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The Federal Writers’ Project Fueled the Cultural Ferment of the New Deal Era

FDR’s Federal Writers’ Project employed thousands of out-of-work writers to produce guidebooks, compile local histories, and collect stories of the country at a moment of turmoil. We need an equivalent program today.

American author Richard Wright was hired to work for the Federal Writers’ Project. (Mondadori via Getty Images)

When Alfred Kazin arrived at the Manhattan office of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) to interview for a job as an editor, the writers were on strike.

The room was “crowded with men and women lying face down on the floor, screaming that they were on strike,” he writes in his memoir of the 1930s. “In order to get to the supervisor’s office at the other end of the hall, I had to make my way over bodies stacked as if after a battle; and as I sat in the supervisor’s office, he calmly discussed the job while shouts and screams came from the long hall outside.”

Kazin didn’t get the job. While he downplays his desire for the position in his memoir, FWP archives include a record of his follow-up about the position. For a precariously employed freelancer and the son of working-class Jewish immigrants, the FWP was a coveted placement, offering job security and a community, strikes and all.

Such security was the hallmark of the project, a part of FDR’s Works Project Administration (WPA). The WPA launched in 1935, a year that saw 20 percent unemployment, and at its height, it employed 3.3 million people across the United States. The FWP was a minuscule piece of that program, its budget costing 0.002 percent of the WPA outlay, but for its modest size, it had significant achievements.

Just as others were put to work building bridges and sewers under the WPA banner, so, too, were creative workers set to the collective task of crafting texts. The books in question were guides to the country — one for each of the then-forty-eight states, along with many cities, regions, and territories, as well as some ten thousand oral histories, including invaluable records of formerly enslaved people.

The guides were not straightforward. A traveler seeking relevant hotel or culinary information might find them, at best, meandering and, at worst, useless. Instead, they were literary achievements, records of a period and a people, a hodgepodge reflecting the bizarreness and ambition of the FWP itself.

As Scott Borchert describes the guides in Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, a new history of the FWP, they “sprawled. They hoarded and gossiped and sat you down for a lecture. They seemed to address multiple readers at once from multiple perspectives. They ran to hundreds of pages. They contained a melange of essays, historical tidbits, folklore, anecdotes, photographs, and social analysis — along with an abundance of driving directions thickened by tall tales, strange sites, and bygone characters.”

One reason was their authorship. At one point, the project employed nearly seven thousand people. While the production process differed state by state, the guides were a collective endeavor, one that deployed hundreds of writers to streets across the country to collect stories, to decide what readers did and did not need to know about the United States. Hence, as Borchert writes, the tours “highlighted scenic overlooks and recreation spots, but they were also dense with Indian massacres, labor strikes, witches, gunfighters, Continental Army spies, Confederate deserters, shipwrecks, slave rebellions, famous swindlers, and forgotten poets.”

It wasn’t necessarily what one might think of as “professional writers” penning these texts either, though, definitionally, the FWP took those excluded from such a category and made them writers by trade. Anzia Yezierska, a writer and member of the New York office, characterized her coworkers as “spinster poetesses, pulp specialists, youngsters with school-magazine experience, veteran newspaper men, art-for-art’s-sake literati, and the clerks and typists,” a mishmash milieu that generated a “strange fellowship of necessity.”

The ethos was shaped by Henry Alsberg, the FWP’s director. Alsberg, a pinko friend to Emma Goldman, gay man, and hanger-on of the Greenwich Village bohemian-radical scene, approached his task with the belief that anyone who could write was a writer. The standard that mattered for him was that 90 percent of the writers would come from the relief rolls; 10 percent was set aside for skilled writers and editors who could provide technical expertise.

The result — not only the finished product, but every step of the process — was chaotic. In New York, a mail carrier applies because he is “a man of letters.” A story circulates about how, when a toilet overflowed in the office of one of the state projects, all four editors sprang up to fix it because they were all plumbers by trade.

One state’s director, a pulp fiction writer, simply tells his workers to make things up. Another such director is checked in on by someone from the national office. “She led him to a room of workers pounding away at typewriters and said, ‘Have you ever seen such an inspiring sight? Seventeen poets, all in one room, writing poetry seven hours a day.’” The FWP’s associate director, George Cronyn, receives a progress report with the subject line “What I have been doing thru the week.” Its conclusion? “Friday — in bed all day, not working, but certainly thinking of God and the Writers’ Project.”

But amid, or perhaps because of, such eccentricity, the project achieved breakthroughs. It’s not for nothing that, upon the FWP’s dissolution in 1943, Time magazine called it “the biggest literary project in history.” Kazin, despite being turned down for the job in the New York office, singled the American Guides out for praise. Writing in On Native Grounds, his book on American literature, Kazin argued that “More than any other literary form in the thirties, the WPA writers’ project, by illustrating how much so many collective skills could do to uncover the collective history of the country, set the tone for the period.”

