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.