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