Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New Deal Arts After the Election

Last month I joined a group at the FDR Memorial Library in Hyde Park, NY, which hosted a discussion of the New Deal’s Enduring Legacy, focused on the arts programs. In the wake of the mid-term election, it was a chance to assess how Americans dealt with unemployment crises and culture. The Poughkeepsie Journal covered it in this article.
    People noted today's parallels with 1938, another mid-term election when Republicans reclaimed seats in Congress, that time a backlash against the New Deal. In the debate leading up to those elections, the WPA projects were a lightning rod.
American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work    In his overview, Nick Taylor, author of American-Made, observed that government support for the arts is always a tough sell to the American public. He noted that federal contracts officers, too, weren’t used to dealing with artists. For instance, why couldn’t WPA artists all use the same type of paint, so they could order by the barrel? Peggy Bulger from the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center added to the picture of how music and folklore got preserved at a critical juncture.
    I made several points about the Writers’ Project and how it helped innovate in the wake of the newspaper closures of the 1930s. College kids with short resumés like Jim Thompson, Margaret Walker and Ralph Ellison got on their feet with WPA writing jobs, plus a firsthand sense of what writers contributed to society. The older jobless got a life raft, short term. My main point, though, was that the arts programs left a long-tailed creative connection to American life for decades afterward. FDR said at the time, "One hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not its relief.”
    Susan Quinn, author of Furious Improvisation, about the WPA Theater Project, told the story of Orson Welles’ time with the WPA and how the play The Cradle Will Rock, staged in Manhattan amid a wave of strikes, brought drama down Broadway as cast, crew and audience all paraded from the theater where they were shut out to another space. The show went on. (See the 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock.)
    Cynthia Koch, director of the FDR Library, discussed the WPA arts legacy in the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, including NEA battles of the 1980s and the resurgent culture wars now. Good points from the live audience and from others, emailed in. C-SPAN3 will air the Arts & History event December 26 and again January 1 and 2.
    And still we have an unemployment rate hovering above 9%.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Powerful Woman from East Side: Anzia Yezierska

Anzia Yezierska paved the way for great storytellers like Grace Paley, who read Yezierska’s stories and novels of Jewish immigrant life as a young woman. Yezierska probed the tensions within families and the dilemmas facing women before anyone else. She resisted her mother’s traditional role and her father’s paternalism, and she struggled for a way to carve out her own identity.
    "She was in the Lower East Side, which in a sense was much more densely immigrant than East Bronx," where Paley grew up, Paley said in a 2004 interview. Speaking of Yezierska’s stories, she said: "I loved them. I really read her later, when I began to read stories again and get away from 'literature.' When I got away from 'literature' I became close to the literature that I had to do."
    Last week a blog post noted how Yezierska’s book Hungry Hearts became a Hollywood movie in 1922 produced by the Goldwyn Company. Some scenes were filmed in the markets of the Lower East Side. It premiered in theaters on December 3, 1922.
    Yezierska rode a rollercoaster, going from sweatshops on the Lower East Side to Los Angeles, where she received $200 per week as a screenwriter. "Yezierska was overwhelmed by her portrayal in the popular press as a 'sweatshop Cinderella,'" says the blog.  She left Hollywood after only a few months.
    She later chronicled the Great Depression in the 1930s and her time as a WPA writer with a clear eye for the pain experienced by the downwardly mobile. She expressed the acute shame of joblessness in a memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse:
Friends retreated before my failing fortunes just as I had once run away from my own poor people. Occasionally I ran into some of the celebrities with whom I used to dine at the Algonquin. At first I was naïve enough to greet them with the warmth I felt at the sight of a familiar face. Only after I saw their embarrassment did I learn to avoid noticing them at all.
    Like so many others, Yezierska experienced the shame as if it were her fault. Later she embraced the idea that this anti-Cinderella story – her return to poverty – was a more universal story that she should tell. (This video clip introduces her in Soul of a People.)
    Red Ribbon on a White Horse became a bestseller in 1950. To help it sell, W.H. Auden, who was already a famous poet, wrote a preface. Looking back, he called the Writers' Project "the most noble and absurd undertaking ever attempted by any state. No other [government] has ever cared whether its artists as a group lived or died."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Richard Wright, 50 Years On

