Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project 
by Jerrold Hirsch.
North Carolina, 293 pp., £16.50, November 2003, 0 8078 5489 1
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In the middle of the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) set out to increase American purchasing power by getting the unemployed back to work. For the most part they planted forests, graded roads and developed outdoorsy holiday resorts, but the WPA also recruited 40,000 writers, theatrical workers, musicians and artists, most of them on relief, to work on four Federal Arts Projects. The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) employed up to 13,000 actors, producers, stage designers and technical staff, and produced around 1200 plays. The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) set 6700 writers, clerks, typists and managers to work on schemes ranging from the collection of personal accounts by former slaves to an ambitious programme for American Guidebooks, which as well as conventional tourist information also covered the history and the cultural, social and physical geography of each American state.

The ‘writers’ did not have to have established reputations; almost anyone who could put together a coherent paragraph was considered. ‘We must get over the idea that every writer must be an artist of the first class,’ the director of the FWP, Henry G. Alsberg, said:

I think we have invested art with this sort of sacrosanct, ivory-tower atmosphere too much. The craftsmen who worked on the cathedrals were anonymous . . . I think cheap books, less fuss about our sacred personalities, and more service to the common cause in the fight against Fascism . . . would bring us very much closer to the masses.

This is the language of the Popular Front, formed after the US Communist Party decided to make common cause with the progressives of the New Deal against Fascism, racism and union bashing. Those involved in the Federal Arts Projects felt they were furthering the political and cultural ambitions of the Popular Front by giving a voice to farm workers, factory hands and ethnic and racial minorities.

Most of the writers who signed up to the project were unknown, and would remain so. Others, such as Nelson Algren (the director of its Illinois branch), Conrad Aiken, Saul Bellow and John Cheever, had already begun to make their reputations. Studs Terkel would find his calling when the FWP sent him out onto the streets of Chicago to collect oral history. Most striking was the impetus given to the careers of black authors: Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison were given their first chance by the FWP.

Its ambition was to create – or rather to discover – a great American epic in the acts and words of ordinary men and women: to draw from the disregarded speech and customs of the people the underlying strength and unity of a divided and demoralised country. Jerrold Hirsch, in his history of the FWP, traces this back to Emerson and Whitman, for whom the commonplace and the vernacular formed the source of a distinctive American aesthetic opposed to those ‘courtly muses of Europe’. Benjamin Botkin, the FWP’s national folklore editor, understood ‘culture’ to mean social custom and practice, however humble, as well as high art. Folklore, he believed, was a far more reliable guide to regional culture than the increasingly strident and accessible media of mechanical reproduction.

However progressive their Popular Front mission seemed, the directors of the FWP were on a patriotic mission to explore their country’s sense of itself. But the Texas congressman Martin Dies, chairman of what would become the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, didn’t see it that way. Apparently a believer in the notorious ‘thesis’ of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, Dies thought that America had been created by a heroic race of Anglo-Saxon explorers and settlers toughened by their conflicts with the natives on the frontier. To speak of the contribution made by labour unions and the importance of ‘ethnic diversity’ amounted, in his view, to a Communist plot to subvert American national identity. Pressure from the HUAC and other hostile forces in Congress eventually killed the Federal Arts Projects. In April 1939, Roosevelt sent to Congress an Emergency Relief Act that closed down the Theatre Project and the national office of the FWP, requiring the state offices to find local funding.

The two projects that occupied the FWP from the start were the attempt to gather oral biographies of ex-slaves, and the production of state guidebooks. Most former slaves still lived in the South, and the Washington office of the FWP knew it had to rely on its regional directors and fieldworkers to gather the material for the biographies, but the directors were worried that local racial prejudice might infect the primary data. Commenting on material sent to him from Mississippi, John Lomax, a collector of cowboy songs and the FWP’s special consultant on folklore, noted on 14 January 1937:

Farm Woman (Case #2): (Elizabeth Bradley) The story is pointless save as a commentary on the benevolent institution of slavery . . . Capitalise Negro throughout. Par. 2: ‘Familiar traits of the Negro race’ is bad . . . Occasionally there are blanket statements in which ‘many’ Negroes should be substituted for ‘all’ or ‘most’ Negroes. Page 4, par. 6: ‘pickaninnies’ is not good usage.

The state guidebooks were intended, as Hirsch puts it, ‘to rediscover America, to introduce America to Americans, and to make the culture accessible to the people to whom it belonged’. Compared to touring in Europe, a trip around America might seem unpunctuated with variety, since, as Alsberg said, ‘all the houses’ are ‘built the same way, all the people wear the same kind of clothes and drive the same kind of automobiles’, but that was because tourists in America had no sense of the historical associations each region offered. ‘Follow, for example, tour 12 in the Tennessee guide,’ Hirsch writes, ‘and learn that the Dandridge County Courthouse has the marriage bond of Davy Crockett and Polly Finley and the record of an earlier licence, "returned unused", issued to Crockett and Miss Margaret Elder.’

