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.