Fifty years ago today, Richard Wright died in Paris, just over 50 years old. From a poor sharecropping family in Mississippi, he grew up in a single-parent household and made his way in Chicago toward stability and into his life as an author. He became the poet, as Isabel Wilkerson writes in The Warmth of Other Suns, of the Great Migration (the title of her book comes from Wright).
    What I found in exploring Wright’s letters and work in research for Soul of a People was, first, how much the Writers’ Project connected young writers and helped shape Wright’s own path. He charted his move from Chicago to New York in 1937 as a way to get to the heart of American publishing, and his instrument for that was the Project. “When I go tonight, I will have forty dollars in my pocket,” he told his friend Margaret Walker as they rode the El his last night in Chicago. Wright hoped he could swing a transfer to the Writers’ Project office in Manhattan. He confided, “I hope I’m not making a mistake, going this way.”
    Even after he burst on the New York literary scene with Uncle Tom’s Children and later with the bestseller Native Son (which benefitted from Walker’s research in Chicago), Wright remembered friends from his WPA days. He kept up a startling and often funny dialogue with Nelson Algren for years (see Algren's postcard above, and this piece in the American Scholar), and mentored younger writers. Wright was a complex and charged personality, and no loyalty was easy. Yet in a Town Hall radio debate about the New Deal projects in April 1939, Wright spoke up for the increasingly unpopular arts programs. As a young black writer, he said, the WPA’s cultural programs served “to keep alive in the hearts of youth the dream of a free and equal mankind, a dream which, if allowed to die, will open the gates to a ruthless and brutal tide of fascism…”
    Today, in honor of Wright, the teachers’ seminar at the University of Kansas known as The Wright Connection, asks people to share impressions about Wright as they have come to know him, through reading, teaching, and otherwise. Says director Maryemma Graham, “We want to use the 50th anniversary to promote further readings and rereadings, to locate new avenues to and from Wright for our students, and engage Wright through contemporary forms of scholarly inquiry.” She points to their website for postings, where you’ll find her own reflections along with those of Wright's daughter Julia and others.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Big Night for Soul of a People

Soul of a People: Writing America's Story took home multiple awards from the Peer Awards ceremony recently. The awards, given by the Washington, DC chapter of the Television, Internet & Video Association (TIVA), represent recognition of filmmakers by their colleagues in filmmaking. Andrea Kalin and her production team at Spark Media took awards in nine categories, and Soul of a People won four: best scriptwriting (nonfiction, >30 minutes), best original composition (for Joseph Vitarelli), a silver for sound mixing, and the night's top honor, the Best of DC Award.
    We were happy to share the evening with representatives from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provided major funding for the film, and our partners at the Library of Congress.
    I'm thrilled to be part of that winning team and proud of what we produced in a documentary about everyday people at a crucial point in American history. As cultural historian Maryemma Graham, one of our commentators, says in the film, the WPA writers' experience "forces us not to divide people, books, good literature from one another. It makes America recognize where those values come from, and how they get re-affirmed through literature."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Un-American, the Label

