Academic journal article College English

Toward a Twenty-First-Century Federal Writers' Project

Academic journal article College English

Toward a Twenty-First-Century Federal Writers' Project

Article excerpt

So the WPA state guides, seemingly only a makeshift, a stratagem of administrative relief policy to tide a few thousand people along and keep them working, a business of assigning individuals of assorted skills and interests to map the country, mile by mile, resulted in an extraordinary contemporary epic.

-Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (501)

New York City, 1930s: Black residents are hit especially hard by the Depression, excluded from the building and other trades at the same time the demand for domestic servants sharply decreases. A majority of those who live in Harlem are "on the verge of starvation" as competition for jobs and employment discrimination intensify (New York 142). Large numbers of blacks join or ally with socialist, communist, and labor organizations. Through the American Federation of Labor, Harlem blacks form unions of "barbers, clerks, laundry workers [. . .] newspapermen [. . .] and domestic workers" (New York 150). New York's literary scene gravitates to proletarian literature and left-wing journals such as New Masses. Unemployed writers march in the streets, demanding Works Progress Administra- tion (WPA) jobs. Theatergoers turn to social drama, including productions of the Workers' Laboratory Theater and the Living Newspaper unit of the Federal Theater Project. By the end of 1935, New York City has lost 3,300 plants, putting 76,000 workers on the dole. The city bleeds. "The economic losses resulting from this reduction in industrial activity [are] catastrophic; the consequent suffering and misery have probably surpassed anything ever before experienced in a modern industrial community" (New York 377-78).

This depiction of Depression-era New York City emerges from the pages of the Federal Writers' Project's (FWP) New York City Panorama, the companion to The WPA Guide to New York City. The urgent, brilliant descriptions of geographical and cultural city scenes-"the forcing ground which creates a new prose style or a new agro-biological theory" (New York 3)-help explain the enduring appeal of the FWP's American Guide Series,1 "an extraordinary contemporary epic," according to Alfred Kazin (501). The New York City guides render both the vitality of "a great city that goes out beyond its borders" (New York 3) and the devastating impact of the Depression on its people and industry. It was the power of such evocative documentation, along with the need to put unemployed Americans back to work, that prompted journalists, writers, educators, and legislators after the crash in 2008 to call for a twenty-first-century WPA2 and a new FWP (see, for example, Pinsky; Lemisch; Lautenberg; Goldbard; Kotkin; Carter and Mutnick).3

Flash forward to 2014. There is no federally sponsored FWP, but its inspiration can be seen in the "public turn" of contemporary writing projects in and out of the academy. Such projects might be said to enact "poetic world making" (Warner 114) in which publics are called into being through a process of uptake to produce a new language capable of expressing and helping create a new social reality. For the FWP, this process engaged the American people in "rediscovering" America in a time of national crisis. Twenty-first-century public writing projects are responding similarly, enacting what geographer David Harvey calls "a requisite poetics of understanding for our urbanizing world" (438) in an effort to engage and amplify the voices of ordinary people who must remake today's world. In what follows, I delineate the FWP's history, methods, and themes, and consider how its revival might inform and increase the visibility and impact of such projects today.

F W P Histo r y: t H e Grea t DePr e ss io n, tHe n e W Deal , an D H un G r y Wri t e r s

The FWP published a total of forty-eight state guides, including portraits of cities, towns, and rural communities, along with folklore, oral histories, and ethnic studies, documenting American life during the Great Depression and researching and record- ing local and regional histories. …

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