinize and if need be hound the writers’ program lest it be “prostituted for propaganda purposes.” The worry embedded in this charge is political: less a fear of cultural infiltration via the Kremlin and more the FWP’s use as a public relations tool for the New Deal. Robert McElvaine summarizes the position of New Deal opponents: “as Washington began playing ‘the pianist’ it would want to call the tune.” There is no doubt that a good deal of Federal One art tipped its cap to its patron. But that it was a planned campaign instituted by FDR to advance an ideology runs counter to the independent-streak of the final results. It was a complicated political charge to make anyway as Roosevelt and his New Deal still enjoyed general support. A close look reveals little substance to the charge (a reality put on display during the one-sided HUAC hearings). Creative themes were more rooted in the American people than its political landscape, Bruce Bustard stating that the most prevalent focus was on “the strength and dignity of common men and women, even as they faced difficult circumstances.” It was less the triumph of the New Deal and more the eventual triumph of the American spirit that poured through. Opponents had to realize a direct political challenge to this “democratization of arts” would surely backfire. And so, it was pushed aside in favor of the ‘Communist tag.’ Opponents could inflict more damage by working on public fears. A ‘red scare’ would deliver more ‘bang for the buck’ . . . That FWP publications were tagged as potential sources of propaganda by those whose motivations were to use the writers’ program to their own commercial / political benefit – on the taxpayer’s dime – is great irony; and just another in a litany of political motivations that proved unwilling to co-exist with this ‘new writing style.’
By the end of the decade, the campaign to discredit Federal One generally and the FWP specifically kicked into high gear. Legislators in opposition were hard at work. By the middle of June 1938 a House committee overseeing ‘ways & means’ was successful in shifting a major source of WPA funds to PWA construction projects, thus starving the agency’s ability to keep Federal One afloat. The results were cutbacks and layoffs. Only once was a major defense of the WPA arts program mounted by legislators. This was the Coffee-Pepper Bill introduced in 1938. Its goal was to elevate the notion of the federally-subsidized arts beyond a temporary program and create a permanent Federal Arts Bureau (along the lines of the modern NEA). Predictably, the bill was handily defeated with at least one congressman ridiculing the bill during debate by performing his own mocking rendition of ballet.
By late 1938, conservative politicians sensed the opportunity to close in. Martin Dies, congressman from Texas and vocal critic of the New Deal, had opened investigations into the arts programs the previous year. Information gathered was funneled into the 1938 / 1939 House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings . . . The opportunity for publicity-achieved by those in opposition throughout these hearings must be considered up front, if for no other reason than it was disgruntled FWP employees that helped spur HUAC to investigate. In reading the minutes of the hearings, the settling of a grudge or advancement of a political career seems fairly transparent. What is wholly absent is the perception of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ On the contrary, those in opposition had already made up their mind. It has been argued that the charges brought against the arts program would not have withstood the factual scrutiny of an actual trial: hence the choice of a public condemnation and financial constriction instead. The main goal of these hearings was to create an unfavorable public image of the program. The testimony was prejudicial against Federal One and FWP, and often presented without opportunity for rebuttal. The firebrand Dies even went so far as to claim certain FWP staff-members were “mentally handicapped.”
Louise Lazell was one of the chief ‘witnesses’ cited by Dies. Lazell had held the post of ‘policy editor’ for the FWP’s central office, a position created so as to, ironically, curb some of the more controversial material in FWP drafts. The need for editors to cut passages they felt too slanted or substitute words that would smooth the more sensitive of sensibilities was necessary, if for no other reason than to keep the narrative quick and light, as well as informative. Edits were performed by all central office editors – from Alsberg on down – in the face of inaccurate, controversial, or just bad writing (of which there was plenty). But Lazell was soon being blamed for going too far. She was involved in numerous attempts to curb most all controversial material that came before her. From substituting ‘chastity’ with ‘celibacy,’ objecting to references to the Ku Klux Klan, or the desire to strike copy on the infamous machinations of Tammany Hall, Lazell staked out a position that upheld only the “sweetness and light.” This was bound to run head-long into a focus that, for all its edits, was out to correct misconceptions popularized as fact. Several of Lazell’s edits were ignored. Despite the vast majority of Lazell’s edits bearing her stamp on final copy, Lazell claimed that without the last word her authority was being undermined. She went to HUAC to protest the project’s ‘un-American’ content.