Here we mark the release of a new DVD box set of Humphrey Bogart films, including his memorable angry man in Black Legion (watch a trailer here), about a clandestine fascist KKK-like group during the Depression. Fascist groups in America? That’s un-American.
    But what is un-American anyway? Joseph McCarthy kicked up dust with the term with his anti-Communist hunt in the 1950s, but the concept goes back much further. (Are Americans unique in our outraged determination to define what we aren’t? Do you hear about un-French activities, or un-Chinese?) Other countries might use the term ‘traitorous,’ but that’s not quite the same thing.
    The OED finds the first use of un-American in 1818, barely a generation after the United States became a nation. Later Theodore Roosevelt tried to define the term as simple extremism. He wrote, “Everything is un-American that tends either to government by a plutocracy or government by a mob.”
    Maybe that’s what Rand Paul meant in May when he called the Obama administration’s efforts to make BP responsible for the Gulf clean-up un-American. Or maybe it was just a handy word for lighting a fire.
    The first Congressional attempt to uproot un-American-ness began in 1938 as war clouds gathered overseas. Texas congressman Martin Dies chaired the House Committee on Un-American Activities, known popularly as HUAC, with considerable public support. In Gallup polls at the time, Americans placed Dies above FDR on a list of patriots. Dies had his own criteria for un-American, but they were elusive.
    Martin Dies said he found potentially un-American content about labor history in the WPA guides, and about race in an essay by Richard Wright on “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” that appeared in a 1937 anthology by WPA writers called American Stuff. (American Stuff also included songs from inmates in Southern prisons gathered by John Lomax, Jim Thompson’s short story about an oil-worker who runs amok on a rampage of rape and murder, and a Kenneth Rexroth poem.)
    As historian Douglas Brinkley said about Dies in an interview for Soul of a People, “When he’s talking about un-American, it’s people that have funny last names.”
    That echoes Frank Taylor, Bogart’s embittered auto worker in Black Legion: “No matter what it is or who commenced it, I’m against it,” Frank growls. “Especially if they’re after my job and have an unpronounceable last name.” Bogart himself held more progressive views.
    Un-American has often been used to refer to deeply ingrained aspects of American life that the speaker would like to amputate: Racism, greed and class strife have been as likely to get labeled un-American as Communism, hedonism and any other -ism. In this sense, the un-American label is like a tourniquet someone uses to isolate a limb that they think is causing trauma to the body politic. What's really causing the trauma is another story.
    When the cry of "Un-American!" makes a resurgence - often with an election coming - it's worth figuring out what it says about the person who wields it before looking at who they’re attacking.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Documenting Kansas, a Work in Progress

This online exhibit by Dr. Lorraine Madway at Wichita State University shows Kansas during the Depression, the only decade in Kansas history when the state population declined. The photos by FSA photographers show the scorched earth of the Dust Bowl and government efforts at soil reclamation, as well as tight-rope performers that Russell Lee noticed at the 4-H club fair in Cimarron.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Man Named L'Amour

Louis L'Amour, one of the bestselling writers of Westerns in history, started out writing for the WPA guide to Oklahoma under the direction of noir novelist Jim Thompson. Born Louis LaMoore in North Dakota, he regaled other WPA staff with tales from travels to Africa and Asia. He helped organize a Southwest Writers’ Conference in May 1937 and often visited the Thompsons’ house for dinner. Over time, Thompson tired of LaMoore’s tall tales. In L'Amour's memoir An Education of a Wandering Man, he wrote,
Education of a Wandering ManAt the time I settled down in Oklahoma to become a writer or else, the short story was the thing. There were many magazines publishing short stories... However, they paid very little, and the number of people who could write quality stories... far exceeded the market... I had to make a living from my writing, and that meant work and lots of it.
    Somehow he left out mention of his time working on the WPA. But L'Amour did note that the Writers' Project "sent out people to interview old-timers and gather what material they could... The interviews vary in quality, but some are excellent and most contain information important to history."  
    Tomorrow night in L'Amour's beloved West, the Colorado Springs Arts Center will show Soul of a People: Writing America's Story.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Confucius Visits D.C. for his Birthday

