Friday, July 22, 2011

Feeling the Heat of Hell

This current heat wave is shattering records that have stood since the 1930s Dust Bowl days. From Texas to Vermont, roads are shimmering molten and mirage-like as road crews gulp fluids to stay hydrated. The WPA writers captured the unworldly weather of that other time in their guides and books, including a photo essay about the devastating hurricane of 1938 that strafed New England.
    In the Midwest, the newly republished WPA guide to Nebraska shows us searing heat in the state’s western sandhills, where mostly pioneer families made a hard living. Sandhills native Mari Sandoz was a mentor to workers on the Nebraska WPA’s staff in Lincoln, and in the Nebraska guidebook they quoted her hardbitten memoir of her father, Old Jules, and her folklore studies including “Sandhill Sundays.” In that a traveling preacher translated the emotional weirdness of the harsh weather from the wagon where he spoke and conjured hell as he invited families to the relief of a lake baptism:
You see them heat waves out there on the prairie? Them’s the fires of hell, licking round your feet, burning your feet, burning your faces red as raw meat, drying up your crops, drawing the water out of your wells! You see them thunderheads, shining like mansions in the sky but spurting fire and shaking the ground under your feet? God is mad, mad as hell!
The account goes on to subvert the stereotype of backward rural people by describing how Sandhill communities held cultural events with spell-downs, singing and debates on issues like Popular Elections of Our Presidents. People traveled up to 40 miles to enjoy late night dances, with snacks at midnight. A good time to go out when the day is hot as volcanic brimstone.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Watch Those Footsteps on the Capital Sidewalks

On the streets of Washington, DC these days, it’s easy to walk right past addresses that are not famous but from which great things – and barely-employed writers – sprang.
    When John Cheever was a hungry young editor on the Federal Writers’ Project, he lodged at Mrs. Gray’s boardinghouse at 2308 Twentieth Street, NW, one block north of Columbia Rd. It wasn't far from his WPA office job.
    A friend and coworker soon introduced Cheever to the capital’s social life. At parties Cheever clinked glasses with conservatives and radicals, Cubans and Danes. Back at the boardinghouse where he took his meals with other government lodgers, one older woman routinely denigrated WPA employees and their boondoggling at the dinner table. Cheever would pretend not to hear when she asked him to pass the gravy. Cheever's memories of DC were of humiliation and conformity.
    Years earlier, Langston Hughes lived just a few blocks away on S Street, NW, in the orbit of Duke Ellington’s U Street neighborhood. From 1924-26 Hughes combined literary work with a job as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel (now the Marriott Wardman) at 2660 Woodley Rd. There he was “discovered” in 1926 by a white editor, Vachel Lindsay, who dubbed Hughes the “busboy poet” (see the Guide to Black Washington and Busboys and Poets).
    During the 1930s, Hughes made friends with young WPA writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison in Harlem. And he was good friends with Zora Neale Hurston, co-writing a play with her before they went separate ways.
    Hurston herself lived closer to Howard University during her time studying and working as a waitress in Washington years before.
    Who knows what yet-unknown creative hits the pavement every morning from another anonymous DC address, looking for work? Bringing reading and jobs together, the DC public library recently put together a good online toolbox for those jobseekers.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Happy Birthday, Margaret Walker

This month there are several chances to see Soul of a People: Writing America's Story on the Smithsonian Channel. (Check here for times.)
    Today would be the 96th birthday of Margaret Walker, who was just out of college when she applied for a spot on the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago. She had grown up in the oppressive segregation of Alabama, and turned to the books of her father, a minister, to escape. After college she almost married a young minister herself, but her mother urged her to make another path for her life. With few options for jobs in depressed Chicago, she lied about her age and got work as a WPA writer, meeting up very soon with other writers like Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. It was there, she later said, that she found her voice as a poet.
This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems    "I changed from the very romantic and sentimental type of poetry to a very realistic and factual type of poetry," she said. "I was very conscious of making that change."
    She became willing to explore characters hit hard by their circumstances. She submitted her collection For My People to the Yale Younger Poets competition three years in a row. In 1942 it won. She went on to publish many more collections as well as a bestselling novel, Jubilee.