The guides give the reader a sense of a country “full of secret rooms,” creepy, but redeemed by an “odd, ludicrous sense of humor,” wrote Robert Cantwell in a 1939 review for the New Republic.

It is doubtful if there has ever been assembled anywhere such a portrait, so laboriously and carefully documented, of such a fanciful, impulsive, childlike, absent-minded, capricious and ingenious people, or of a land in which so many prominent citizens built big houses (usually called somebody’s folly) that promptly fell into ruins when the owner backed inventions that didn’t work.

But more than the merit of the guides themselves, there was the achievement of keeping a roof over the heads of the thousands who relied on the program for employment. Further, the work subsidized creativity, keeping people who would go on to be the era’s most celebrated writers from quitting their craft.

Richard Wright was given flexibility on the job, and he used it to begin drafting Native Son. He struck up a friendship with Ralph Ellison, who worked in the New York office, encouraging him to write. The project’s national coordinating director might have called the New York City project “ a vast psychodrama” — and the anecdote in Kazin’s memoir certainly suggests it was far from a typical workplace — but it was also a hotbed of creativity, and the project that, along with Chicago, employed many of the FWP’s few black writers (the guides in Southern states sometimes shied away from regional history for fear of provoking racist backlash, leaving Zora Neale Hurston, who was attached to the Florida office, more isolated than she already was in the rural parts of the state from whence she sent her dispatches).

Nelson Algren, fresh from an arrest for stealing a typewriter — his defense was that the object was his only means of earning a living, an argument that got him a suspended sentence — was hired onto the Illinois project in 1936. He joined the local John Reed club along with the state project’s shop committee, striking up a friendship with Wright. He met Studs Terkel, who worked on the federal project’s radio division; he ignored Saul Bellow, who was also in the FWP.

A year into working on the FWP, Algren writes a piece advertising the project:

Men who may otherwise have become too demoralized by poverty to do creative work, or would be frying hamburgers or turning out ad copy or running a roulette wheel, are now assisting both themselves and the nation’s cultural life through the federal writers’ project . . . such names are supplemented by dozens of young unknowns with genuine creative impulses who no longer have to sell Realsilk hose or Herald and Examiner life insurance from door to door to meet their rent.

He is writing about himself.

A Usable Past

It isn’t easy to imagine a twenty-first-century FWP. Rather than direct job provision for cultural workers, today’s dominant model is the provision of funds to institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), created in 1965, which grants money to artists. Rather than offering stability, this approach perpetuates the precarity to which creative workers are already subject: a scramble, the pressure to come up with a fully formed project in advance of application.

Congressman Ted Lieu has introduced a bill in the House to create a contemporary FWP, which would focus on stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, employing writers to create an archive of work from the present. The idea came from David Kipen, former director of literature at the NEA. While it would be better than nothing, the project would entail having the Department of Labor administer money to nonprofits, libraries, news outlets, and communications unions, suggesting the precarity and scramble may yet remain.

We can never repeat the past — and, given the shortcomings of the FWP, we shouldn’t seek to — but in imagining possible contemporary endeavors, it’s worth recalling how hard it was to imagine the project back then, too. When journalist Dorothy Thompson first heard about the FWP, she exclaimed, “Project? For writers? Absurd!” And yet it was built and defended, with the still-unpopular argument that writers are in fact people, and they need to eat, too.

As one can imagine happening with today’s culture-war-obsessed GOP, the FWP was undermined by red-baiting. Congressman Martin Dies Jr hounded Alsberg and his staff with subpoenas. Investigators were caught planting and then photographing communist literature in the New York office (as if communists don’t deserve a paycheck!). But despite all this, by the time it shut down in 1943, the project had created dozens upon dozens of guides, employing thousands of out-of-work people at a time of upheaval.

As is true of many of the other achievements of the FDR administration, the FWP was in part a response to union demands. Writers were struggling, and the Newspaper Guild and the Authors Guild wanted jobs, while the Unemployed Writers Association, with the backing of the likes of Theodore Dreiser and Ida Tarbell, worked to represent those still coming up.

Borchert writes of a 1934 strike at the Macauley Company, a Manhattan book publisher. It received wide support from both writers and workers in other publishing houses. He characterizes such solidarity as “a sign of the simmering discontent and growing class-consciousness spreading throughout the industry.”

It’s a scene that bears a striking resemblance to the world today, and the writing world’s unions — the News Guild, the Writers’ Guild of America, and the Freelance Solidarity Project, an organization of freelancers agitating to raise standards both at individual publications and across the industry. When writers’ employment was decimated by forces beyond their control in the 1930s, they called for work relief; what about now?

“In late February of 1935,” writes Borchert, “the Writers Union launched picket lines across New York. The Daily Mirror reported that, in the absence of government intervention, the only work available was writing more protest signs.” The joke lands just as well today. The strength of the FWP was that it was a job like any other: a paycheck for people who needed it. There’s no reason we can’t imagine what that would look like now.