Maybe you don’t expect to see Confucius commemorated on his birthday in a U.S. public library, but on September 25 that’s what you will find in the main DC public library downtown. The Chinese philosopher and educator gets his 2,561st birthday blowout not with a cake but with a musical celebration of his influential ideas and his Analects.
    It’s not such a surprising fit, after all, with the institution of American public libraries and their democratic principle of self-education with a library card.
    And yes, the great man appears in the WPA guides too. The 1939 WPA Guide to California visits the Tin How Temple in San Francisco, on Waverly Place, the “oldest Chinese joss house in San Francisco,” and for that matter, the oldest Chinese temple in the United States. In 1939 you could go up to the fourth floor and ring for entry, and inside you'd find the centuries-old main altar, covered with gold leaf and carvings depicting scenes from the life of Confucius.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Jobs Stimulus Stutters and Echoes

The Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial is one of many voices saying that President Obama's stimulus has been less than stimulating for new jobs, and that his proposed second round is a recognition of that. It's worth remembering that FDR's New Deal didn't come in one straightforward push either: there was a first phase with financial reform (heard about that) and the National Recovery Administration. When that wasn't enough to kickstart the economy, FDR created larger programs like the WPA, unprecedented in scale and impact.
    Some conservative bloggers have said that by 1939, when many of the New Deal programs ended, unemployment hovered around 19%. They imply that the programs were failures. They don't say that when the New Deal began, unemployment was nearly twice that level, and had dropped to 14.3% in 1937 before an uptick as the programs ended.
    Our recession today isn't on the same scale as the Great Depression. Don't let a false comparison suggest that the New Deal didn't get people back to work.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Documenting the Lone Star State

The Texas WPA writers came up against some of the most virulent anti-WPA sentiment anywhere, and it was stoked by a Texas congressman Martin Dies from Beaumont. That didn't stop them from producing a clear-eyed view of the state, including hot-button topics like labor history and poverty, such as this recap of the violence between unions and union busters:
Longshoremen on Houston's cotton docks
In the early 1930s the longshoremen at Houston and in the chief shipping centers of southeast Texas, although organized along craft lines, developed a strong militant unit… In 1934 striking longshoremen, strikebreaker guards, and non-union workers clashed frequently and violently for four months. On one occasion three men were killed. The oil workers are the largest group of the Texas membership of the CIO…
And this look at culture, poverty and housing problems in cities like San Antonio:
In west San Antonio are odd shops, women wrapped in black rebozos huddling over baskets of freshly made tortillas, and brilliant paper flowers… The poorer section covers about 25 blocks… The very poor live in housing conditions devoid of comfort… In 1936 a slum clearance program was begun by the city… more than 2,300 houses were razed or closed… The necessities of the very poor have been exploited by various interests… In 1934, the average piece work wage for a 54-hour week was $1.56.
These excerpts appear in honor of their work on the guidebook, published 70 years ago yesterday (Sept. 7, 1940). Don't mess with Texas.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Coming to America Stories - Free for a few days

There's nothing like hearing it from the horse's mouth. Listen to Lawrence Meinwald relive the emotional charge he felt seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time in 1920, or hear Millvina Dean, last living survivor of the Titanic.
    For a few days -- until Monday, September 6, reports the Times -- you can listen for free to stories from oral histories recorded with people who immigrated to the U.S. through Ellis Island. Recorded by the National Park Service, the recordings have up to now been accessible only if you went to the Ellis Island park.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When Work Relief was Murder

Work relief on a scale as massive as the WPA struck Americans of the 1930s with numbed amazement – it was radically bigger than any such effort up to then. It immediately triggered appalled reactions in essays, radio, fiction and pop music. Tunesmiths already riffed on the plight of unemployment, but with the WPA came songs like “Pink-Slip Blues” (the original ‘pink slips’ were the bureaucratic notices that told workers their time on WPA relief was up) and “WPA Blues.”
    Louis Armstrong teamed up with the Mills Brothers to record “W.P.A.” with the classic lines, “Sleep while you work while you rest while you play/Lean on your shovel to pass the time away.../The WPA.”
    In fiction, what better way to sell a novel than by combining a timely topic with a whodunit? That at least was the idea of the 1937 novel by Alexander Williams titled Murder in the WPA. In that, a bewildered agent is told to find out who killed a WPA supervisor in New Jersey. As the plot unfolds, it reveals many suspects: disgruntled employees (some who got the pink slip), political rivals, and more.
    Political cartoons skewered the WPA at every turn. Studs Terkel recalls in Soul of a People how Chicago Tribune cartoons on the front page mocked WPA workers as boondogglers, a term for thumb-twiddling taken from old westerns. If the humiliation and stress of being out of work wasn’t enough for you, just pick up the newspaper.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Museum Presents Life when the Depression Hit the Pacific Northwest