It would be the inclusion of labor histories over everything else that proved the salient ‘proof’ for anti-New Dealers that the whole FWP was a Communist front. Conversations with a left-labor organization from Tacoma, Washington, and Minnesota’s CIO over central office edits were brought up as examples of the FWP’s leftist patronage. The fact that requests by both these groups to re-insert questionable copy were denied and that the central office edits stood in the final versions, were not entered into the Dies committee’s minutes. The end results were not as important as highlighting the possibility of a Communist link. This would prove a favored tactic. Penkower records the instance of ‘pro-labor’ copy in New Jersey’s guide being “cherry-picked” and presented out of context by HUAC. Conservative staff from Princeton got behind the charge, as did anti-New Deal newspapers – who began to trumpet HUAC’s hearings and the skewering it was giving the FWP and Federal One. Additional former employees were brought before the committee and supplied Dies with what he wanted to hear: charges of card-carrying Communists within the FWP ranks, financial rewards for published copy sympathetic to ‘red’ causes, etc. The D.C. Guide was fingered for its “insidious propaganda” A similar fate fell on several of FWP’s creative writing journals, “Direction” and its flagship: “American Stuff.” The word ‘subversion’ became a public talking-point that opponents of the FWP hung on the project. The confident and belligerent Dies was no wallflower before the spotlight. He was in the vanguard of the assault. Penkower records Dies’ claim that the FWP “was doing more to spread Communist propaganda than the Communist Party itself,” Anthony Badger including Dies’ public comment that “the material in the State Guides was tailored to the [Soviet] party line.”
The Dies HUAC hearings produced a negative public opinion onslaught. The impressive end results of the FWP were kept at arms-length. Had examples been introduced in a contextual way, it seems likely the hearings would have been exposed for their partisan ends. Penkower and others make the point: if the FWP was nothing but a Communist front for Soviet propaganda, as charged, then why the focus on the most dysfunctional FWP employees (with an axe-to-grind, many of who had been fired); why rely on certain out-of-context interpretations of copy to make the case? Instead, one could figure that the results of the more streamlined proficient units and ‘smoking gun’ references in final copy – instances that could actually pose an organized national security threat – would draw the main focus of HUAC. Both the state units of Massachusetts and Minnesota were known to contain American Communists. But both escaped condemnation in lieu of two of the finer state guide volumes the FWP would produce. And therein lay the problem in viewing the HUAC hearings as anything other than a partisan tool. The hearings pointed out dysfunction and internal squabbles within the NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago and Oregon units, yet failed to give voice to how impressive the vast majority of other units had proven to be – or how the project produced on the whole. The hearings stitched together examples of what was deemed ‘propaganda,’ without explaining how they may have advanced the Communist cause in the U.S. As many have surmised, the evidence before these hearings was presented solely to effect public opinion, not as a utility in establishing truth beyond a reasonable doubt. Had such been the case, the example of the Massachusetts and Minnesota’s end results alone would have shot enough holes in the theory to have achieved a dismissal. Attempts to unionize amongst FWP units were prevalent and driven by organizations known to have domestic Communist links. But in a nation dedicated to political liberty any instance of government-sanctioned censorship must prove a perceived cultural danger not through ideological speculation, but the end results of actions. Did the FWP disseminate Communist propaganda, or simply present a more honest interpretation of history? Only the first question was ever asked by the committee members, who then produced little more than speculative ‘proof’ to back their claims. The committee failed to show a real threat. Penkower states: the issue was not “the number of party members or sympathizers . . . but whether their ideology interfered with their duties as federal employees. . . . A distinction must be drawn between ideology and the actual performance of Communists on the FWP.” This was never considered. Had the full question been asked and examined, the positives of the section’s results – despite the appearance of political leftists on its rolls – would have shown through.
Still, the most negative of HUAC’s public claims took their effect; this in lieu of the fact that on those rare occasions Federal One directors were called to testify before the committee they held their own. WPA director Ellen Woodward (by default a director of Federal One) did so in December 1938. Woodward countered what she and most of the other project heads viewed as a ‘witch hunt’ set in motion for political, not patriotic reasons. Woodward calmly explained her “deep concern and disappointment over the very un-American” approach applied by Dies and HUAC. Of the four Federal One sections, it was the Federal Theatre Project that fell under the most glaring light (the project providing starts for no less important heavy-weights than John Houseman and Orson Welles). Director of the FTP, Hallie Flanagan, was not afraid of producing potentially controversial work; and proved unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the committee. The FWP was second on the committee’s ‘hit-list’ and took its share of abuse.
