By Christine Venzon

Federal Writers’ Project (via Wikimedia Commons)

It sounds like a writer's dream: traveling the country, exploring its little-known regions, chronicling its lore while honing your literary chops and fattening your stores of setting, plot and character — and all on the government's dime! (Albeit a very thin dime.)

Such a thing did exist once. It was called the Federal Writers' Program. Born of the far-from-ideal circumstances of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the FWP was part of  President Roosevelt's legislative omnibus, the Works Progress Administration. Like other New Deal programs, the FWP's primary purpose was to jump-start a moribund economy. It offered sustenance — pay ranged from $40 to $100 a month — to writers by having them produce histories and tour guides for states and regions, with the hope that this American Guide Series would encourage travel and tourism, with benefits in the automotive, hospitality and even movie-making industries.

Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide by the Federal Writers’ Project (via Wikimedia Commons)

The FWP had a broader political purpose as well. The underlying theme, celebrating America in all its diversity, muted two muttering voices that threatened the nation in a time of worldwide social upheaval: On one side were xenophobic isolationists wary of any ethnic savor in the American melting pot; on the other, communists agitating against the U.S. government and business. (Ironically, critics claimed the project itself was a socialist plot.)

The FWP lasted from 1935 until 1943. That brief, though prolific lifetime resulted in volumes of work, and some of it quite progressive, including slave narratives, Cajun folklore, interviews with miners and maids, cigar rollers and cannery workers.

Professional writers comprised only a small fraction of the FWP cadre, which also included teachers, historians, cartographers and office clerks; that was by design, as employing only “artists” smacked of elitism. Plus, administrators had to be sensitive to many writers' troublesome political baggage, with the spectre of Marxism raising its head again.

Still, among the FWP writers were some of the generation's leading lights, and the experience would shape the vision and voice of  those who would go on to shape America’s literary landscape. Richard Wright, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel and Zora Neale Hurston all absorbed the dialect and idioms of common people, capturing character through dialogue and narrative voice. Consider this excerpt from an interview Nelson Algren conducted with small-time Chicago prizefight Davey Day:

“Yep, I'm him, Davey Day, the fast-stepping Jewboy on his way up, all fight and fancy footwork. And nothin' wrong with his old heart, I guess you know, was you listenin' Monday night.

“Well, that one's over now, but Pian (Co-manager) is going to get him again for me at the ball park. I'll beat him (Henry Armstrong) there, this is my lucky town. Dropped just one pro fight in my life here, that was in 1931, my fourth fight. I've licked everybody you want to name right around this town ... Frankie Sagilio, Roger Bernard, Bobby Pacho and I guess maybe a hundred others. And you can bet that Armstrong will get on that list, too, 'cause little Davey is on his way up and he's got that ol' confidence.”

Pure Algren.

Photograph of Island Park, New York after the Great Hurricane of 1938 from The New England Hurricane by the Federal Writers’ Project (via Wikimedia Commons)

Zora Neale Hurston, an ethnologist as well as a writer, recorded the folklife of Florida's rural African-Americans. Here she asks the foreman of a turpentine camp whether his men make up songs as they work. He replies: “No, Ma'am. They don't make up many songs. The boys used to be pretty ad [sic] about making up songs but they don't do that now. ... Taint like saw-mills and such as that. Turpentine woods is kind of lonesome.”

World War II, with its booming wartime economy, was the undoing of the FWP. The program was shuffled off to individual states in its last year of existence. Today the vast, sprawling works are preserved in the Library of Congress, from which you can access some of them online.

Christine Venzon is a freelance writer whose work appears in local, regional and national magazines. She specializing in history, social justice and sustainable food issues.

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