Friday, December 18, 2009

Jobs and the WPA Guide to Florida

The WPA Guide to Florida, which marks its 70th anniversary this week, is unlike other travel guides, as I wrote in yesterday’s Florida Times-Union. The guide tells stories from the ground up, with little gloss. The entry for Belle Glade in one breath praises the area’s lush fertility and, in the next, acknowledges that African-Americans working the harvest had to be, by law, “off the streets by 10:30 p.m.” As Stetson Kennedy, one Florida WPA writer, recently told a St. Augustine blog, “We wanted to show the warts, like the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and Jim Crow laws,” not just palms and bathing beauties. 
    The WPA guide came out amid an anxious campaign blitz. In December 1939, as America emerged from the worst of the Depression, a divide remained between many skeptics of the New Deal and the WPA scribblers. A WPA job, as a former WPA worker says in Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, was “a stigma of the lowest order, 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.”
    Zora Neale Hurston felt that sting. For decades she didn’t want to mark any WPA anniversary. Yet the WPA job saw Hurston through a hard time, and for the Florida guide she wrote up heartbreaking episodes and rich folk tales that people on the Gulf Coast told each other. (There's more on Hurston and Kennedy in Soul of a People.)
    Then as now, any federal job program was a hot-button issue. A Gallup poll in 1939 found that in the run-up to a presidential election, more voters ranked WPA relief as the worst part of FDR’s government than any other — far ahead of farm subsidies, foreign policy or even packing the Supreme Court. Yet, the same poll also found that more respondents (28 percent) ranked WPA relief as his greatest accomplishment.
    Some WPA writers found the experience of producing the WPA books an education. I mentioned in an earlier post an event in 1983 where Ralph Ellison, who began writing fiction while on the WPA, defended it as more than make-work. The WPA, he said, ushered people’s history into official history, and allowed an “intermixture between the formal and the folk — the real experience of people as they feel it.”
    Now as the unemployment rate hovers in double digits and we consider the recent jobs summit, we might open the WPA Guide to Florida for more than landmarks and customs. It might inspire the kind of employment that brings future benefits and a clearer view of where we are.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Meridel Le Sueur Pioneered Women's Stories on the WPA

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.

Watch a free screening of Soul of a People this Wednesday at the American Art Museum in Washington, DC. Le Sueur's work was featured recently at the St. Paul public library.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Cold Thanksgiving on the Great Lakes

For this Thanksgiving weekend, a story of friendship and a holiday on the seas from Michigander Fred Smith, interviewed by WPA writer Jerome Power in the 1930s at the home of Smith's sister.
Smith was born in Iona, Michigan in 1885 and at 13 stowed away on a sailing ship to become a sailor on the Great Lakes. At age 52, he had broad shoulders, a rolling gait, “bronzed features” and a ready smile. For a sailor, he had “less than usual profanity and blasphemy in his speech.” His story about friend and fellow mariner Jack McNellis:
I have a vivid memory of how he was initiated as a wheel man many years ago. We were in Duluth, about Thanksgiving time, when we both shipped as part of the crew to take a yacht through the lakes to Brooklyn, New York. The name of the yacht was the "Salt Lake City". She had what is known as an open bridge, that is, the man at the wheel had no protection against the weather. Jack had experience as a wheel man and thought he was pretty good, too. The skipper assigned him to the wheel, which was all right with Jack, since that work pays more money than an ordinary A.B. He forgot to figure on the weather, however, on Lake Superior, at that late season. Cold rain, snow, sleet like bullets and plenty of fog was the daily dish. Poor Jack was so frozen when he came off duty that he could barely get the ice out of his system before it was time to take the wheel again. We kidded him a lot but I am quite certain he would have died rather than funk on the job. He stuck and we brought the yacht to Brooklyn without more than the usual difficulty … Jack and I are great friends and when we meet these days always talk about this trip, taken when we were both young sailors.
Smith’s story is on the Library of Congress site. Next week if you’re in Battle Creek, catch a free screening of Soul of a People.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Taking it to the Rocky Mountain State

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

Talking Books in the Texas Legislature

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

“I Was Picketing with a Camera”

Documentary pioneer Leo Seltzer, whose 1930s films are featured in the film Soul of a People, is the subject of my post today on the Writer's Center blog, First Person Plural. In his 90s, Leo shared his experience and views with me in several conservations in his home in Manhattan. He also shared a rare print of this film he made for the WPA Art Project in 1938.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Many Voices Sounding from the 1930s

