Tang and Tone

Stephen Fender

  • Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project by Jerrold Hirsch
    North Carolina, 293 pp, £16.50, November 2003, ISBN 0 8078 5489 1

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.

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