- Historic Sites
The Dream And The Deal:
The Federal Writers’ Project 1935-1943
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
First there was staffing. Alsberg heeded help in his Washington office, for his strong points of enthusiasm and high standards were offset by weaknesses that included too many cigarettes, an acid stomach (copiously dosed with Bisodol), and administrative sloppiness. He did get support from a competent headquarters team, of which Mangione became a member. But in the field he had to build a national organization consisting of a project director in each state, who would, unfortunately, be under the control of that state’s WPA administrator. This latter functionary was, as often as not, a political appointee of no visible talent who meddled consistently with the project’s work. And in some cases the project director himself was named at the “suggestion” of a senator or state boss, with disastrous consequences.
When Alsberg did find qualified project heads and local consultants, they were often, like all experts, resentful of direction from “outsiders” in Washington. So, from beginning to end, Alsberg’s life was one of fairly continuous warfare with his subordinates, carried on by mail and telephone and interrupted by truces and treaties arranged through travelling trouble-shooters who were called field representatives. Work proceeded mostly in these lulls.
Next came the problems of writers and their special hang-ups. Never a calling to attract self-effacing conformists, literature has always had a high proportion of undisguised neurotics, alcoholics, and rascals of all kinds. Many had considerable competence but had to be carefully coddled into meeting schedules, as every editor knows—and “editor” Alsberg was kept unusually busy by his large collection of talent.
Unfortunately the talent was not universally distributed. Many project authors were, or would become, distinguished—among them, to name only a few, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Kenneth Rexroth, and William Gibson. Of these, some worked hard on their project chores, and others stole the maximum feasible number of hours for their own creative work. Behind this phalanx of imaginative stars was a core of writers with solid academic or journalistic experience. But surrounding them was a sea of amateurs whose “writings” had never been published and who had nursed literary ambitions far beyond their skills in a variety of pre-Depression posts as teachers, administrators, and white-collar workers. Outside of major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, where writers tended to concentrate, these untrained troops made up the bulk of the army. It was the task of the Washington office, then, to impose uniform quality on the output of this scattered array of poets, professors, hacks, drunks, civil servants, and aspirants to print.
And as a third headache there was the problem of left-wing politics. In a day when American maladies were obvious and urgent, and little was known about what actually went on in the Soviet Union, the panaceas of communism appealed to a number of writers with kind hearts, guilty consciences, and little experience with the realities of American life. The project was not allowed to inquire into the political background of applicants—a proviso inserted by Republicans to prevent favoritism to deserving Democrats. But the strategy backfired in allowing indeterminate numbers of Communists and fellow travellers to join the staff, in New York especially. There they conducted crusades against “right-wing” colleagues, intrigued against each other with a hatred that only Stalinists and Trotskyites seemed able to generate, and organized spectacular protests against cutbacks in staff. (The tactics of these protests included office sit-ins and the holding of administrators as prisoners.) There was no real evidence that Communists controlled the contents of the guidebooks in any way, but they impeded progress with their feuds, and, worse, they gave hostile congressmen a golden opportunity to denounce the arts projects in general and eventually to do them in.
By the spring of 1939, in fact, the project was in its last, fatal storm. Its strength had been sliced to thirty-five hundred staffers, and it was under heavy attack both from the House Appropriations Committee and from the Red-hunting Un-American Activities Committee of Representative Martin Dies. Roosevelt mounted no counteroffensive, and the reason was made clear to Mangione one warm May evening. A mutual friend of his and Mrs. Roosevelt’s secured him an invitation to an informal Sunday White House supper. Alsberg put his young assistant through a cram course in the project’s accomplishments, hoping that it would all be conveyed to the Presidential ear. But the table topic dominating all others was the impending war in Europe and how the United States should prepare for it. Only after the President was wheeled from the room did Mangione get a chance to say a few words about the project to Mrs. Roosevelt. Her sentiments exhibited “the special kind of tenderness that people are likely to express for a dying friend.” The era of social experimentation in Washington was ending; that of arming for conflict was at hand.
Soon afterward Alsberg was fired, and the project was given over to state control under the guidance of local sponsors. Publications continued to flow, but the unity of the enterprise was broken and its thematic strength sapped. Rechristened the Writers’ Program, it was often made to serve the public-relations needs of various parochial interests. After Pearl Harbor its dwindling staff did writing chores for the armed services, and in 1943 they were absorbed .into the Office of War Information. So the truly effective life of the project was only the four years from 1935 to 1939.