Creating a Hoosier Self-Portrait: The Federal Writers' Project in Indiana, 1935-1942

By Camp, Charles | Western Folklore, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Creating a Hoosier Self-Portrait: The Federal Writers' Project in Indiana, 1935-1942


Camp, Charles, Western Folklore


Creating a Hoosier Self-Portrait: The Federal Writers' Project in Indiana, 1935-1942. By George T. Blakey. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Pp. 262, introduction, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95 cloth)

The Federal Arts Program, which comprised a small but visible part of the New Deal's relief employment agenda, continues to speak from the past to the present in a strong and unmistakable voice. The recent passing of Alan Lomax (1915-2002), who briefly supervised federal folklore activities during the later years of the New Deal, is just one of many prompts to revisit the work of the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Arts Project, the Index of American Design, and the Federal Writers' Project: the separate but related initiatives called "Federal One" by New Deal administrators.

In his recent and much-anticipated book, Portrait of America, historian and folklorist Jerrold Hirsch (2003) focuses upon the correspondence between the mission of Federal One's army of unemployed, untrained researchers and writers and the interests of American folklore scholars in the 1930s, whose attention had increasingly widened from the survival of antiquities to the play of tradition in occupational, religious, and ethnic communities. Folklore studies was well-served by the Federal Writers' Project, which provided a legion of deployable off-campus fieldworkers to an underpopulated and perhaps too academically tethered field. And the Federal Writers' Project was better for the involvement of folklorists, including Lomax, Benjamin Botkin, and the changing membership of an official American Folklore Society committee assigned to the Project, all of whom successfully persuaded Project workers to gather cultural information via face-toface interviews rather than combing newspaper offices and libraries for local sources.

While folklorists are certainly not the only scholars and students of American culture to benefit from the labors of Federal One, perhaps no other discipline has gained so much from them. Among the many folklorists to have mined Writers' Project materials, Nancy MartinPerdue and Charles L. Perdue, in their monumental Talk About Trouble (1996), make a strong case for the utility of Federal Writers' Project research in deriving a patterned depiction of Virginia folklife. The authors establish that cultural continuities as well as rapid social change in the Blue Ridge and elsewhere are revealed in the manifold interviews, photographs, and recordings made in Virginia by Federal One workers. Martin-Perdue, Perdue and other folklorists tend to view the peculiarities of the Writers' Project employee pool and its marching orders-to generate useful and popular publications-as considerations in assessing the oral histories, ethnic studies, ex-slave narratives, and other published and unpublished work. But the "stuff" itself-as Benjamin Botkin called it in the Federal Writers' Project omnibus, American Stuff (Guilds' Committee 1976 [1937])-ultimately commands our respect. …

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