David A. Taylor is the author of “Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America” and writer and co-producer of the Smithsonian documentary, “Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story.” On Thursday, he joins others at the Library for an event marking the 75th anniversary of “These Are Our Lives,” a collection of life histories produced during the New Deal era by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Read more about it here.
Your book, “Soul of a People” (2009), is about the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. What about the New Deal program inspired and interested you to write the book?
I came to the Writers’ Project by chance, from using the series of travel guidebooks the WPA writers produced – what we now call the WPA guides. A friend lent me the “WPA Guide to New Orleans,” and I found in it a fresh and authentic portrait of the city and its people: gritty and vivid and unlike any guidebook I’d read before. The editor, Lyle Saxon, had been a journalist and a novelist before, and I became curious: How had that book and the others in the series come about? Eventually I wrote an article for Smithsonian magazine using the WPA Guide to Nebraska as a test of its durability. It held up surprisingly well, too. So I became intrigued by this sudden nationwide agency of writers.
For that article I got to speak with several of the Project’s survivors including Studs Terkel, who championed oral history in many forms – from his radio interviews to his books, which he called “oral histories.” He was generous with his time and memories. In following those leads and reading their papers, I found the story of their intersecting lives at that time of crisis fascinating. The stories and conversations led to the book and a documentary film, also titled “Soul of a People,” produced by Spark Media and funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and state humanities councils.
Studs pointed me to Ann Banks, whose book “First-Person America” contains selections from many of the rich life histories gathered by the WPA writers. She was really the first to rediscover that collection in the Library of Congress in the 1970s. We’re thrilled that she will join us for the May 15 event.
Tell us about your experience using the Library’s WPA collections for your research. What did you learn that helped you develop your book?
I researched my first book, a cultural history of ginseng, at the Library and had learned so much from the reference librarians in the Main Reading Room. When I started this project, the research took me into more parts of the Library, especially the Manuscript Division (which holds much of the editorial correspondence of the project and personal collections of several WPA alumni), the American Folklife Center (which has the life histories and recordings gathered by the Folklore Division of the Writers’ Project) and Prints and Photographs (which has all the wonderful photographs from the Farm Security Administration).
Each collection gave a part of the puzzle. For example, I could find the life histories that Ralph Ellison conducted, now in the American Folklife Center, and then go to Ellison’s personal collection in the Manuscript Division, a rich trove that was cataloged not long before. Zora Neale Hurston’s plays are also there. Then I visited Prints and Photographs and saw Ellison’s photos from his early years and his friendship with other WPA writers, including John Cheever. I learned how these individuals approached their work and friendships and how they sometimes reflected on influences later.
What collection items did you find most illuminating? Any life histories stand out in particular?
The life history interviews were fascinating to read through. May Swenson’s interviews in the Bronx, for example, were a wonderful surprise. As a young project employee, this great poet captured people in glimpsed observations and quirks of character. Really, it was fascinating to find the many stories of everyday people documented with the intent of capturing their words.
For entering the experience of a young person going from poverty to the thrill of finding their voice as a storyteller, it’s hard to top paging through Ralph Ellison’s letters. As a young man, he poured himself out in correspondence. His exchanges with Richard Wright are hard to top for a window into brilliance, creativity and youth. One of the life history interviews he did was with an older man on a park bench in Colonial Park in Harlem – a park where Ellison himself had spent his first nights when he arrived in the city, homeless. It’s a rich interview where Ellison taps a flood of honest outrage, with a poignant backstory.
For heartbreak, I’m struck by the interview with James Griffin, a 21-year-old whose account was recorded during a Florida sound recording tour arranged by Zora Neale Hurston. I included Griffin’s story in “Soul of a People.” In a turpentine camp, he’s asked by his WPA interviewers – including a young Stetson Kennedy – the story behind his song, “Worked All Summer Long.” Griffin explains he was jailed for 90 days at hard labor in the Dixie County Prison Camp to repay $50 to a lumber company. The song came to him while he was in jail.
“I started singing it and thought it would be my theme song,” he said.
He and the other inmates would take it up in the evening after the day’s labor.
“We’d be singing,” he said. “It helps.”
Then he sings the song for the recording. The song includes a prayer from the singer’s mother, asking that someone look down and see him, wherever he may be. His recording, from a hot day in August 1939, still lives here.
“These Are Our Lives,” written 75 years ago, featured selections from the Federal Writers’ Project. Tell us a bit about the book. How significant was it at the time, and what about it endures today?
