While planning a trip with his wife to the Big Easy in the mid-1990s, David A. Taylor borrowed a weathered copy of The WPA Guide to New Orleans (1938), part of the Works Progress Administration’s little-remembered American Guide Series of travel books produced by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. At first glance, the WPA book seemed quaint but outdated; Taylor was sure he’d end up consulting a much more up-to-date guidebook instead. But once he began reading in earnest, he found himself engrossed. “It was packed with insights on the city’s social history, with cultural links, with opinions about the architecture of the New Orleans cemeteries and everything else,” he recalls. “It seemed a lot more alive than a glossy travel guide.”
Taylor was hooked, and ended up writing an article for Smithsonian on the WPA guides and the thousands of people around the country who were hired by the government to research and write the books in an era when a third of the American workforce was unemployed. Taylor’s fascination with this most creative and controversial chapter of Roosevelt’s New Deal eventually led him to write Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) and a companion documentary of the same title, which aired on the Smithsonian Channel. To coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the WPA, the documentary was released on DVD late last month.
In Taylor’s dramatic telling, the establishment of the Federal Writers’ Project was a watershed event, if not a turning point, in the history of American literature. Employing up to 7,500 people annually during its four-year run, the Writers’ Project nurtured a generation of authors who otherwise might have been forced into nonliterary careers. “It was a chance for a lot of young writers—or young people who didn’t think of themselves as writers yet—to find their voice and connect with a creative community that had really been splintered by the Depression,” Taylor says.
In some cases, the project exposed those writers—including such future literary giants as Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Rexroth, May Swenson, Studs Terkel, Jim Thompson, Margaret Walker, Eudora Welty, and Richard Wright—to thematic material that they later developed in their bodies of work. Ellison’s Invisible Man, for example, drew on voices the author recalled from the interviews he’d conducted on the streets of Harlem as part of his work for the WPA. “Saul Bellow had his first day job as a writer for the WPA,” Taylor notes. “He would have become Saul Bellow anyway, of course, but I’m not sure that the author of The Adventures of Augie March would have had that same operatic view of Chicago if he hadn’t worked for the Writers’ Project in the thirties. And although Cheever had mixed feelings about the Writers’ Project, there are certain scenes in his Wapshot Chronicle and, later, Falconer that seem to draw on his WPA days and the democratic ideals he was exposed to then.”
The impact of the Writers’ Project is perhaps most quantifiable by the fact that five winners of the National Book Award for fiction (Algren, Ellison, Bellow, Cheever, and Welty) had been part of the project, while three other WPA veterans (Aiken, Swenson, and Rexroth) would go on to win the prize for poetry.
“The WPA was a godmother or godfather for so many writers who had had few opportunities before that point,” says Maryemma Graham, a professor of English at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who is interviewed in the Soul of a People documentary. “For example, the largest single impact on black writing before the civil rights movement was really the WPA, not the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance writers emerged on the scene in the 1920s, but many of those writers did not continue to write after the twenties; Zora Neale Hurston [also a prominent Writers’ Project contributor] and Langston Hughes were the exceptions. Of the WPA writers who were black, more of them developed substantial careers beyond that period.”
In the end, the literary legacy of the Writers’ Project transcends both the guides and the individual achievements of its alumni. “There’s also an institutional legacy,” Graham says. “The whole idea of writers working collaboratively, shaping and supporting one another, which we see in the writers groups of today—that grew out of the WPA. And because of the Writers’ Project, we appreciate local and regional voices from around the country, not just, say, New England.”
But like its sister WPA program the Federal Theatre Project, the Writers’ Project also left a trail of controversy. Because it paid close attention to the lives of working people and minorities and delved into aspects of local history that several states and cities preferred to exclude from public discussion—such as race relations in the South, the labor movement and the treatment of immigrants in the North—the project was excoriated in some corners as a font of leftist propaganda. In a series of hearings that presaged the Red Scare of the 1950s, the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities, led by U.S. Rep. Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat, grilled WPA officials and accused them of employing Communists. (In a handful of cases, such as that of Richard Wright, the accusation was true.) The attacks, combined with stresses on the federal budget, had their effect; federal funding for the Writers’ Project was largely cut off in 1939. The final publication of many of the guides was financed primarily by individual states rather than the federal government.
When they did finally appear, most of the guides were enthusiastically received. The New Orleans guide, for example, went through five printings, sold nineteen thousand copies, and was republished in a new edition last year. And although the quality of writing in the books is uneven, their cumulative achievement remains impressive. “The guides were probably the very first opportunity we had in this country to really see the whole of the nation in a new way,” Graham says. “By opening up the possibility that there was another story of America that had remained untold, the project really gave the idea of America the fullest meaning it could have.”
Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.