Friday, December 18, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Monday, December 7, 2009
In the 1930s a young Meridel Le Sueur was living in Minnesota and writing about how desperate poverty pushed law-abiding women across the line of criminality. She was going to meetings with women in the Workers Alliance, writing “to raise our miserable circumstances to the level of sagas.” She had published several articles in New Masses, Anvil and other lefty magazines before she got a job on the Writers’ Project. (More in Soul of a People.)
On her own time, Le Sueur wrote up the stories of her fellow women, and in her novel The Girl, she created a composite portrait of a female character forced by circumstances to work at a speakeasy, which leads her to work as a prostitute, and later as a getaway driver in a bank holdup that goes wrong. The protagonist is eventually rescued by a group of homeless women who are probably communists.
When the novel was finally published in the 1970s, Le Sueur was known as a pioneer in the women’s movement. She called the book a “hosanna” from one generation of women to the next, a shout of joy and strength to “those wonderful women … who keep us all alive.”
“It was a white culture up to then,” Le Sueur said at a reunion of WPA writers in the 1980s. “There was no black movement,” she explained, “no women’s culture” on the radar before the 1930s. By gathering these stories, the WPA writers paved the way for new American histories.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Saturday, November 21, 2009
In Denver, before an event at the Tattered Cover bookstore, I sat down with Gloria Johnston of Swing Vote magazine and Louie Wolfe at his BBQ spot on East Colfax St. near the state capitol. We talked about the WPA guides that Louie had collected through the years and how they'd guided his travels. And we talked about the WPA writers including Weldon Kees, who came to Denver after leaving behind his job on the Nebraska Writers’ Project, and his friend Rudolph Umland who came to visit him, and was surprised to find Kees had turned to poetry (with the encouragement of another WPA friend, as described in the book).
Louie suggested that before leaving Denver I visit Red Rocks, the park west of the city where an amphitheatre is set into the scarlet sandstone walls. He told me that Red Rocks had its own New Deal connection: the theatre was built by CCC workers. The WPA guide to Colorado calls them “public-spirited citizens” and notes that in the silt deposit layers of the stone walls where you can see “shells, teeth of curious fish, and plants,” archaeologists found the nine-foot-long thigh bone of an Atlantosaurus.
So I drove toward the mountains one afternoon and wandered the park as the late sun lit up the stone and the bare bronze back of the CCC worker statue.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The recent Texas Book Festival featured, once again, authors discussing their books in the halls of the state capitol building, from literary biography in the House to novelists in the Senate. In one annex room, an SRO crowd reassessed the Writers’ Project and whether its members were un-American (as Congressman Martin Dies, of East Texas, had deemed as first chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities) or very American (as Jim Thompson, sometime-resident of Ft. Worth and the West Texas oil fields, had insisted).
Others in the Austin fray this year included Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, John Pipkin on Thoreau’s misdemeanors, and Douglas Brinkley on Teddy Roosevelt.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Meanwhile in the Upper Midwest, Meridel Le Sueur was documenting struggles of women in her circle in St. Paul in her own take on the crime novel, The Girl, finally published only a decade ago. And in Madison, Aldo Leopold was capturing a quieter voice of the land in the Conservation essay for the WPA guide to Wisconsin. Earlier this month I had a chance to visit his Shack outside Baraboo, WI, where Leopold and his family forged a new land ethic, planting thousands of trees, restoring prairie habitat, and listening. There Leopold would hone the ideas that shaped A Sand County Almanac, another empathetic rendering of an American viewpoint some distance away from Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.
A remarkable collection of WPA writers’ off-duty work is American Stuff, a 1937 anthology published by Viking that showcased their personal poetry, songs and stories – everything from convict songs that John Lomax recorded in Southern prison camps, to Thompson’s murderous “The End of the Book,” Richard Wright’s explosive “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” poems by Helen Neville, Claude McKay and Kenneth Rexroth (subject of a recent talk in San Jose), a story by Vardis Fisher, and woodcuts by WPA artists. American Stuff could bear reprinting.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Indeed. Paul Buhle, an oral historian and emeritus professor from Brown University, was asking the questions, having enlisted cartoonist Pekar of American Splendor fame to adapt Terkel’s mighty Working as a graphic novel.
“Harvey is exactly the kind of person that Studs looked for” in his interviews, Buhle said, and the kind of person the WPA writers interviewed in the 1930s. Pekar worked as a wage slave for 37 years, a file clerk in a VA hospital in Ohio, unknown and yet full of stories. (He interviewed many of the patients he met in the hospital.) At the festival, Pekar spoke with trademark honesty and humor about his little pleasures: a flattering remark, a bit of cash, and the spice of getting back at somebody who’d slighted him. He also talked about his love of jazz, his biggest literary influence (Henry Miller), his respect for Terkel, and how listening to comedy radio in the 1940s shaped how he approaches pacing and rhythm in his comics.