That book was a departure, in that it showed a new way to portray history. It was a collection of life histories gathered by WPA interviewers in the South, as part of a nation-wide effort led by Benjamin Botkin, the project’s folklore director. In 1939, traditional historians still considered history to be an expert’s distillation of key documents and leaders, and folklorists were focused on tall tales and legends – not living history from people’s mouths. The New York Times reviewed “These Are Our Lives” twice when it came out, calling it “history of a new and peculiarly honest kind” and “an eloquent and important record.” One review hoped it might be the first of a series. Although that was originally Botkin’s plan, it didn’t happen. Budget cuts would soon shutter the whole Writers’ Project.
I think the book’s most enduring quality is its intimacy with people’s lives and their voices, across race and economic background. At their best, these stories evoke a scene in Wim Wenders’ film, “Wings of Desire,” where two angels dressed in overcoats wander through a subway car, listening to the unspoken fears and dreams of the people there. In some ways, the WPA interviewers were doing that. They were often the first ones ever to ask everyday people for their stories, and often neither interviewer nor interviewee knew what would come out.
The event on May 15 will highlight this sense of intimate history. In addition to StoryCorps, there will be actors bringing to life two selections from “These Are Our Lives.” The actors come from the Theatre Lab, a leading nonprofit in DC with a Life Stories program that resonates with the WPA life histories.
What would you say is the legacy of the Federal Writers’ Project? What can we learn from the life histories and individuals who brought them to life?
There are three ways to answer that, I think. The first is essentially economic – to say it provided an unexpected incubator for talent that was otherwise idled by the Depression. The project gave some of the best writers of the 20th century their first jobs as writers at a crucial time.
The second legacy is that, culturally, the project influenced American literature and its dialogue for decades afterward by putting young writers together. For example, the friendship between Richard Wright and Nelson Algren (which I wrote about for American Scholar) bloomed on the Writers’ Project and influenced how both of them depicted America in bestselling novels and films. The project influenced writers like Meridel Le Sueur, who used her interviews with Minnesota women for her novel “The Girl,” about a botched bank robbery; and Margaret Walker’s poetry and novel “Jubilee,” about slavery’s history through one family. Ralph Ellison later cited his early Harlem experiences, when he conducted life interviews for the project, as a seed for the voice and character in “Invisible Man.”
That’s not to say that the life histories just provided material for talented writers, but the project provided many writers with a vital point of engagement with American life. FDR said, “One hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not its relief.”
Maryemma Graham, a professor of English at the University of Kansas and one of our NEH advisors for the film, told Poets & Writers, “The WPA was a godmother or godfather for so many writers who had had few opportunities before that point. For example, the largest single impact on black writing before the civil rights movement was really the WPA, not the Harlem Renaissance.” Graham explains that many Harlem Renaissance writers “did not continue to write after the twenties; Zora Neale Hurston [also a prominent Writers’ Project contributor] and Langston Hughes were the exceptions. Of the WPA writers who were black, more of them developed substantial careers beyond that period.” I was so glad we interviewed Graham for the “Soul of a People” documentary because her commentary is so trenchant.
A third legacy is in historical perspective. With the life histories, the Writers’ Project sort of provided big data for a wider range of perspectives in history, for making history more inclusive. It provided an approach that influenced many writers of history afterward.
Why do you think it’s valuable for the Library to preserve such historical collections, and what do you think the public should know about the Library’s mission to collect and preserve our cultural and historical heritage?
Many writers treat the Library’s collections as a secret trove. The collections offer open access to material where researchers can find new insights that affect how we understand the world. But any visitor gains from visiting the collections. You get a sense of history and its range of viewpoints as a larger view of life. Everyone should know that the Library is theirs to use. For residents lucky enough to live close enough to visit, it just takes five minutes in the James Madison Building to get a researcher’s ID. The generous help of reference librarians in the Main Reading Room puts so much in reach, even if you’re daunted when you enter.
Stetson Kennedy, the Florida folklorist, spoke to that wealth of the Library’s collections in our national life when we interviewed him in his 90s. He recalled a conversation with Alan Lomax, who had made recording tours in the 1930s, hauling a sound machine out to where people lived and worked: soup kitchens, homes, churches and prisons. Back in Washington, Lomax replayed those voices and told Kennedy that he felt was as if they were liberated:
“Alan was telling me how it felt to him later, back in the little room at the Library of Congress, plugging in this machine and listening to a black man’s voice coming out of a prison cell in Rayford, Fla. What an eerie thing it was for that voice and that man’s song to be there in the Library of Congress and echoing in this little chamber.”
For me, Stetson was talking about the Library’s majesty that holds whole worlds for us to find.