Along the Oregon coast, the landscape and a new exhibit in Cannon Beach point to the ways people made it through a previous hard time. Read the story in the local paper or at the museum's website.
    Russell Lee's FSA photo shows fishing boats in Astoria, OR.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Adventures in Animating Real Stories

The New York Times recently reported that StoryCorps will release animated short films based on interviews that ordinary people have recorded in the nearly seven years of StoryCorps' existence. (Their approach was inspired by the WPA Writers' Project, creator Dave Isay told me for Smithsonian way back when.) This opens a door for taking the stories of real people into an imaginative new dimension. It requires relatively little money and an eye for a good, revealing story. They have a first sample online here.
    It helps if you have broadcast-quality voices from the original storyteller, as in the StoryCorps case, but the WPA Life Histories online hold gems that would work well as animated shorts too.
    Try this: Find 2 or 3 vivid episodes in a life history (maybe in your home state, or not) and imagine a two-minute video for one of them.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Decoding Mad Men with Cheever

With Ossining, New York as the locale of Don Draper's broken home in the TV series Mad Men, notes the New York Times, "If 'Mad Men' came with a decoder ring it would surely spell out: Read John Cheever."
    Cheever delved beyond the idylls of suburbia to find the mixed blessings beneath the surface in his prize-winning stories. Before he became the Ovid of Ossining, he learned the layers of American life and complexity writing about Manhattanites, including his stint on the New York Writers' Project, finishing up the WPA guide to the city.
    “One of Cheever’s most prominent themes is that things are not what they seem,” notes Blake Bailey, Cheever's biographer. In that, Cheever has much in common with fellow WPA alumni Richard Wright and noir novelist Jim Thompson (whose The Killer Inside Me was remade as a film released this year). Thompson's biographer Robert Polito says in Soul of a People, "Thompson said that Karl Marx gave him a language to understand his life, and he later put that in literary terms. He said that there were 32 ways of telling a story but really only one plot: that things are not what they seem."
    Wright similarly wrote of African American life in 12 Million Black Voices, penned while he was on the New York writers' project with Cheever: "Each day when you see us black folk upon the dusty land of the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem…"
    Maybe this is only natural. The Great Depression heightened writers' awareness of the contradictions in American life. As literary historian Maryemma Graham notes in the current issue of Poets & Writers, WPA writers discovered "the possibility that there was another story of America that had remained untold..."

Friday, July 9, 2010

Birth of the Reality Show

You could call the Federal Writers’ Project the first reality show, with contestants thrown together from all walks of life vying for a chance to get a job doing real writing, not just emergency relief. Their challenge, more chaotic and impossible than a gourmet snack-food quickfire test on Top Chef: ‘Keep it real’ and paint America's portrait in guidebooks and the words of people floundering in hard times.
    Or you might argue the roots of the genre lie somewhere else in that period. During the Depression many writers engaged their readers in a kind of Survivor contest, challenging the reader directly to get through new and harrowing encounters. Ernest Hemingway practiced a brutal version of this in a New Masses article about the Florida hurricane of 1935, where he frog-marched his reader through a ruined landscape where hundreds of World War I veterans died working on a battered WPA highway in the Florida Keys. An outraged Hemingway spares you nothing and forces you to handle the bodies:
    “Hey, there’s another one,” Papa says. “Turn him over. Face tumefied beyond recognition…” After pushing you to turn grey and vomit, Hemingway by the end of the article is ready to kill you off the way the veterans died: “a high wall of water rolls you over and over… You’re dead now, brother.”
    That would teach readers of New Masses a lesson! “But presumably if you had survived,” William Stott writes in Documentary Expression and Thirties America, “this imagined death, as Hemingway did, you would try to do what he was trying to do with his article: bring to justice those 'who left you there in the hurricane months on the Keys.'”
    The WPA writers didn’t take it quite that far, but the life history interviews take you deep into their narrators’ experiences. In some cases, it was up to you to survive, for example, the vagaries of a corrupt local mafia, like one Fort Worth family in Soul of a People.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Seeing Where WPA Materials Lead Library Patrons

