Long-lost agencies: the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Writers’ Project

The Federal Writers Project produced a plethora of guides to cities, states, as well as cultural and natural attractions called the American Guide Series. (Image: GIMBY)
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Brooks Hays

The federal government has always produced a prolific amount of prose: laws, agency reports, regulations, travel logs, budget requests, position papers, research summaries. But in 1935, it began hiring a unique group of writers to produce works far different from the usual bureaucracy-driven content: oral histories, state travel guides, ethnographies, children’s books, and other works of fiction and nonfiction. These works together provided “the most comprehensive account of the United States ever… compiled… by the best writers in America,” according to author John Steinbeck.

The Federal Writers’ Project, as the initiative was called, was among several back-to-work programs set up under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the WPA as part the government’s New Deal program, with the goal of reducing soaring unemployment. The agency used federal money to employ Americans in a variety of capacities, including planting trees, paving roads, digging ditches — and writing.

Participants in the Federal Writers’ Project, which included underemployed and unemployed writers, researchers, librarians, photographers, historians, artists and others, produced hundreds of manuscripts, field notes, tape recordings and books. Though much of the content was apolitical, some critics portrayed the program as overtly leftist in its nature and socialist in its content. One reason for these labels was because some of the program’s works took an unvarnished look at the lives of minorities and other economically downtrodden groups, such as former slaves, factory workers and sharecroppers. Book titles included gems such as Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales; and Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes.

Indeed, many of the works created under the program have emerged as invaluable historical resources. These include some 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. In 1941, two years after the program ended, the stories and photographs were compiled in a 17-volume book, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

The Federal Writers’ Project nurtured some of America’s finest creative talent. Among more than 6,000 Americans employed by the project were a number of future literary heavyweights, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow and John Cheever. The $80 monthly salary provided by the project helped these burgeoning artists focus on their literary pursuits even while carrying out FWP work, without having to worry about how to pay the next month’s rent.

John Steinbeck also wrote for the program, chronicling the lives of migrant farm laborers. His work for the Federal Writers’ Project later formed the basis for his classic book, The Grapes of Wrath.

But writers accounted for only a small portion of the FWP’s staff. Production of the project’s most-lasting and well-received work, the American Guide Series, tapped the skills of a wide range of workers, from clerical workers to lawyers and teachers. With different volumes being published between 1936 and 1941, the series offered a comprehensive guide to all 48 contiguous states, plus Alaska, featuring essays on local history, governments, economies, natural surroundings, folk traditions, the arts and more. Historian and literary critic Lewis Mumford called the series "the finest contribution to American patriotism" of his generation.