This post honors the range of voices that emerged from the Writers’ Project. Marking crime novelist Jim Thompson’s 103rd birthday a few weeks ago, my piece on his work with the Oklahoma Writers’ Project is now posted on the Smithsonian Channel’s site. Thompson’s empathy with criminals and crime victims alike comes through in his writings for the WPA and in the true-crime pieces that he was writing for pulp magazines like True Detective and Master Detective.
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

Harvey Pekar Channels Studs Terkel and Honors Oral History

“Why Studs Terkel?” asked the man on stage at the Wisconsin Book Festival Sunday. “Why Harvey Pekar?”
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

An Important Piece of Our Cultural Heritage

John Woods, in his review, says Soul of a People consists of "the stories and history of arguably an important piece of our twentieth century cultural heritage along with insights into what life was like during the Depression. For this reason alone, it is worth reading, but beyond that, any aspiring writer should appreciate that even for the great writers, things didn’t always come easily."
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

Looking at History a New Way

On the National Mall last weekend, the National Book Festival brought out more than 100,000 readers and book lovers, an encouraging sight. In the History tent, we discussed the Federal Writers' Project and its democratic experiment, and the challenged posed to it in 1938 by the House Un-American Activities Committee under Martin Dies. Douglas Brinkley affirmed the influence of the FWP across decades and literary careers. And we noted the recent passing of Milton Meltzer, a WPA author who went on to write nearly 100 ground-breaking history books and receive the ALA Laura Ingalls Wilder medal in 2001. Meltzer invigorated history books for children with a new sense of America. Meltzer once asked, “What is the relevance of all this history to the young?” And he answered: “Ours is not a past of sweetness and light, no matter what the textbook tells us.”
This weekend Soul of a People events continue in Baltimore and Fairfax, Virginia.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

1930s culture coming to a screen near you...

This Saturday the 26th I'll be at the National Book Festival talking with historian Douglas Brinkley about the WPA writers and what they found in 1930s America. Doug generously wrote the foreword for Soul of a People and appears in the film. After our talk in the History tent we'll head to the C-SPAN tent for a call-in show around 11 am.
This Saturday is also Museum Day, and for that Smithsonian magazine offers a coupon for free admission at hundreds of museums across the United States. Find a participating museum near you, and then find out if they're showing Soul of a People that day (some are). Then let us know what you think about the Writers' Project as an experiment in democracy.
Morris Dickstein has a fine essay in the current American Scholar about 1930s American culture, including the WPA Writers' Project and how they portrayed "an America under siege, gazing inward, taking an inventory of itself 150 years after becoming a nation." As if to underscore its significance, the National Book Foundation's poll this week, choosing the best National Book Award fiction author ever, includes three former WPA writers (Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty and John Cheever) among its six finalists.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Illinois Guide Anniversary and a Voice Against Intolerance

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 HonorĂ© 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

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hearing a Culture Change in Florida

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

Iconoclast Rode the Rails for the WPA Guides

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

Smithsonian Channel Gears Up for the 1930s

With the Soul of a People film screened in Chicago last week and slated for national broadcast on September 6th, the Smithsonian Channel is getting ready and has posted my talk with web producer Gina Buchanan, about the WPA guides, where you can find them, the WPA Writers' Project as reality show (featuring Louis L'Amour and Harry Partch), and what you can discover in their work now. And what would we find if we retrace their routes today? The sound quality is truly vintage! Show them I have friends and have a listen here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

An Almanac entry for Magicians Day

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the California WPA guide, the only Book-of-the-Month selection among the guidebooks. We also pause to note the 1939 San Francisco almanac (subtitled "An Almanac for Thirty-niners") and its observance of Magicians Day on July 16. Sounds like something Kenneth Rexroth, while editing in the WPA San Francisco office, would have appreciated. The following day's entry marks the anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone, in 1853, of the city's first cathedral, Old St. Mary's, on Grant Ave. and California Street. Check out California's Living New Deal Project for landmarks in 1930s California today.

Friday, July 10, 2009

You can now see the Soul of a People talk filmed for CSPAN's BookTV online. Good questions! Good discussion! Check it out.
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of the WPA guide to Nebraska (Soul of a People includes the story of how that guidebook was edited by Rudolph Umland, a former hobo, and poet-novelist-painter Weldon Kees, among others.) It's still a good read, and one of my favorites in the series.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Public Enemies and the WPA Writers

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

More Soul of a People events this summer

Fun events exploring the Writers' Project and its discoveries of American life continue at libraries across the country this summer and into the fall. Besides those listed below in an earlier post, there are more posted in Connecticut, Illinois, MissouriMontana, Long Island, NY, Ohio, OklahomaTexas, and Virginia. The Wichita library, which is holding a Life in the 1930s event this Sunday, has added an impressive digital exhibit on hard times, renewal and resilience in Kansas here.

