Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project

By Clark, Shannan | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project


Clark, Shannan, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project. By Jerrold Hirsch. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. 312; $55.00, cloth, $19.95, paper.)

In one of the most sophisticated and penetrating historical examinations of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) to date, Jerrold Hirsch smartly situates this unprecedented New Deal initiative within broader cultural and intellectual discourses about American national identity. Providing a far richer understanding of the FWP and its significance than can be gleaned from a narrowly-conceived administrative history, Hirsch's account emphasizes the legacy of nineteenth-century forebears like Emerson and Whitman as well as influences from the early twentieth century such as Franz Boas, Horace Kallen, Van Wyck Brooks, and Randolph Bourne. Hirsch skillfully explores the ways in which these figures molded the thinking of top FWP administrators like Henry Alsberg, B. A. Botkin, Morton Royse, and Sterling Brown, who were determined to seize the opportunity presented by this temporary relief program for unemployed white-collar workers and harness it to promote a fundamental rethinking of American identity along pluralist lines. To supplant exclusionary and nativist conceptions of national identity, Alsberg and his associates at the FWP promoted an inclusive conception of American nationality that embraced differences of region, ethnicity, race, and class. They hoped that the state and city guidebooks, oral histories, and other written work produced by the staff scattered in state offices across the country would serve as tools to be used by ordinary Americans as they discovered a new America.

Yet as Hirsch demonstrates, the project itself could not easily be wielded by its ambitious administrators in pragmatist fashion as a means for achieving their cultural objectives. At the state and local levels, many of the relief workers did not share their progressive views. Particularly in the South, Hirsch notes, the racist prejudices of many of the rank-and-file Federal Writers proved a formidable obstacle to the intentions of top administrators to use the FWP to integrate the African American experience into a new pluralist conception of American identity. Creative writers, although actually a minority of the staff on the FWP, grew dissatisfied with merely producing the raw materials for others to use; the project's few forays into creative work, like the FWP anthology American Stuff (1937), were largely a concession by Alsberg and other administrators to mollify this frustrated faction of the staff.

Also, as attacks on the FWP and the other cultural projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from Congressional critics like Martin Dies suggest, many viewed the program as a fount for dangerous radical propaganda that subverted more traditional notions of American nationality and citizenship. In this context, supporters and detractors alike were inclined to associate the FWP and its work with the aspirations of liberals or leftists. By highlighting the mounting political opposition to the project, Hirsch prompts a reevaluation of the claims made by cultural historians such as Warren Susman and Richard Pells that the FWP and its WPA siblings in fact contributed to an increasingly conservative American nationalism of the late 1930s and early 1940s replete with treacly celebrations of "the people.

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