February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
The Federal Writers’ Project 1935-1943
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.
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.
But the legacy is astonishing. Some 700,000 copies of the various guides have been sold to date, and there are collectors who rejoice with the passion of confirmed hobbyists in the possession of complete sets. Taken together, they form a compendium of information that sketches the social history of a kaleidoscopic nation. Each state guidebook consisted of an introductory set of essays on the history, geography, government, arts, architecture, education, recreation, local lore, and social features of the state. A second section described salient points of interest in a list of major cities. And a third, the largest, laid out highway tours to take. These, far from being prosaic rosters of mileages, accommodations, and mandatory sights to see, were made to bulge with as much miscellaneous information as the writers (who in most cases went over every mile of the ground them- selves) could manage. Local feelings were neither flattered nor spared, and the only restraints observed, other than those of space, were provided by researchers and checkers who remorselessly kept the writers from soaring into undocumented flights of prose.
The essays are uneven in quality, though the best are superb. Many are now dated, but some states have issued new and revised versions that repair the damage of time to facts and statistics. Best of all are the tours, which offer still, in Bernard DeVoto’s words, “a rich, various and rewarding spectacle.” They have, as another reviewer noted, “the profuse disorder of nature and life” that “gets in your blood and sends you crowing from oddity to anecdote, from curiosity to dazzling illumination of single fact.” Mangione presents an intriguing sampling; and to check matters further this reviewer picked up the books for New York, California, Texas, and Vermont, opened each at random, and unearthed the following representative facts before forcing himself back to the typewriter:
—The Beekman Arms Hotel, in Rhinebeck, New York, once had a sign in its office giving the rates as follows: Lodging 3 pence With breakfast, 4 pence Only 5 lodgers to a bed No boots can be worn in bed.
—In Oakland stands the home of the California poet Joaquin Miller. “The poet claimed he could not write without rain on the roof; he had pipes installed to sprinkle water on the roof when he wanted inspiration.”
— In Texas, according to a 1969 revision of the original guide, coyotes still venture into the streets of small towns at night; a herd of buffalo is still maintained on the Goodnight ranch, the remnant of a herd of sixty million that once roamed the state; and wild turkeys are still plentiful in some sections.
—Bellows Falls, Vermont, on the Connecticut River, has a fifty-foot drop. Yet at least a dozen persons have gone over the edge and lived. The first was an Abnaki squaw, in 1781. “Carelessly allowing her canoe to be drawn to a point where she could not paddle against the current, the squaw drank a bottle of rum that she was taking to her brave and lay down in the canoe to await her fate. She was fished out below the falls, quite safe and quite drunk.”
And one browses on, helplessly, through tales of freak storms, bad men and good, curious houses, vanished communities and trades, obscure and famous battles, unsung inventors, and dastardly crimes, all of which left their marks on the land. The richness of printed lore parallels the graphic feast spread for consumption in the Art Project’s Index of American Design . [See A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February and April, 1972.]
Like any massive undertaking, of course, the project’s publications are not without fault. But the sum total was and is a composite portrait of what the critic Alfred Kazin called “an America unexampled in density and regional diversity.” And this was done, not only in the midst of “capitalist America’s” predicted doom, but just after the twenties, when a number of intellectuals had condemned their native land as a cultural wasteland, empty and crackling in the chill of “Puritan repression.” The Writers’ Project, under adverse circumstances, had helped a nation to discover and appreciate its true identity.
There is occasion for cheer in this story. We live in another kind of hard times, when pessimism is not easy to avoid. It takes an effort to remember that the United States—its land, its people, its institutions—adds up to something bigger than one generation’s troubles and mistakes. It often takes an effort nowadays to remind ourselves that this country is sometimes better than its leaders, always more interesting than its image makers know, and durable enough to outlast the rhetoric of both its critics and its uncritical defenders. But Mangione is really telling us that we were in deep trouble before, and we almost accidentally paid for a self-portrait, and we liked and were strengthened by what we saw.