There's a round-up of experiences and lessons from the recent series of events in 29 libraries across the country here, based on presentations at the ALA annual conference in Washington last week. Good stuff! And a cool slideshow montage of those libraries' programs too.
    Also, the dvd of Soul of a People: Writing America's Story is now available to buy. It includes bonus scenes from an interview with Studs Terkel, among others.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Works in Philadelphia

I look forward to the free event at the Free Library in Philly next week, June 29 at 7:30 pm. Philadelphia Speaks reminded me of the WPA art in that city. And here's a City Paper piece on Philadelphian Ennis Carter's look at the bold WPA posters. See you there.

Friday, June 4, 2010

WPA Guides and Cities of the Imagination - Part 2

Across the country, WPA guides were coming out to a publicity blitz. The guide to California was considered strong enough to become a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. A young artist and poet emigré from Chicago, Kenneth Rexroth, worked an editor for the California guide in its San Francisco office, and typed up hiking routes for the guide on the Sierras. (More on this in the book.)
WPA Poster (S) A guide to the golden state from the past to the present California history and cultu
    Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Martin Dies, a Texas congressman, led the first House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of the WPA and branded several WPA guides as enemy propaganda for what he considered leftist commentary on labor and race issues. The political tide was turning against the WPA as the federal budget tightened for war. In time, FDR repositioned the WPA guides as patriotic; by 1942 when troops were shipping out for Europe and the Pacific, each G.I. received a copy of the WPA guide to his home state to remind him of the home he was fighting for.
    By that point, Vincent McHugh, who had led the WPA guide work in New York,  shipped out to the Pacific with the merchant marines.
    The WPA experience created a bond among its survivors in later years, although often tinged with bitterness. By the 1960s McHugh was on the West Coast, scraping out a living as a freelancer and occasional teacher. He told fellow WPA survivor Jerre Mangione, “The whole WPA experience seems to have gone uselessly down the drain.”
I Am Thinking of My Darling    Yet its creative imprint on McHugh’s work received a revival. His novel inspired by the WPA experience, I Am Thinking of My Darling, got its Hollywood moment in 1968 when a veteran of Marx Brothers films adapted it as What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? The film opens with an aerial over lower Manhattan, descending for closer views of jackhammer operators, traffic, shoppers and businessmen in bars, to the harbor and a freighter from Greece. Instead of the novel’s city planner, George Peppard plays an ad executive-turned-beatnik involved with Mary Tyler Moore, a disenchanted radical.
    Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to know McHugh in San Francisco, when McHugh would gather with others at Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore along with the Beats’ mentor... Kenneth Rexroth.
    McHugh, working with Ferlinghetti and a young Chinese poet named C.H. Kwock, set out to translate classical Chinese poems in a series of chapbooks. They enlisted a former spy and nightclub singer who had done translations for the American consulate in Hong Kong. McHugh and Kwock would visit Mr. Yao, the singer-translator, in a decrepit boardinghouse on the city’s former Barbary Coast, yelling up from an alley to get entry. Yao helped them produce an anthology that a Berkeley professor said had “an architectural beauty that no other translations of Chinese poetry ever did have.”
    City Lights distributed the first in the series, Why I Live on the Mountain. In that 1958 collection (reprinted in 1980), McHugh brought one poem from the T’ang dynasty into English with the title, “To Someone Far Away.” The poet recalls a lover he addresses as “pretty darling” and whose fragrance still lingers in his bed. “Pretty darling,” he ends wistfully, “never came back.”
    It’s as if McHugh were uniting his Pacific-facing life with the Manhattan he had immortalized in the WPA guide and in his own Darling, a kiss blown to his first-loved city from across the continent, from his last.

