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

By Bronner, Simon J. | Western Folklore, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Bronner, Simon J., Western Folklore


Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project. By Jerrold Hirsch. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 293, preface, introduction, notes, index. $55.00 cloth, $19.95 paper)

One of the publications produced in honor of the American Folklore Society's centennial is The Conservation of Culture: Folklorists and the Public Sector (Feintuch 1988), an anthology whose opening section comprises essays about movements and personalities of earlier days that contributed to the development of public folklore as we have come to know it in the United States. Historian Jerrold Hirsch's essay on the Federal Writers' Project (here called simply The Project) of the New Deal offers an unprecedented argument for the depth and complexity of motivations guiding the leadership of the Project's folklore work. This endeavor, often glossed over in histories of folklore studies due to a supposed lack of academic rigor and, frankly, a dearth of published results, here receives a fresh and laudatory appraisal that exposes its philosophical foundations. Hirsch shows that Project leaders, pivotally B. A. Botkin, broke with the cultural nationalism so evident in public Americanization initiatives of the early twentieth century, pursuing instead a pluralist vision that celebrated cultural diversity as a source of vitality. Hirsch adumbrates the continuities of this approach toward public folklore in the later twentieth century and beyond, not just as a form of work, but as an ideology.

If Hirsch's 1988 essay was a prospectus, his present book, Portrait of America, is a fulfillment. Here he details how Project leaders integrated folklore into a vision to redefine America at a moment of social crisis, and he credits Botkin as the driving force in this populist approach to definition. Folklorists may miss the message, however, because there is barely a hint in this book's chapter titles or introduction of the significance of the contributions of folklorists to the Project's goals. Here and there are nuggets to be found-for example, in Chapter 8, "Toward a Marriage of True Minds: The Federal Writers' Project and the Writing of Southern Folk History," the title a nod to a speech by Botkin (who was of course borrowing from Shakespeare) to the 1939 meeting of the American Historical Association: "If we admitted no impediments to a marriage of true minds between folklore and history, the product of their union would be folk history." In the book's most intriguing chapter, on the South, Hirsch describes the special challenge posed to the Project's pluralist mission by conservative white Southerners, for they, more than other Project writer-contributors, subscribed to a discourse of maintenance of racial and cultural purity. As Hirsch tells us, the treatment of Southern folklore was the greatest test of Botkin's agenda for presenting folklore and American diversity as cultural assets. …

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