David A. Taylor‘s Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America is an excellent study of the personalities behind the Federal Writers’ Project, which attracted a host of writers to work on guidebooks, oral histories, and folklore collections during the Depression. Some of the participants later became very well-known—among those who worked for the FWP in some capacity were Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Jim Thompson, John Cheever, and Richard Wright—but as the book makes clear, doing government work left many of the writers feeling conflicted, and the project was consistently under scrutiny by Congress for potentially harboring Communists, a hint of the McCarthy hearings that would come years later.
Taylor, who’s also a fine fiction writer, is working on a documentary related to the WPA book; the American Library Association is sponsoring a related project for libraries around the country as well. For more on the book, see Taylor’s Web site and the lengthy interview he recently conducted with George Mason University’s Art Taylor for his Art & Literature blog.
If you’re in D.C., David A. Taylor will speak about the book on Tuesday, April 28, at 3 p.m. at the Library of Congress. He answered a few questions about the book via e-mail.
The book concentrates on a handful of states where FWP projects pulled in some well-known writers—John Cheever contributed to the New York WPA guide, Zora Neale Hurston to Florida’s, Nelson Algren and Richard Wright to Illinois’. Were there any less-well-known states (or writers) that you wish you had more time and space to spotlight?
It’s true that the stories of the later-famous writers form the book’s core but most of the characters are intriguing lesser-knowns: Anzia Yezierska, a 1920s screenwriter and “Cinderella of the Tenements” who captured the weirdness of the FWP experience in New York; Rudolph Umland, the hobo editor of the Nebraska WPA guide; Lyle Saxon, the New Orleans novelist who lived and breathed the city for the WPA while he drank himself to death; and Hilda Polacheck, who documented Chicago history in personal stories, including survivors of the Great Fire of 1871. Polacheck, like some of the others, left a memoir and I interviewed her daughter Dena. With others I wasn’t so lucky and the trail went cold.
I liked finding people who never expected to be writers or great writers most of us never heard of. Juanita Brooks found her inner investigative reporter on the FWP, and through old-timers uncovered the Mountain Meadows Massacre of the 1860s. Jon Krakauer called her 1950 book about it “an extraordinary work of history” that shaped every other book about the Mormons in 1800s Utah, including his own Under the Banner of Heaven. There are tantalizing loose ends to her story and others, like Eluard Luchell McDaniel, a black hobo writer and partisan in the Spanish Civil War. And Meridel Le Sueur in Minnesota: The Girl is a noir novel centered on a woman caught up in a bank heist. She pieced it together from stories of women she interviewed. It’s The Wire in 1930s St. Paul.
The WPA guides have a reputation for being hit-and-miss when it comes to readability. Cheever, somewhat famously, described his work for the WPA as “twisting into order the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards.” As you were researching the book, what struck you about the quality of the writing? Were there any particular gems that you discovered?
There’s a collection of gems from the WPA guides collected in a book called Remembering America. Archie Hobson, the editor of that book, did a great service. His selection highlights local stories from all the guides—many funny as hell—that show the idiosyncrasy of what happened in a bar or when two or three people came together. The humor, often dark, struck me. Among the individual WPA guides, the Oklahoma guide still has the imprint of Jim Thompson’s noir sensibility (even though he left before the guide was done, his folklore essay and some of the tours still stand out). More than the style, for me, are the weird surprises of history—like the fact that Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel prize winner, was living in Illinois for several years while his son studied agriculture there. Then you have some ringers, like Kenneth Rexroth’s hiking notes for the Sierras in the California guide, and Aldo Leopold’s essay on conservation in the Wisconsin guide, years before he wrote Sand County Almanac.
You mention a few cases where WPA leadership edited provocative statements out of guides. (For instance, Idaho guide editor Vardis Fisher’s comments about a former Idaho governor were removed from a draft of the book.) Was there any consistency to what kind of material was cut? How much of it reflected concern about Congressional opposition to the FWP?
Nationally there was a huge reservoir of public fear, and Congress responded by watching for any hint of dissidence. When the first House Un-American Activities Committee (Joe McCarthy’s predecessor and role model) was bearing down on the FWP in 1938 and ‘39, the FWP chief felt the pressure and had a few internal censors weed out political red flags—especially communist and socialist leanings. Labor history was a powder keg, and discontent, so they could draw the censors’ pen. But there was so much coming in, the censors weren’t consistent.
Headquarters also struck out some things in an effort to give a consistent and ‘objective’ tone to the whole guidebook series. So Rexroth’s rant against California timber barons—which interestingly bleeds into a sort of Eastern-flavored portrayal of earth and water—didn’t make it into the California guide. I was happy to find his typescript manuscripts, and publish selections in the book.
One of the most compelling personalities in the book is Hurston, who did a tremendous amount of research on Florida folklore, occasionally putting herself in harm’s way to do it. You note that she had written a book for the FWP called “The Florida Negro,” but it wasn’t published. What happened?
Besides the overt censorship, there was, as Stetson Kennedy notes, the implicit censorship of local mores—including Jim Crow segregation in the South, hanging over the guide editors. The Florida WPA guide did challenge that with accounts of lynching and unfair employment practices—cheek to jowl in a book about Florida tourist spots!—but still there were projects planned that never saw the light of day. In the case of The Florida Negro, it was a combination of that and the kind of mundane editorial merry-go-round that a script might experience in Hollywood—no greenlighting, a U-turn to rewrite, etc. Sterling Brown, the remarkable poet and professor at Howard University who oversaw black studies in the FWP, planned a whole series—and some like The Virginia Negro did get published as amazing glimpses of black history. Hurston took over The Florida Negro when a version had been drafted, and she reworked it. When she left for a teaching job in North Carolina, it sort of died. A decade ago, The Florida Negro was finally published by the University Press of Mississippi, and essays Hurston wrote for it appeared in Pam Bordelon’s Go Gator! And Muddy the Water. There’s still a lot of Zora’s genius coming to light. A few years ago a musical version of Polk County, her play about life in the turpentine camps she uncovered for the FWP, was staged here in D.C. and won a Helen Hayes award for best new musical. Hurston would have loved that.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the WPA guides of late, perhaps as a function of the material becoming available online through the Library of Congress—last year there are books like America Eats! and State by State, which both pay tribute to the FWP’s efforts, and now your project. What do you think people are searching for by revisiting the guides?
I think part of it is actually a continuation of the flowering of local stories that started with the FWP and unfolded in the decades afterward, like Studs Terkel’s oral histories, which just kept bubbling out. Then others took up the idea with permutations like StoryCorps. A lot of writers came across the WPA guides in used bookstores and found in them authentic voices and experiences. Even where the writing is musty, the guides can be exotic because of the time that’s passed. Some have a Ghost World quality that fits with an aesthetic popular now too. For me it was a shock of recognizing a tone and voice that I didn’t expect to find. Many FWP writers wanted to get beyond industrial and commercial treatments of life. They wanted to scratch beneath the surface and see what made people tick and where the pressure points were. I think we’re seeing that again.