His discussion included Terkel’s legacy as an oral historian and beginnings on the Federal Writers’ Project. He said he wanted to bring the stories of Working to new readers in a new format.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Open Salon gives the book a 98 - "Highly recommended," and points to where some of the WPA guides have been digitized and made available online.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
This weekend Soul of a People events continue in Baltimore and Fairfax, Virginia.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Seventy years ago today, the WPA guide to Illinois came out as controversy swirled around the Federal Writers’ Project. Texas congressman Martin Dies was deep in the investigations of his House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities, better known as HUAC, and within weeks he would bring his investigation to Chicago, interrogating witnesses and launching raids on offices across the city. In Chicago, his list of suspected un-Americans included 514 milkmen, 144 newspaper reporters, 112 lawyers, and 161 radio workers.
Meanwhile in the Writers’ Project office, Nelson Algren, Margaret Walker, Sam Ross, Hilda Polacheck and others had shifted from work on the guide (Algren had written much of the text on Galena, among other tasks) to documenting interviews with a cross-section of the city’s residents – jazz musicians, barflies, aldermen, fishmongers, prostitutes, and meatpackers. Their first-hand accounts are on the Library of Congress American Memory site (searchable by key word like ‘Chicago’) and make a vivid complement to the Illinois guidebook.
Studs Terkel worked in the creative radio division (Chicago was one of the rare cities that had such a unit), writing scripts for weekly programs -- many of them researched with curators at the Art Institute, in a series titled Men of Art -- along with Sam Ross and others. Ross later wrote scripts in Hollywood, and Terkel later conducted interviews for radio and Pulitzer-winning books that he called oral histories. In the Soul of a People film interview (and in the book) he credits the WPA with getting him started as a writer, and with giving many people the sense that their voice counted.
Not long after Martin Dies left Chicago, a radio play that Terkel wrote for the WPA was broadcast, on the nineteenth-century French satirist Honoré Daumier. In words that spoke to the air of fear stirred by HUAC, Terkel’s Daumier responds to the concern that he mocked France with his satirical cartoons about the king:
I love France with all my heart… It’s not ridiculing France, it’s not mocking France. I’m fighting the enemy of France within its gates: greed, intolerance, ignorance.’
Last week Soul of a People screened, appropriately, in Chicago at the Newberry Library, and in the coming month Chicago State University and the Maywood Public Library are hosting more events and celebrations in Chicagoland. Check details at http://library.csu.edu/presentations/soap.html.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Seventy years ago this month, Zora Neale Hurston began a landmark field recording tour, traveling down through Florida’s hot coastal towns and turpentine camps, gathering songs that people sang to each other: hard songs and mythic stories, with all the power and struggle of life.
Hurston had mapped out the Florida tour in her head, with stops chosen to get Spanish-influenced songs, African-flavored songs, and tunes harking back to Old English. Then she wrote up her plan in a memo and sent it to Washington.
As her younger white colleague Stetson Kennedy remembered, Hurston called folklore the “boiled down pot liquor of human living,” and prized it dearly. She knew the world was changing and that cultures would continue to collide and make new things in those collisions, but she aimed to capture the essence of what had come down to her.
Her plan finally got support with the loan of a state-of-the-art recording machine – a massive beast that required two men to carry – from the Library of Congress.
Just weeks before the end of her time on the WPA, the recording tour she proposed came about and the converted ambulance hauling the recording machine rolled into Jacksonville. She began at a soup kitchen there, recording gospel songs across town from the state office of the WPA Writers’ Project where the white WPA writers worked. Because of Jim Crow segregation, the half dozen African-Americans on the Florida staff worked from another office near the soup kitchen. Hurston herself worked mostly from her hometown of Eatonville.
Songs that she and her WPA coworkers recorded that summer (and again that winter) would roil through American popular culture for decades. “The Sloop John B,” for example: the WPA recordings capture Bahamian and Dixieland versions of the song, which dates back to 1900. It would later have incarnations in folk music, then rock and roll, ending up on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. "Ninety-nine and Half Won't Do," a gospel song, would get a soul version from Wilson Pickett.
Friday, August 7, 2009
A number of hoboes made their way from freight cars to the federal payroll of the WPA Writers’ Project. The Soul of a People book features the stories of three: Rudolph Umland in Nebraska (featured in this review and this online exhibit), Eluard Luchell McDaniel in California, and Harry Partch.
Partch was born in California, grew up in Arizona, and as a young man bounced around the West, feeling freer among hoboes than in straight-laced society. Partch would later become famous as an avant-garde composer whose works were so iconoclastic that he had to create new instruments and scales for them. In between his times on the bum, he worked on the WPA guides to Arizona and California. He later memorialized his wanderings in U.S. Highball, which the Kronos Quartet recorded in the 1990s. John Rockwell, the New York Times critic, called Partch’s compositions “the musical counterpart to the Watts Towers,” that monument of folk art that rose over the working class L.A. neighborhood.
Partch will be featured at a September event in the Soul of a People series at the San Jose Public Library. The Harry Partch Foundation is based in San Diego.More about Harry Partch from that talk here.
