Since the 2008 recession there have been calls to renew the Federal Writers’ Project, founded as part of the WPA in 1935 by FDR to create jobs for writers, artists, even archaeologists and geologists, along with other unemployed Bachelors of Arts. The financial crisis in 2008 sparked discussion across journals, an outcropping of blogs, and most recently members of the American Historical Association, discussion in favor of reviving the little corner of Roosevelt’s New Deal that gave writers like John Steinbeck, Kenneth Patchen, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ralph Ellison steady work.
Federal Writers’ Project works are pretty collectible according to ABE books, but it’s also easy to work with them because there is a decent archive of them on the internet. They’re catalogued on the Digital Book Index, and many websites from the Library of Congress (1, 2) to regional historical societies in Oklahoma proudly preserve the benefits the FWP had for them across the 250 works it saw to press. The Library of Congress still holds manuscripts from many projects, including one of the most insightful among them, a collection of thousands of testimonies and photographs of former slaves, published in 17 volumes as Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.
The project was an equally great outlet for photographers and designers, and even a cursory look through the Digital Books Index displays a thorough catalogue of American art of the time from Art Deco….(as in this guide to Santa Barbara):
…to a kind of Social Realism (coming from Kentucky here):
Even preserving local murals (again from Kentucky), which as we learned earlier this year are by no means permanent.
So the project preserves history but also captures an amazing artistic and literary moment in American history in its own right. Conservatives hated the American Guide Series in the same way that they hate Public Broadcasting and Sesame Street today: it gives work to almost inevitably lefty thinkers to disseminate their lefty ideals. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a Liberal reading of the projects entails coming to terms with racism among other things. But the point is, jobs were created, and there’s a body of work to show for it. You can’t learn from history that’s not recorded. As the introduction to the Philadelphia Guide points out: “The ultimate product, whatever its faults or merits, represents a blend of work of the entire personnel, aided by consultants, members of university faculties, specialists, officers of learned societies, oldest residents, who have volunteered their services everywhere most generously.” For all its sins the methodology is thoroughly dependent upon the fabric of local communities and local color. Add that to a fully collaborative approach between disciplines from history to physical science, and you’re working in an ideal intellectual world.
As the back cover of the Philly guide puts it, the Federal Writers’ Project “furnishes a wealth of information that will be of real value, not merely to those who visit…”. That value is only a richer renewable resource as time goes on.
At least in theory, the state-by-state approach is a good fit: each volume contains concise history, geography, and is illustrated. There are thorough bibliographies for the curious reader. In the case of Philadelphia, whose early history I happen to have learned a lot about, there is even more research than meets the eye in the bibliography: details provided, for instance, in the description of the foundation of Germantown relied upon materials only in manuscript form at the time. Combine that with easy-to-use maps and guided walks through the city and surrounding areas, and you’ve got no trifle of an educational resource.
Finally, there were also Federal Writers’ Projects on different areas of the sciences, often no more then 30-40 pages and aimed at children:
Aside from taking great pleasure in mining the online archive for fun facts about Arizona, New Jersey, Florida, it’s also an archive that steps outside its time and bids us to do some serious critical thinking. It says: See? Projects that enrich public life and learning can happen during times of depression as much as they can during times of prosperity. Our priorities are not misguided in demanding them of our government.
I’m guessing that if you are the kind of person who would read this blog, you are the kind of person to agree that at this point that some kind of wholly- or partly-subsidized Government program to employ folks and preserve the bits and pieces of our cultural heritage (and this need not be limited to the US) would be great. But how?
Robert Reisch’s call for the American Historical Association to implement something along the lines of the FWP, sadly seems to have amounted to little more than healthy google search results for me to contribute to. Ditto the earlier, 2008 New Republic article by Mark I. Pinsky, which nevertheless had a very handy view toward implementation:
Administering the new FWP as an individual grant program through community colleges and universities could minimize bureaucracy and overhead. In consultation with the Obama administration–perhaps through the National Endowment for the Humanities–and Congress, guidelines could be established and a small staff assembled in Washington to oversee the projects, in the form of grants, rather than hourly wages. Projects could be pitched locally to colleges, or suggested and posted by them, vetted preliminarily and then approved or rejected by the national staff.
