Will Congress relaunch a Federal Writers’ Project?

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In this year’s Congressional deliberations on infrastructure spending, a popular New Deal program will hopefully make a comeback, with a new branding and 21st century focuses on clean energy.

During the Great Depression, about three million young Americans, with little prospect of employment in the private sector, enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which is part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They planted trees, built new roads, hiking trails and campgrounds, battled wildfires and learned valuable skills, all while receiving a small paycheck from the federal government.

Modern advocates of a “Green New Deal” have pushed the Biden administration to fund similar socially useful work through the formation of a Civilian Climate Corps. In this modern national service program, low-income youth would be involved in “installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings, and providing water and other supplies during heat waves and storms.” according to New York Times.

Conservatives in Congress, echoing right-wing opponents of the original CCC, have ridiculed the yet-to-be-created Climate Corps as a “work program” that would exacerbate labor shortages in private industry. California Republican Congressman Tom McClintock, whose district includes Yosemite National Park, is also sounding the alarm that the CCC could become a “taxpayer-funded community organizing project” whose mission will be ” to point out who is watering their lawn, whose chimney smokes, and who is spreading forbidden climate misinformation.

Cultural infrastructure

Such political attacks and political disagreements among Congressional Democrats over the funding and leadership of the Climate Corps did not deter another House member from trying to reincarnate a lesser-known and even more controversial New Deal agenda. In May, U.S. Representative Ted Lieu, who represents much of western Los Angeles County, introduced legislation that would create a “21st Federal Writers of the Century Project. Lieu’s proposed $ 60 million federal investment in “cultural infrastructure” would result in the re-employment of writers, editors, fact-checkers, publication assistants, librarians and historians who have lost their skills. work and income due to the pandemic.

Their Department of Labor-funded mission would follow that of the original FWP, which directly employed around 6,600 unemployed writers in the 1930s.

According to New Deal historian Scott Borchert, they “would deploy in our towns, cities and countryside to observe the shape of American life.” Then “they would assemble, at the local level, a collective national self-portrait”, this time focusing on the economic impact of COVID-19, rather than the Great Depression. “The material they gathered” would then be kept in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. “

The Lieu bill is likely to be even less popular with Republicans, like Tom McClintock, than a Climate Corps seeking to distinguish itself through dignified acts rather than federally sponsored words. But Borchert’s new book, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Writers to Rediscover America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) provides a powerful rebuttal to the idea that “doing work” – even for unemployed cultural workers – will always be a marginal cause or a waste of taxpayer dollars.

As Borchert documents, the original FWP had offices across the country and developed strong support from local chambers of commerce, travel associations and commercial publishing houses. This is because this crown of literary achievement – a guidebook for each of the fifty states – was not just a public-private partnership, between the federal government and the many commercial publishers who printed and sold these “American Guides.” . The Guides, still widely read and admired, were a popular and practical source of information and advice on what to see and do in all parts of the country. By 1941, nearly 270,000 copies had been sold, making the FWP a source of “stimulus spending” for paper manufacturers, printers and booksellers.

FWP’s national writing and editorial teams have assembled mountains of material on national monuments, regional agriculture and industry, folklore and cuisine, music, art and leisure activities. Among the 3.5 million articles produced by the FWP were “guides to cities, counties and regions; brochures on hyperlocal history; recreational and educational instruction booklets; bibliographies and socio-ethnic studies and individual testimonies ”of farmers, workers, former slaves and soldiers.

FWP-led oral histories, many of which were not published in the 1930s, have been exploited by researchers of all types since, especially those studying slavery in the South. And, as Borchert shows in his profiles of FWP alumni, the project has been an impressive incubator for young writing talent. Among those she employed were impoverished and / or little-known writers such as Claude McKay, Zorah Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel and John Cheever.

Wright and Algren were among those who most reflected “the New Deal in the very DNA of their later literary achievements.” Wright’s book, 12 million black voices, who appeared two years after leaving the Project, used images and text to paint a collective portrait of Americans of American descent with an emphasis on their “great migration” from the south of Jim Crow to the cities of the north. Wright wrote his bestselling novel, Native son, while remaining on the FWP payroll. His subsequent autobiography, Black boy, was inspired by documents already published in american stuff, a self-contained volume of short stories, poems and sketches inspired by FWP fieldwork. Wright’s contribution was called “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” which recounted “the daily outrages and humiliations” he suffered or witnessed as a child or young adult growing up in the world. South segregated.

A controversial message

Thanks to “federal writers” like these, the FWP’s “vision of the nation” was “firmly anchored in the details of American life – a sensitivity born out of engagement with places, communities, incidents, specific stories and rituals ”.

In the FWP’s description, American society “was unabashedly diverse, ever-changing, shaped by economic struggles, tainted with class conflict, and welcoming of immigrants.” American guides, in particular, promoted the idea “that America belonged to everyone who lived there, whether they were born on its soil or arrived yesterday, whether their ancestors sailed the Mayflower or have watched this ship for ever. the shore or were transported to the ocean. chained. “

Needless to say, this message was not well received by Democrats and reactionary Republicans in Congress. One of the first, a Texas House member named Martin Dies, who had turned against the New Deal, saw a nation “teeming with anti-American activity.” As chairman of a witch-hunting committee, Dies claimed that a third of all FWP writers were “established Communists” who helped turn American Girl Guides into “a magnificent vehicle for the dissemination of hatred. class ”. Like his political descendants in MAGA country today, Dies was a critic of “the great alien invasion of the United States,” which threatened the jobs of native-born workers and brought many “gangsters, murderers and thieves” to the country. our coasts.

Borchert’s account of how the Dies committee first smeared the FWP, and then paved the way for its eventual demise, has a lot of contemporary resonance. The second phase of what Borchert calls “the congressional assault on the FWP” was a follow-up effort to fund it. On the defensive after the midterm election defeats of 1938, the Roosevelt administration “made its peace with the idea of ​​a truncated WPA.” As part of its restructuring, the FWP survived but in a diminished and fragmented form, under less progressive leadership. In its new form, as the WPA Writers Program, states exercised greater control over editorial content. Under the Relief Act of 1940, federally funded writers were required to sign an affidavit asserting that they were neither Communists nor Nazis. When four hundred refused, they were suspended and then purged from the program, which ended in 1943.

As Borchert admits, “astronauts will likely land on Mars before the federal government again pays writers to undertake collective cultural projects, such as the American guides.” But Congressman Ted Lieu isn’t deterred in his search for more co-sponsors of his bill to create a “21st Century Federal Writers Project, ”which would do just that.

(Steve Early is an author and journalist based in Richmond, Calif. He can be contacted at [email protected])

Steve early

Steve Early is a longtime labor journalist and author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013), The Civil Wars in US Labor (Haymarket Books, 2011) and Embedded With Organized Labor (MRP, 2009)

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