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."