We Need a New Federal Writers Project: A Conversation with David Kipen
By Jon WienerJuly 23, 2021
JON WIENER: Here’s an idea: how about starting a new federal writers project? How about the government hiring a thousand unemployed writers and journalists all over the place to document the unprecedented year we’ve just been through, the COVID year? Congressman Ted Lieu of Los Angeles has introduced a bill to do just that, co-sponsored by Theresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico. The idea comes from David Kipen — he’s former director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts. David, remind us what the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s was, and what it did.
DAVID KIPEN: In the 1930s, of course, America was flat on its back. The Federal Writers’ Project was part of the New Deal, FDR’s solution to hellacious unemployment. It put to work as many as 6,600 people at a time — writers, editors, photographers, broadcasters, librarians — chronicling everything going on in the country at that time, but also American history, American voices. They basically invented the discipline of oral history, talking to formerly enslaved people, 2,300 of them. The number of general interviews, with everybody from longshoreman to seamstresses, topped 10,000, as did ultimately the total staff of the project over the course of four years.
Time magazine described the writers for the original project as “unemployed newspaperman, poets, graduates of schools of journalism who had never had jobs, authors of unpublished novels, high school teachers, and people who had always wanted to write.” They thought this was a ridiculous list. What do you think?
Certainly all of that was true. But alongside them you had the likes of Zora Neale Hurston and John Cheever and Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow. And Studs Terkel, who got behind his first microphone for The Federal Writers’ Project.
The WPA Guide to Minnesota, my home state, a typical product of The Federal Writers’ Project, was published in 1938 along with guides to other states and some of the biggest cities. The Minnesota book is, among other things, a travel guide. It features 20 road trips, six city tours, and 15 Boundary Waters canoe trips. The most notable of the WPA writers in Minnesota was Meridel Le Sueur, who later wrote about her experience in the Writers’ Project, in her proletarian novel about suffering in St. Paul — it’s called The Girl and it’s become a kind of feminist classic of thirties literature even though it wasn’t discovered and published until much later. That’s kind of par for the course for the Writers’ Project, isn’t it?
Very much so. The American guides were what most people associate with the project, although there was much more. They created guides to all 48 states that consisted of, not just tour those tended to be the last third of each book. The first third was historical and cultural essays about the state. The middle was essays about cities. Then it wrapped up with the tour guides. These books were such a sensation, far beyond everybody’s expectations, that after a couple of years, when the guides started becoming best sellers and getting great reviews (from, among other places, The Nation), they realized they had a hit on their hands and kept going. They did guides to cities, guides to regions, over 10,000 publications in all.
And yes, Meridel Le Sueur wrote an account of her time on the project. Anzia Yezierska, “the Cinderella of the sweatshops,” wrote an account of her time on the project too. Of course, you also had guys like John Cheever, who described his year on the project as “fixing the sentences of some incredibly lazy bastards.” I don’t want to make out like it was some sort of worker’s paradise. But in fact, you had friendships develop on the project between people who might never otherwise have met: Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison, for example, wound up living together for a while. It was a remarkable moment in American history whose time I believe has more than come again, 85 years later. And plenty has been going on for the last 85 years for them to write about.
The 1930s was a period of tremendous unemployment, including among writers. What about today?
Over the last 10 years, one in four journalists has lost their job and a third of publications have laid off people — just since the pandemic. You’re talking about a decade-long crisis, made tremendously worse in the past year. So, yes, we want to put writers back to work.
But I also believe the Project would serve another beneficial purpose. You’re talking about a time in American history today when the country is deeply divided, when people are just not talking to each other. Not just the urban-rural divide, but also the generational divide, which I think is as crucial and deleterious as any other in the country right now. You could put all kinds of different people to work, maybe starting with laid-off journalists, especially at small-town papers all over the country, whose writers could be subsidized so that they’re working half-time for the project.
My students at UCLA are graduating from my writing classes and going straight back into their high school bedrooms. If they could somehow apprentice with laid off or underemployed professional journalists, then you’re not just starting to chronicle the country — where it is now, where it’s been for 85 years — but also incubating that next generation of writers, the next Saul Bellow, the next Zora Neale Hurston, Meridel Le Sueur, Ralph Ellison.
In Ted Lieu’s bill, how many people does he propose to include in the project, and how would it work?
It would create jobs for between 900 and a thousand writers, editors, photographers, and journalists. It would be budgeted for a year with options to renew. Its initial focus is American experiences during the year of COVID. This is, I think, appropriate, and also it’s pragmatic. It’s likelier to find a willing audience on the Hill if that’s emphasized. It would be a grant program administered by the Department of Labor, with an application process through nonprofits with relevant experience, public or nonprofit libraries, media guilds and unions, and newsrooms, both for-profit and not-for-profit. In my heart of hearts, my wish — and I think the wish of the bill’s backers on the Hill as well — is, after demonstrating success with its original charge, for this to develop into something bigger. It would be wonderful if it could morph into a more ambitious reportorial project chronicling modern American society, if it could go for four years, as the original project did. Or longer! The minute America stops being interesting, then I think the project can wind down.
Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. He is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books, a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.
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