- Historic Sites
The Dream And The Deal:
The Federal Writers’ Project 1935-1943
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
by Jerre Mangione Little, Brown and Co. 416 pp. $12.50 “Out of this nettle, danger,” says Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV , Part I , “we pluck this flower, safety.” The metaphor is so attractive that the urge to steal it is irresistible. So one notes, to begin with, that The Dream and the Deal is the story of how out of the nettle of economic catastrophe the nation plucked the flower of historical achievement. Told by Jerre Mangione, a novelist, eloquent nonfiction writer, and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, it is an account of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. A make-work enterprise for jobless authors, the project turned into an unusual venture in exploring the American heritage—and the choice of words here is deliberate. The rollercoaster ride of the enterprise from crisis to crisis is a fascinating story in itself and an enlightening excursion into the workings of American culture, then and now.
The situation in April, 1935, was ugly. Between eight and ten million unemployed out of a labor force of some forty million. Dust storms and foreclosures on the farms, locked factory gates in the cities. A sodden blanket of despair muffling the country’s initiative toward recovery. Groping for palliatives as well as cures, Congress, under Presidential stimulus, passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. Part of its effect was the creation of the Works Progress Administration, designed to give those on relief rolls work as well as handouts, in order to preserve their morale and their skills for a better day. In an unprecedented step WPA funding was supplied for four programs to employ those who worked in the fields of theatre, music, the fine arts, and writing. Unprecedented because the nation had no official cultural establishment, no tradition of government support for the arts, and a general distrust of those who did not earn a living in the “practical” world of farm, workshop, or office. But there were thousands of men and women whose work experience lay outside that world, and Congress seemed to agree with chief relief administrator Harry Hopkins’ dictum: “Hell, they have to eat just like other people.”
So the government stepped in to enable them to eat as well as they could on salaries of around twentythree dollars a week. Their efforts, however, were not to be purely imaginative but were to have utilitarian objectives. The musicians and mummers of the Theatre and Music projects would entertain low-budget audiences. Members of the Art Project would decorate federal buildings [see “Memoirs of a WPA Painter,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1970]. And the Writers’ Project would reveal to tourists the terrain of America. Their initial assignment was the production of several regional travel guides, eventually to be synthesized into a single American guide. Time and chance altered this plan, and the one-volume American Baedeker never appeared under government auspices. What did emerge, however, was a collection of surprising variety.
By 1941 the total output of the Writers’ Project included fifty-one major volumes, consisting of guides to every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Alaska, and also guides to several major cities. In addition, there were about a thousand smaller books and pamphlets. There were mile-by-mile descriptions of three major roadways ( U.S. One, The Ocean Highway from New Jersey to Florida, and The Oregon Trail from Missouri to the Pacific). There were a hundred and fifty volumes of a “Life in America” series that ranged in title from Hands That Built New Hampshire to The Albanian Struggle in the Old World and the New . There were short publications describing counties, small towns, and particular ethnic groups or occupations in various localities. There were collections of folktales and songs and pioneer reminiscences, and there were individual items as hard to classify as one simply entitled Wisconsin Circus Lore . Mangione includes a representative and intriguing sampling as an appendix.
Huge quantities of unpublished material collected by researchers still lie in various national, state, and local archives and libraries. It was gathered by a force of men and women numbering 6,686. The bulk of the work was completed in four years, and the total cost was some $27 million, about one fifth of one per cent of all appropriations for the WPA.
None of this was arrived at easily. The project was given into the care of Henry G. Alsberg, a fifty-sevenyear-old former lawyer, playwright, reporter, and relief administrator. He had entertained youthful anarchist passions that by 1935 had cooled enough to make him acceptable to Congress, and he aged considerably in the four years of his tenure. For the problems of commanding an army of “writers, editors, historians, research workers, art critics, archaeologists, map draftsmen, geologists and other professional workers” under a federal bureaucracy were mountainous.