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.