Friday, May 28, 2010

WPA Guides and Cities of the Imagination - Part 1

The WPA guides track fine-grained details of 1930s America, from the call signals of long lost radio stations to stories of tenement families. But what does that have to do with creativity? The main purpose of WPA work was a paycheck for the unemployed, after all. Yet Margaret Walker later wrote that the WPA fostered "what nobody believed was possible at that time -- a renaissance of the arts and American culture, and some of the most valued friendships in the literary history of the period."
    For years after Congress shut down the WPA writers’ budget in 1939, the only signs of any creative legacy rested on a few bestsellers, mainly Richard Wright’s Native Son, Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning, and a mostly-forgotten novel by Vincent McHugh, I Am Thinking of My Darling, which made the New York Times bestseller list and was optioned by RKO with Cary Grant. (You could argue for Zora Neale Hurston’s books Moses, Man of the Mountain and Dust Tracks on a Road, but neither got big sales, and Walker’s For My People -- poetry a bestseller?)
    Henry Alsberg, the national director of the Writers’ Project, did want to do more than put people to work. He wanted to gather up mid-century America and its cultures in mini encyclopedias for each state before it was all swept away. And he wanted people working on those guides to be creatively enriched. Eventually, you could say, the results bear him out: Looking down the roster of his staff in New York City alone is like reading a fortune cookie for American letters in the 20th century: John Cheever, Wright, and Ralph Ellison (his first writing job), along with poet May Swenson. Nationally the project rolls included Hurston, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Margaret Walker, Kenneth Rexroth, Meridel LeSueur, pulp writer Jim Thompson, western novelist Louis L’Amour, Arna Bontemps, Harry Partch, choreographer Katherine Dunham, and poet and painter Weldon Kees. Maybe more important are writers who gave voice to their regions, including Juanita Brooks and Vardis Fisher in the West, and Lorin Brown in the Southwest.
    But could you say in the mid-1940s that the Writers’ Project opened up the imaginations of even its successful writers? Here we look at the answer in terms of Vincent McHugh. He grew up in blue-collar Rhode Island in the 1920s, moved to New York, and wrote several novels and pieces for The New Yorker. Then in late 1936 the WPA called. The WPA guide to New York City had stalled under about eight million words of hodgepodge, a polarized staff, sit-in strikes, and a director who had to be sacked after an affair with an employee. Alsberg asked McHugh to take the job – a dubious personnel choice. Novelist as manager? McHugh accepted the challenge. He visited Washington for guidance but left quickly.
    "I never wanted to move to Washington," McHugh said later. "HQ was middle class and since I came from a working-class family I felt much more comfortable with the New York crowd."
    Back in New York, McHugh retrieved the only copy of the guidebook manuscript from the mayor’s office, where it was being held hostage. Mayor La Guardia was so worried by the warts-and-all portrait of the city that he threatened to pulp the manuscript. McHugh managed to pry the draft free but within a day it was stolen by one of the staff, who were bitterly divided between Trotskyites and Stalinists. After recovering the draft again, McHugh set about improving it. Eventually he got it on track toward publication as two volumes.
    As New York director, McHugh subverted Alsberg’s more arcane encyclopedic tendencies and refocused on the human details his staff found at the neighborhood level. In his 1943 novel, he would embrace the city through a science-fiction conceit: a pandemic of happiness and promiscuity breaks over everyone in New York. In a world consumed by fear and war, Manhattan becomes a beachhead of desire. Lawrence Ferlinghetti calls I Am Thinking of My Darling "one of those key forgotten novels that so acutely articulates a certain pre-World War II sensibility."
    McHugh himself got caught up in the hunt for the city’s stories and hit the pavement for fact-checking. Darling shows an intimacy with nooks and crannies of the city’s inner mechanisms, including the Weather Bureau on top of the Whitehall Building (see page 66 of the WPA guide). Against the sleepy, bureaucratic desks (“rather like the offices of an old-line shipping firm in the 1890s”) the windows reveal a thrilling seascape:
I looked out the high windows … There was no land in sight under us. Like the view from a clipper’s main truck. Governors Island in its eighteenth-century neatness of a fortified place, the Brooklyn shore, the hump of Staten Island in the blue. A quarter mile off the Battery, a middle-sized liner was being pushed in circles by three merry tugs, her siren going like a wounded bull.