The recourse to ‘association’ answered another old anxiety about the American social and physical landscape: that, as Washington Irving wrote, while the great American outdoors had all a traveller could wish in respect of the sublime and beautiful, it was Europe that ‘held forth the charms of storied and poetical association’. The FWP guidebooks were trying to put this right. Like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, they were a ‘declaration of American cultural independence from the Old World’.

‘If the informant happened to be particularly colourful and articulate, with a story to tell and a knack for telling it,’ Botkin wrote twenty years later, ‘his life history became an independent production which not only contained folklore but was folk-say.’ He felt they were at last beginning to catch ‘the forthrightness, tang and tone of people talking; the immediacy and concreteness of the participant and the eyewitness, and the salty irony and mother wit which, like the gift of memory, are kept alive by the bookless world’.

In the South, however, the life histories had a separate genesis, and were intended for a very different purpose. W.T. Couch, the young head of the University of North Carolina Press, and soon to be director of the FWP for the south-eastern region, wrote to Alsberg in April 1938 proposing that the Project record ‘life histories of tenant farmers and their families’. But he wasn’t after ‘the forthrightness, tang and tone of people talking’. For most of the 1930s Couch had been publishing studies of socially dysfunctional communities in the South, in an attempt to get at the facts behind Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933), in which degenerate sharecroppers and unemployed mill workers engage in fitful, fanciful and futile schemes to raise money while killing time in casual incest. Here was a chance to conduct a bit of sociological research of his own into the lives of poor white Southerners.

No other American region presented such a variety of barriers to the collection of personal testimony. Hirsch himself outlines some of them: the social or racial gap between the interviewers and their subjects; the ideology implicit in the narrative structure of the interview; the tendency of the subjects to collaborate with their questioner in constructing what was supposed to be their own version of the past. Finally, he admits that ‘more work needs to be done regarding how to read and analyse all of the FWP interview materials.’

That work might start with the admission that subjectivity is not only inescapable in autobiography; it positively ‘encapsulates rather than . . . qualifies its meaning’, as David Vincent has put it. However, it’s still possible to plot the degrees to which it was allowed to flourish in the FWP biographies. This is how Mary Hicks introduces her interview with Betty Cofer, a former slave of a plantation-owning family, in North Carolina:

Here, in 1856, was born a negro girl, Betty, to a slave mother. Here, today, under the friendly protection of this same Jones family, surrounded by her sons and her son’s sons, lives this same Betty in her own little weather-stained cottage. Encircling her house are lilacs, althea, and flowering trees that soften the bleak outlines of unpainted outbuildings. A varied collection of old-fashioned plants and flowers crowd the neatly swept dooryard.

The scene presented is one of order and – as suggested by that syntactical parallelism, ‘Here . . . Here . . .’ – continuity with the past. Betty’s cottage may be ‘little’ and ‘weather-stained’, and her ‘unpainted outbuildings . . . bleak’, but what redeems them is her cultivation of the values of her antebellum existence, symbolised by the ‘old-fashioned plants and flowers’ that soften the outlines of her life after emancipation. Best of all, Betty seems to have cultivated her personality as assiduously as her surroundings. ‘Although a little shy of her strange white visitors, her innate dignity, gentle courtesy and complete self-possession indicate long association with "quality folks".’

When she finally gets to speak for herself, Betty expresses a degree of contentment with – even nostalgia for – her life as a slave. ‘Yesm, we was happy. We got plenty to eat. Marster and old Miss Julia . . . was mighty strict, but they was good to us. Coloured folks on some of the other plantations wasn’t so lucky.’ Here Hicks adds another gloss: Betty’s speech ‘shows a noticeable freedom from the usual heavy negro dialect’. The bias could not be clearer: Betty’s ‘long association with "quality folks”’ has insulated her from the degeneration that so often followed emancipation. Indeed, Betty may as well never have been set free, living as she does ‘under the friendly protection of this same Jones family’. The old slave-owners have turned seamlessly into paternalistic employers.

The narrative frame works here to reinforce a fantasy that must have been important for many white Southerners: that defeat in the Civil War, the freeing of their slaves and the harsh postwar Reconstruction never really happened; or, at least, that traditional culture – behaviour, speech, even the growing of plants – provided continuity across that fearful divide.

You would think that the interview with Betty Cofer would have been discarded as yet another ‘pointless . . . commentary on the benevolent institution of slavery’. You would be wrong. On 6 May 1937, the assistant director of the FWP in Washington, George Cronyn, wrote to the FWP director for North Carolina: ‘Mr Lomax and I found the story of Aunt Betty Cofer of great interest and well told. It has a rich human flavour and presents an authentic picture of the period.’

