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.