McHugh helmed a staff of 500, including a young John Cheever. A high-school dropout from Quincy, Massachusetts, Cheever grumbled about his re-write work but was absorbing everything from waitresses’ conversation to Russian novels to the hyperreal world of European surrealists who had sought asylum in New York. Cheever’s stories later show those currents: “The Enormous Radio” channels the unkempt desires and frustrations of an apartment building’s residents through the frequencies of an errant home console, a “powerful and ugly instrument, with its mistaken sensibility to discord.”
    After McHugh left the WPA job in 1938, Cheever and a few others worked the guide into final shape for the printer. Cheever wrote several section introductions, including one for Manhattan. Michael Chabon, a fan of the guide, also found Cheever’s fingerprints in the guide’s description of a day at Coney Island.
    The late Grace Paley, who grew up in the East Bronx, saw how the WPA connected writers to the city. The Writers’ Project, Paley said, was “marvelous at helping people to find their own ears by getting them talking about what their lives were really like.”
    The WPA Guide to New York City came out in June 1939. McHugh had helped infuse it with what Chabon calls “the democratic, all-encompassing impulse that people have been using to look at New York City at least since the time of Walt Whitman.” In turn McHugh, notes Mark Singer, had become “enthralled by the whole business: tunnels, bridges, subways, public utilities, emergency services, harbor management, health care delivery…” and threw it into his next novel along with a highball of sex.
    Before starting his novel, though, McHugh proposed a nonfiction book called New York Underground, devoted to the subterranean labyrinth of entrails and subway lines. Publishers nixed the proposal because by then, wartime security concerns put the project off limits -- too much potential as a map for terrorists.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

High School Student Digs into the FWP, Comes up with Gold

The History Day competition spurred an Iowa high school student to delve into her great-grandfather's work on the Federal Writers' Project, and come out fascinated. Yashila Permeswaran gained recognition in her Le Mars middle school for the depth of the research she did in writing, "The WPA: Innovatively Providing Relief to Unemployed Writers Through the Federal Writers' Project." The theme of this year's contest is "Innovation in History: Impact and Change."
    "I love learning about the 1930s because I think it is such an interesting time period," Permeswaran told the Daily Sentinel. "I think it's amazing all the people who were helped because the WPA gave them jobs. I also find it amazing all the history and culture that was recorded and preserved by the FWP."
    She interviewed her great-grandfather for the paper about his work with the WPA. Good luck, Yashila!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Opening Doors to Expression

This week the FDR Library's blog noted the anniversary of WPA opening its doors and sending Americans back to work, less than a month after Congress passed the bill authorizing the relief agency. It also has great reading recommendations.
    In a couple weeks join us at LitArtlantic, a free festival of four storytelling arts at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD (May 20-22) when we will open doors to creative expression, exploring the intersections of music, film, theatre and literature. I'll be there for a panel talk about "The Writer's Life: A Report from the Field," on Saturday, May 22 at noon. I'll be mixing it up with fellow writers C.M. Mayo (whose novel just appeared in paperback), Alan Elsner, Kevin Quirk and Jessie Seigel. Learn more here.