The Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project created jobs, fought disinformation, and gave voice to the voiceless. We need all of the above now more than ever. – The Nation
By David Kipen, July 12, 2021
What if a single government initiative could (1) create fulfilling jobs for thousands of struggling Americans, (2) help irrigate “news deserts,” (3) create apprenticeships for recent humanities graduates, (4) preserve the vanishing stories of the disadvantaged and the elderly, and (5) reassure marginalized citizens that their stories are heard and valued?
Why on earth should anybody believe that one program could ever accomplish all this? The answer’s easy:
It worked the first time.
At its peak, the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project employed as many as 7,000 people, only a tenth of them professionals when the program began. It created cheap, informative, often funny, still delightful book-length “WPA Guides” to all 48 states, as well as 40 cities, 18 regions and territories, countless counties, and other, less mappable American phenomena. After dozens of local newspapers folded, the FWP reported lifesaving news of fire and flood. And it recorded the oral histories of 10,000 Americans—especially the stories of formerly enslaved people, creating by far the largest repository of its kind.
This relatively tiny New Deal program, costing 0.002 percent of the total WPA budget, also heralded a new era in American literature, which had produced only one Nobel Prize winner in the previous 40 years and proceeded to win 10 in the next 80. It helped start or restart a star-studded list of literary careers, including those of Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, and Ralph Ellison. (The last two became good friends—among innumerable otherwise hard-to-imagine interracial friendships begun on the project.)
The Federal Writers’ Project enabled Richard Wright, with barely a high school education, to quit mucking out hospital rooms for a living and find his calling as a writer. The FWP wound up subsidizing Wright’s concurrent work on Native Son—the novel that inspired Kamala Harris to pursue a career in law.
Read the full article here.