More will be coming in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan (never realized there were so many 'M' states), Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. A list of websites for all the participating libraries is at the site of the American Library Association.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Seeing the Shadow City: Anniversary for the WPA Guide to New York City

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

Traveling to Carolina with the WPA Guide

For my trip to Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill last week I checked out the WPA guide to North Carolina from the local library. In Durham, WUNC host Frank Stasio had probing questions on the WPA experience and its relevance today -- you can hear the show online. We read from the 1939 guide about the work-day rhythm at the American Tobacco Factory building, now home to the WUNC studio along with other offices and restaurants, and Carolina-bred plott hounds.
At Quail Ridge Books that night, a lively discussion touched on the political factors that made the WPA arts projects happen: new legislation combined with protests by out-of-work writers and editors in early 1935. Any sign of policies like that coming up now? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Grassroots history

Not long ago I was in Richmond, VA to tape an interview with Liz Humes at WRIR and a talk about the Writers' Project at the Fountain Bookstore. A lot of good questions, which you'll get to hear when Book TV broadcasts the session sometime soon. 
For now just two: One questioner drew the link between the Writers' Project and the recordings of folk songs and lore that came later, such as Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, issued by Folkways in the 1950s. Another asked how a comparable attempt today at getting local history and people's stories might get started. Libraries and their patrons -- and the discussions and events this summer and fall -- could be a good start. Many will include local historians talking about grassroots histories, and helping people record oral histories.
This Friday we head to North Carolina for a talk on WUNC's The State of Things and a gathering at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. See you there.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Soul of a People events and resources in the states

Libraries are putting on a lively range of events nationwide, raising issues about the Writers' Project, its contributions and what it means for us now. Here are some fabulously rich sites for events in New Mexico, Kansas, and Tennessee
Here are three more for events in Florida, Indiana and North Carolina. More coming...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Soul of a People at the Library of Congress

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. 
Good questions on how the WPA guides got edited, and which FWP staff became activists from the experience. In time a webcast will be posted on the site of the Center for the Book, here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Q&A on Mark Athitakis blog

Mark Athitakis, whose book reviews have appeared Washington City Paper and elsewhere and whose blog has ranked on various lists of top literary blogs, posted a Q&A about Soul of a People here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Richard Wright Honored by Former Employer

In a long-0verdue acknowledgement of a native son, last week the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a stamp honoring Richard Wright. One of the better stories about it appeared on BetterEditor, which includes comments from Wright's daughter Julia on how her father's early job as a post office clerk inspired Barack Obama and many other African Americans who know the story of his rise. After Wright lost his job at the post office during the Great Depression, he found a spot on the Federal Writers' Project in Chicago. He researched the history of African Americans in Illinois and wrote essays for the WPA guide to Illinois, and later New York City, while writing and honing his fiction. It's fitting that the address where you send off for the first Wright stamps is a post office in Chicago.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Personal Efforts for Democracy

In an article about life in China today you wouldn't expect to find a reminder of 1930s America and the Writers' Project, but yesterday's New York Times had this article, about a 75-year-old retired professor, Sun Wenguang, who was beaten while making a private visit to a cemetery to commemorate a sympathizer of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiannamen Square (not a student leader of the protests but a Communist Party leader sympathetic to them). Mr. Sun's action wasn't a public statement, so the brutality of thugs who didn't want him to remember that episode -- who wanted to erase the memory of pro-democracy sympathizers 20 years ago -- took him by surprise. "I didn't expect this," he admitted. "It was just a personal visit to a cemetery."
It can be easy to underestimate the power of private actions and seemingly apolitical thoughts. But in the 1930s when many Americans felt beaten down, the WPA guides and "life histories" documented ordinary people's experiences to show that they mattered. Benjamin Botkin, who led the effort to collect those life histories (or "oral histories") called them the country's living culture, and said that they show how a democracy functions. Soul of a People is a testimonial to that power of telling people's stories.
"In order to fight for democracy," said Mr. Sun from his hospital bed the other day, "we need to make personal efforts."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Introducing Soul of a People

Soul of a People, my book about the Federal Writers' Project, is out and I'm happy that it's sparking dialogue about that episode and the people involved in it. The film that Andrea Kalin and I have co-directed is almost done and will be seen in a few months. Meanwhile Art Taylor had some probing questions in a Q&A he posted on his blog here.