The rare appearances of Woodward, Flanagan and others give a glimpse into the hearings that could have been: keeping the focus of ‘taxpayer-worth’ out of the political arena and using the measuring stick of quality and volume versus the time and subsidy provided. But the intent of congressional hearings often affords little more than a partisan political outcome. Such was the Dies’ committee of 1938 / early 1939. The point was to build public support for legislation that would cut WPA appropriations and starve the ‘arts relief’ program. Anthony Badger reiterates: “Conservative critics always regarded the arts projects . . . as unnecessary and wasteful,” and it was their intent, despite the general popularity of Federal One productions, to under-fund as a way to undercut the project’s resourcefulness. Whether the root reason was a waste of taxpayer dollars, a fear of Communism, white-on-black racism, the notion of the arts as ‘not real work,’ or the settling of a grudge – by chamber of commerce boosters or the disgruntled vents of fired employees – the opponents of Federal One / FWP could agree on one thing: so long as the project was dismantled, the end results would justify whatever means were used. It seemed, the more embarrassing and prejudicial, the better. In 1939 another rabid anti-New Dealer, Clifton Woodrum headed a House Committee that picked up where Dies left off. Woodrum launched a follow-up investigation into the WPA generally, but focused a great deal of air-time on Federal One. It was more of the same: “an unnecessary boondoggle” that produced “salacious material.” Committee testimony even included the ‘charge’ that “blacks and whites worked together.”
And yet despite all the inflammatory prejudicial rhetoric, the damage inflicted was to the public image of Federal One, not any members of these committees. (Many were actually lauded for their patriotic intent.) By mid 1939 appropriations were cut to the bone. Federal One and its central office were dissolved and the FTP was shut down for good. The other three sections and a good deal of the funding responsibilities were turned over to state control. Given the beatings the FWP took on-or-around the accusations of Communist propaganda, it is surprising that the writers’ project wasn’t also shut down. But for the state guides, it might have been. For all the vitriol, the touring guides were very popular and a source of national, state and local pride. Such powerful groups as the American Hotel Association and other tourist-based organizations lobbied in favor of the FWP and perhaps had a hand in holding off its extinction. But opposition politics had won the day. The Federal Writers’ Project would die slowly over the next four years.
Anthony Badger summarizes: “Federal One illustrated not only the WPA’s capacity to respond boldly and imaginatively to real need, but also the conflicting demands of relief and quality, the inhibiting effect of bureaucracy and spending cuts, the problems of localism, and the long term failure of the programme to achieve legitimacy in the face of congressional attacks on waste and radicalism.” As a piece of the overall project, this is also the story of The Federal Writers’ Project . . . It is a difficult venture to break new ground. But the FWP did that and more. It did not bend before criticism and water down its content into “chamber of commerce twaddle” (a colorful label coined by Montana’s FWP director). The FWP took advantage of a unique era full of unique cultural circumstances to push the notion of documented America in a more honest direction, Penkower commenting on the mission inspired by a “deliberate attempt to counteract the bias of ill-informed popular sentiment.” Despite the political attacks, the project refused to simply re-hash myths / legends into a modern auto-touring format. Instead, it held up a mirror (and a rear-view mirror) and urged all Americans to acknowledge the country for what it was, good and bad – a great nation in the “continuous process of discovery and realization.”
John Newson took over from Alsberg in 1939 as the director of the renamed: Writers’ Program. It was from then out to be overseen by the Library of Congress, its main goal to finish work not yet complete. With the new state-level focus, the able Newson sent several editors out across the country to help the various units complete their guides. This was accomplished in time for the American Booksellers Association’s “State Guide Week.” From November 10-16, 1941, the main component of the FWP was given its due. The researching, writing, publishing of over a thousand tour guides, of which nearly 300 were full volumes, within six years (not to mention the prolific pile of social-ethnic / folklore studies, creative writing and surveys) was at least for that one week acknowledged for the accomplishment that it was. But with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the focus of the staff that remained was shifted – along with everything else – to support the war effort. This would be the Program’s focus until it was disbanded for good in 1943.
