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First-person America

July 2024
1min read

Selected and edited by Ann Banks
Alfred A. Knopf
320 pages, $13.95

The Federal Writers’ Project, operating under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration in the latter years of the Depression, is best known for its series of excellent—and still indispensable- guides to the states of the nation. What is not as well known is the fact that hundreds of the project’s researchers and writers—among them Nelson Algren, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Richard Wright—were given the task of interviewing thousands of working Americans all over the country, recording their feelings, fears, experiences, and the rhythms of their language. The result was the largest body of first-person narratives ever collected in the United States. And for nearly forty years the material lay almost untouched and all but forgotten in ancient files.

Now, after months of diligent rummaging, Ann Banks has pulled out and brought together eighty of these life stories, told in the words of the men and women themselves—factory hands and slaughterhouse workers, Harlem prostitutes and Chicago jazzmen, tobacco farmers, granite workers, union organizers, vaudeville troupers, peddlers, and circus hands. Woven together skillfully with background material, the narratives of First-Person America provide a richly satisfying tapestry of life as it was lived during the first forty years of this century—and at times achieves the rank of native poetry along the way, as in the words of an old hardrock miner: “I guess that if a man has miner’s blood in him, he can’t never make it on top of the ground. He’s like a mole: he can tell his way around by the kind of rock he’s in, but the wind don’t make no sense.”


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