Couch’s plans for white life stories left little room for human interest. He set out his sociological agenda in the questions issued to fieldworkers. Far from attempts to search out traditional folk culture, they sound like questions a health visitor might pose, or someone inquiring into the suitability of adoptive parents. They move through categories such as ‘Size of family’; ‘Effect of family size upon financial status of family’; ‘Attitudes towards large families’; ‘Number of years of school attendance’; ‘Causes of limited education’ and so on. Religion was mainly significant for its ‘Influence . . . on morals’. ‘Cleanliness and order of house’ were important, as was ‘Pride in possessions’. Significantly, the preparation, consumption and (where relevant) cultivation of food was seen not as an aspect of culture, but as a matter of public health:


1. Knowledge of a balanced diet.

2. To what extent knowledge is applied.

3. To what extent it is possible to have balanced diet on wage earned?

Of course, few sharecroppers or tenant farmers could live up to this vision of hygienic modernity, and their failure to do so is made clear. This is how Anne Winn Stevens sets the scene of her interview with Lester Garren and his wife, tenant farmers to whom she gives the pseudonym Riddle, in Fletcher, North Carolina in March 1939:

At the top of a ragged hill grown over with scrubby oaks stands a dingy, four-room cabin. The two rooms of which it consisted originally had been painted green, but except for a few streaks here and there the paint has long since rubbed off. A lean-to of rough boards has been added . . . Although pleasant, green fields rimmed by distant mountains partially encircle the hill, this house near the railroad tracks is as unprepossessing as the shacks in the meanest mill village . . . At the back of the house is an irregular clearing, muddy in wet weather, dusty in dry, and cluttered with small stones. Here stand the barn, stables and corncrib, patched loosely with rough boards. They have never been painted.

‘My husband patched ‘em up loose on purpose,’ said Mrs Riddle, ‘so if we move he can pull down his boards and take ‘em with him.’

As in Betty Cofer’s story, the subject’s voice surfaces briefly, lightly inflected with just enough accent to add local colour, but used to underline the rootless world of tenant farmers, in which permanent structures, like barns and stables, are kept ‘patched . . . up loose’ so they can be moved along with their owners. But when materials are costly and cash short, keeping buildings relatively portable could be seen as a rational response on the part of people who might be evicted at the year’s end. Typically, sharecroppers and tenants are represented in these life stories as improvident, promiscuous, philoprogenitive, and so lacking in schooling that they can’t hold their own in the annual reckoning over profit and credit with the landowner.

The middle classes are treated very differently. Anne Winn was altogether more impressed with a family of dairy farmers she interviewed in February 1939. ‘My father,’ she quotes Brad Suttles (David M. Snelson) as saying, ‘was with Lee’s army, and was wounded in the Seven Days’ Battle around Richmond. After Lee’s surrender, my father came back to the mountains, married, and settled down to farming his own land.’

The 72-acre Suttles farm, which has belonged to direct descendants of the pioneer settler . . . ever since he cleared and developed the tract, is almost all bottom land, and very fertile . . . On the north and east is a sheltering range of low, wooded hills, which protects the valley like a huge arm, curved defensively. Some of the spur ridges have treeless, grassy slopes, where the farm’s herd of Guernsey cattle may often be seen grazing . . . The . . . farmhouse . . . is a two-storey structure of the colonial type seen often in New England . . . framed and protected by a hill on the north. There is one immense boxwood near the small front porch.

The contrast to the Riddles’ ‘dingy, four-room cabin’ on top of the ‘ragged hill grown over with scrubby oaks’ could not be more marked. Like that ‘immense boxwood’ next to the farmhouse, itself reminiscent of the nation’s most traditional domestic architecture, the Suttles farm seems to have been there for ever. It’s easy to forget that it’s only a 72-acre hill farm; the point is, they own it. There are endless examples of the difference in treatment: in middle-class families a large number of children is an index not of sexual excess, but of a robust patrimony. If such a family frequently ups stakes, it is seen as a sign not of fecklessness, but of enterprise, a willingness to accept temporary discomfort to better their position.

Above all, property owners get a voice. ‘I was 14 years old when I started out with the wagon train,’ recalled a horse trader interviewed in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1939. ‘Actually, it wasn’t a "train” – just a two-horse wagon that we rode in and camped when night came’ – but it got them to court days in various counties around the state, where they could do ‘plenty of tradin’’. After he ‘got to know the country pretty well . . . who needed what and where to go get it for him’, he set himself up in a ‘little store in Lynchberg with a small stable next to it’. Meanwhile, his ‘mule business’ flourished. ‘I used to go to St Louis, pick up a carload and come on home . . . I’d pay around $50 apiece for the mules; cost about $50 for freight to get back here, and they’d bring anywhere from $175 to $225 apiece.’ He also dealt in scrap metals and later in ‘the liquor business’, shipping contraband alcohol between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ counties. Finally he became the director of a bank, a position he had no qualms about exploiting whenever he needed loans for a new venture.

This isn’t a wildly exciting life story, but it suggests an enterprising response to changing circumstances, a resilience in bad times that would do credit to Scarlett O’Hara (whose story is, of course, really about the Depression), and a direct and informative idiom. What we get forms at least the beginning of an answer to Emerson’s call, in ‘The Poet’, for more of that rough prose of the vernacular economy, ‘the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing’, which ‘are yet unsung’. Hirsch and other historians have made much of the racial barrier to understanding the South: the dozens of ways in which colour can get in the way of a white inquiry – however well intentioned – into the black predicament. But it appears that the great unmentionable criterion isn’t race – it’s class.

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