Like the New Deal itself, part of the success or failure of the individual programs that made up the Roosevelt administration’s approach will always remain a matter of opinion. But in the case of The Federal Writers’ Project such a subjective yardstick becomes inadequate. Its vast accomplishments have been well-documented. Alongside the FWP’s functional inspiration of fending off ‘the erosion of skill’ (whether the majority of FWP employees were writers or not) and moving government wards back into working positions, it’s hard to claim failure outside of the constraint of partisan politics. It will always be the FWP’s conservation and interpretation of the vast fabric of the social / cultural / natural that stands the test of time. Though the tours are outdated the narrative of the guides still reads as fine literature today, Bruce Bustard of NARA reminding us that many are still considered “classics.” The general focus on touring, wherever it was, led to an awakening of regional pride, understanding – and perhaps even conscience. The array of ethnic / folklore studies that made up the sub-projects still provide solid background in their fields (HABS: the Historic American Building Survey, still a highly respected preservation agency, 70 years later). And the fact that a trip to any antiquarian bookseller can turn up a ‘who’s who’ of era-writers related to the FWP is proof that, select as it was, the project proved plenty helpful to several career writers (Richard Wright’s Pulitzer Prize and Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize example enough). That the writers’ project boldly blazed a new way to view an old story and rendered defunct the old way in the process made for many disgruntled opinions that over the years simmered opinions into ‘fact.’ But this new style was no abstract pursuit. The FWP did achieve what Penkower calls its “promise of a new national art.” It fostered a new emerging school of thought and made this a general cause. It advanced the underlying mission of Federal One and the Roosevelt administration’s desire to see “a more abundant life” for all. Perhaps this is its greatest legacy: moving ‘the arts’ beyond a privileged realm, creating it on such a scale that all Americans were provided the opportunity to enjoy the finer things. And if such esoteric praise does not secure the project’s success, then we can always fall back on the “seven 12 foot high shelves” at the Department of the Interior that were jammed full of FWP material in the project’s wake, prior to it all being moved to the Library of Congress and National Archives. The Federal Writers’ Project produced like few other government agencies before or since. At a total cost of just over $27,000,000 (spread thinly over eight years), it must be considered one of the most proficient returns on the American taxpayers’ investment. That a first printing of the Idaho volume can still fetch $600.00 today is proof of its lasting impression.
Federal Emergency Relief Act (1933)
National Industrial Recovery Act (1933)
Emergency Relief Appropriations Act (1935)
Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act (1935)
House Committee on Un-American Activities (1939)
National Archives and Records Administration [nara.gov]
The Library of Congress : “American Memory” [memory.loc.gov/ammem/]
The U.S. Senate : WPA State Guides [senate.gov/reference/resources]
The New Deal Network : “Document Library” [newdeal.feri.org/]
Bienes Center for the Literary Arts [co.broward.fl.us/library/bienes_exhibitions.htm]
“The FWP,” by Petra Schindler-Carter [personal.umich.edu/~pscarter/fwp.html]
The Achievement of the Federal Writer’s Project, Daniel M. Fox; American Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1961), pp. 3-19
Badger, Anthony J. The New Deal, ‘The Great Depression Years, 1933-1940.’ Chicago, Ivan R. Dee: 1989.
Bindas, Kenneth. All of this Music Belongs to the Nation. Knoxville, TN, University off Tennessee Press: 1995.
Bustard, Bruce. A New Deal for the Arts. Seattle, NARA / University of Washington Press: 1997.
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression, ‘America, 1929-1941.’ New York, Times Books / Random House: 1993.
McKinzie, Richard D. The New Deal for Artists. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press: 1973.
Penkower, Monty Noam. The FWP, ‘A Study of Government Patronage of the Arts.’ Chicago, University of Illinois Press: 1977
O’Connor, John & Lorraine Brown. Free, Adult, Uncensored, ‘The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project.’ Washington D.C., New Republic Books: 1978.
The American Guide Series: California (Hastings House), Connecticut (Houghton-Mifflin), Delaware (Viking Press), Florida (Oxford Press), Georgia (University of Georgia), Indiana (Oxford), Kentucky (Harcourt Brace & Co.), Maryland (Oxford), Massachusetts (Houghton-Mifflin), Maine (Houghton-Mifflin), Minnesota (Viking Press), New Hampshire (Houghton-Mifflin), New Orleans City Guide (Houghton-Mifflin), New York Panorama / NY City Guide (Random House), Rhode Island (Houghton-Mifflin), Tennessee (State of Tennessee), Washington, City and Capital (G.P.O.), Vermont (Houghton-Mifflin)
Publication Date: 2006