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.