You can now watch the Writers’ Project afternoon at the Library of Congress with excerpts from the film. Click here.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Friday, July 10, 2009
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Today the film Public Enemies hits screens across the country, with Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger. Reviewers note how Dillinger and other 1930s outlaws capitalized on the unpopularity of banks to boost their popular support. You see reflections of that atmosphere in the WPA guides and in the stories the WPA writers gathered.
In the Wisconsin guide, for instance, you find on Tour 7 the lodge where Dillinger holed up with Baby Face Nelson and others in Little Bohemia, and where his father later opened a curiosity museum of his son’s gangster friends. (More about this in the book.) And in the WPA life history of a kindergarten teacher in South Jacksonville, Florida, you hear her concern about her “little kindergartners’” impressions of life from pop culture and "the five-year old who strives to imitate Dillinger and struts about in imaginary defiance of the G-men.”
The Great Depression shaped what you could either call either a jaundiced view of the world or one with few illusions. So that the 1939 WPA almanac to San Francisco (subtitled an almanac for “Thirty-niners”) has a wry account of a disastrous July Fourth celebration in 1854, where everything possible went wrong. Americans of the 1930s saw a world that held both farm foreclosures and bank robberies, a world that Woody Guthrie captured in the last two stanzas of “Pretty Boy Floyd”:
Well as through this world I’ve rambled
I’ve seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six gun
And some with a fountain pen
But if through this world you wander
If through this world you roam
You won’t ever see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Monday, June 22, 2009
Seventy years ago this week, the WPA Guide to New York City came out amid a campaign blitz of jingles and quiz games. In 1939, as America emerged from the worst of the Depression, the “working press” that remained after a decade of contraction of the publishing industry assessed the work of people holding “welfare jobs” on the WPA. A job on the WPA Writers’ Project carried “a stigma of the lowest order,” as a former WPA editor observed, “a dark and embarrassing symbol of a time of their lives when circumstances beyond their control compelled them to admit, on public record, personal defeat.” John Cheever and others felt that sting, and for decades nobody wanted to revisit it.
At the time, they hoped that the guide would speak for itself. In 1938, Richard Wright had whetted the appetites of New York radio listeners for the WPA guide, promising that the guidebook would “go behind the scenes and show that phase of Harlem which the casual visitor or tourist does not see.” When the guide came out on June 24,1939 English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner gave an interview during a visit to the WPA offices on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, where she proclaimed the Writers’ Project “the most exciting experiment that has ever been carried out.” The New York Times reviewer called the guidebook “a dictionary to the city” sprinkled with engaging history and contemporary stories; it “should find a place in every New York household.”
For decades, the guide was passed among people curious about that changing landscape. Michael Chabon used the New York guide as a walking companion for months as he prowled the streets and subway lines while researching The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Grace Paley, having grown up in the Bronx in the 1940s, understood how the WPA connected its writers to the city. The Writers’ Project, she said, was “marvelous at helping people to find their own ears” and getting people “talking about what their lives were really like.” And the legendary Times editor R.W. Apple, Jr. used the WPA guides often in his travels, having been a fan since he came across the Virginia volume during a stint in the Army in the late 1950s and it led him to ruined plantation homes that had fallen off other maps.
When I came upon the New York City guide, its short list of the editorial staff, with Wright and Cheever nestled amid less-remembered names, intrigued me. I loved the cinematic capsules of life in the neighborhood essays. But beyond the stylistic turns, it was often simple facts that made me pause: the catalog of radio call letters, subway routes, and accounts of sidewalk hawkers and preachers.
Many of the WPA writers found the experience of producing the book an opportunity for interpreting their own histories. At a panel held at the New York Public Library in 1983, Ralph Ellison defended the WPA regional and ethnic histories. “One of the things that the WPA did,” he said, “was to allow that intermixture between the formal and the folk -- the real experience of people as they feel it.” The WPA books filled gaps that “official” history had left blank, including African-American history. “Let’s face it,” he said, “you couldn’t find the truth about my background in that history.”
With the invocations of the Great Depression today, the most striking parallel may be the searching and sifting process itself, the effort to make sense of things in hard times after years when there was little will to question the status quo. That kind of sifting may appear to be a process of restating simple facts about our lives and then finding something new.
“We are a country which improvises,” Ellison said that evening at the library. “We are creating American history ... We must still improvise our culture and we do that best when we make use of all that is at hand.”
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Friday, May 8, 2009
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Yesterday there was a good crowd at the Library of Congress despite the midafternoon timing for a panel about Soul of a People and the Federal Writers' Project. Andrea Kalin (the film's director), David Royle (Smithsonian ChannelHD) and Peggy Bulger (American Folklife Center) joined me in discussing how the book and film came about and what these stories mean. Peggy talked about how modern folklore grew out of the Writers' Project experience, and John Cole (Center for the Book) told a story about the Library's role in retrieving some of the lost files of the FWP.