But still nothing has happened. The current situation threatens something like the opposite: you may have heard tell of the so-called Research Works Act which would effectively close down one frontier of open access to information by keeping federal- (read: taxpayer-) funded research from the public domain and allowing publishing companies to charge for it! Rather than coming any nearer to something like a Federal Writers’ Redux, relationships between publishers and researchers are falling to pieces (you can sign a petition against the Research Works Act here). Legislation is threatening to tear apart the allies the Federal Writers’ Project once kept together.
Why? Why is the internet full of awesome ideas about saving culture that no one listens to? Are blogs (like this one) the new proverbially unpeopled forests filled with falling trees? Do you hear me? Are blogs just online equivalents of the mentality people have when they go to modern art galleries?
Internet = We Should Do That + Yeah But We Won’t.
How are we going to get this Federal Writers’ Project Redux off the ground? We’re four years away from the crash that forced us to reconsider it and counting.
In addition to Pinsky and Reisch’s suggestions here are my thoughts. For now all we can do is keep talking:
We should start this from the ground up rather than wait for someone to do it for us. This point addresses one of the major criticisms of starting up another FWP: why should the government spend time and money underwriting books and documentary films when there are much more terrible problems with poverty and unemployment to fix first? Only too valid.
So how about those who have funding start thinking about allocating it to projects that fit the bill of the American Guide Series. Recognized leaders should take the lead. I’m looking at people like MacArthur Fellows, who have No-Strings Attached $500,000 grants. I’m looking at any of you, Jad Abumrad, Marie-Therese Connolly, Roland Fryer, Jeanne Gang, Elodie Ghedin, Markus Greiner, Kevin Guskiewicz, Peter Hessler, Tiya Miles, Matthew Nock, Francisco Núñez, Sarah Otto, Shwetak Patel, Dafnis Prieto, Kay Ryan, Melanie Sanford, William Seeley, Jacob Soll, A. E. Stallings, Ubaldo Vitali, Alisa Weilerstein, Yukiko Yamashita. Okay, some of you are curing diseases, I don’t mean to bother you. And I know there are other generous grants to single out, too.
But people like certainty with investment. Before we call for Obama to support this idea, to validate the dream that something which happened 70+ years ago is a best-fit solution to the jobs crisis in the humanities now, we should call for individuals who are already comfortable and who are already doing good work to take the lead, build a team, beta-test the thing so to speak. The initial Federal Writers’ Project was headed by a journalist and occasional theatre producer Henry G. Alsberg, who wrote some decent reporting on Mexico and Russia and was involved with advocating on behalf of imprisoned Russian writers, as well as civil liberties for suppressed writers more generally. A contemporary Federal Writers’ Project would only be as strong as the heads of each field it employed. They need to be good mentors, good teachers.
Finally, a key technology to integrate into the projects would be Kickstarter: not only is it a tried-and-tested way of crowdsourcing funding, but of making meaning: built into funded projects are indicators of public interest, the number of people who pledge cash to your project are the number of people who think it matters. The original Federal Writers’ Project of 1935 was to a very large extent FDR’s idea of a public morale booster. Transparency of projects and allocation of funds through means that Kickstarter has streamlined could be critically important in updating what was good for 1935 into what is good for 2012.
Lots of things need doin': more oral histories, more folklore, since there no longer folklore departments in universities, more interviews, from documenting oral histories from soldiers serving time in Iraq, then Afganistan, soldiers serving before and after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, those impacted by 9/11, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and in terms of labor history those who lost their jobs from outsourcing, the architects of the occupy movements across the country. All of these issues in turn take us from narratives to the actual landscape of the country: the topography of cities change, memorials are erected, and canvas tents, factories are destroyed, and canvas tents. Even the rise of environmental consciousness has changed the shape of the horizon as smokestacks from nuclear power plants disappear for good:
There is much to be documented about America, a lot has happened since 1935.
There is also an expansion of job descriptions: Disciplines themselves have changed between 1935 and now: the fieldwork of the trained anthropologist and sociologist dramatically change what we could know about the world around us. A Federal Writers’ Project today would not just be filled with historians, photographers, cartographers, but designers, librarians, journalists, and there would be an important place for displaced IT personnel. How many websites have you seen that are owned by local government, libraries, registry offices, that are out of date, difficult to navigate, and even less helpful when it comes to telling you what you need to know? A Federal Writers’ Project could write and develop web content for many that could really use it.
Let’s do this!
What do you think?