The Illinois Writers' Project Essays: Introduction

Article excerpt

Amidst the growing numbers of unemployed during the Depression, many writers struggled to survive day-to-day. Barring the Fitzgeralds and the Hemingways, most writers could not make a living from their pens. Working a full-time job - if you could find one - took time away from writing: The Federal Writers' Project put writers to work by utilizing their skills to tell the story of America's history. For Richard Wright, writing guidebooks for the Illinois Writers' Project was a way to "earn my bread" (Black Boy, 444). But his time on the Writers' Project was more than just a way to support himself and his family. It was a place where he could apply his readings in sociology, develop his knowledge of Chicago's South Side, and continue to work on his own fiction.

Instituted along with FDR's Federal One, a division of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) that was dedicated to the arts, the Writers' Project employed more than 6,000 writers at its height.1 The job of those working on the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was to develop guidebooks for tourists that highlighted state history, local landmarks, and regional folklore. For a nation still struggling to define itself, the FWP was intended to promote a common appreciation for American culture. In Illinois, 300 different projects were coordinated in offices across, the state, one of them in the Chicago Loop downtown on Erie Street. Upon hearing about the formation of the Illinois Writers' Project, Wright went to his relief worker Mary Wirth and asked to be transferred. In order to get a job, applicants had to first show that they were published authors, so Wright submitted a list of the poetry and short stories that had appeared in the left-wing press, and he was promptly hired.

When Wright moved to Chicago in 1927 he saw it as an "unreal city" (Black Boy, 307). In the decade he spent in Chicago, thanks in part to the time he was on the Illinois Writers' Project, he came to know it intimately. It was in Chicago that he matured as a writer and met other young authors, several of whom were also on the federal payroll. In 1933, Wright joined the Communist Party to participate in the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club, where he met Jack Conroy and Nelson Algren. Living in Bronzeville, Wright met other African American writers interested in art, poetry, theater, and literature. He formed the South Side Writers' Group along with Arna Bontemps, Frank Marshall Davis, Ted Ward, Marian Minus, Bob Davis, Ed Bland, Fern Gayden, and Margaret Walker.2 Together, they created what professor Robert Bone (1986) coined the "Chicago Renaissance," a more radical and socially conscious literary movement than what existed in Harlem during the 1920s.3

In addition to literature, it was Wright's readings in sociology and psychology that were his "most important discoveries" while in Chicago (Black Boy, 327). Visits to his relief worker's husband, Louis Wirth, a professor at the University of Chicago, proved Wright's prowess for sociology. Along with Robert E. Park, Ernest Burgess, Robert Redfield, and W Lloyd Warner, Wirth was a member of the "Chicago School" of sociology that tracked patterns of urbanization, juvenile delinquency, and minority groups. Wirth equipped Wright with a list of undergraduate readings and was astonished at how quickly the young scholar became versed in sociological perspectives.

Working as a research assistant for Wirth was Horace Cayton, who had moved to Chicago in 1931 to become a graduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Chicago. Cayton says he was in Wirth's onice when Wright knocked on the door and introduced himself: "Mrs. Wirth said that her husband might help me. I want to be a writer."4 During his time on the WPA, Cayton supervised more than twenty studies of Chicago's South Side under the direction of both Wirth and W. Lloyd Warner, a professor in anthropology and sociology. Some of these materials became known as the Cayton- Warner papers and were the basis for Black Metropolis (1945), written with St. …