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A woman dances wearing a crown
Dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham is seen here in her original dance piece Rara Tonga, based on a Melanesian folktale. Dunham worked for the Illinois branches of the Federal Writers' Project and Federal Theater Project. Find the photo with others in the Library's Katherine Dunham timeline.

“Re-writing America”: AFC Symposium on the Federal Writers’ Project, June 16, 2023

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A well-worn cliché about institutions of cultural memory, such as the Library of Congress, is that the unique archival collections they hold offer researchers (pick your adjective) “unparalleled/unique/singular windows into the past.” (I plead guilty to having employed some variation on this aphorism when describing our collections to the public at large). Clichés aside, archival collections that document social lives, cultural practices, everyday behaviors, and attitudes can and do offer significant insights about previous generations of human beings. It is also the case that the socio-political environment, ideological motivations of collectors and institutions, and power relationships between documentarians/collecting agencies and the people who were documented, crucially structure the “stuff” that ends up on the shelves in an archive. Another way of saying this is that there is a fundamental relationship –cordial or strained – between the documentary content and the context that shaped and created the archive.

Composite image of three book covers
American Guide Week celebrated the Federal Writers’ Project’s American Guides series, which included state, regional, and city guides. The FWP also sponsored folklore collections like Hoosier Folklore (which sadly remained unpublished, while its raw materials were archived at Indiana University), and other educational titles such as Who’s Who in the Zoo (1937). Find these archival scans among others in this list.

In broad strokes, these relationships and productive tensions are the basic questions that a range of research scholars, writers, and media producers will consider in a June 16th Library symposium entitled Rewriting America: Reconsidering the Federal Writers’ Project 80 Years Later. The event will bring attention to the enduring legacy and importance of the archival materials and mansucripts produced by a small army of unemployed writers, historians, librarians, teachers, and others for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the 1930s. As a whole, the symposium will illustrate how this Library collection continues to inform and inspire public outreach and interdisciplinary scholarship in fields ranging from public and oral history to journalism to ethnic studies and folklore. 

A bit of background may be useful for the audience: the FWP was a part of the Federal Project One initiatives established under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), following the collapse of the national economy that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The WPA was one of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs aimed at stimulating economic recovery through employment initiatives for a wide swath of Americans. At the height of its brief existence (1935-39), FWP branches in states across the nation employed nearly seven thousand writers and produced guidebooks about American regions, states, and cities, known as the American Guide Series, along with other major publications:

As of January 1, I939, about 275 major books and booklets had been issued by the Federal Writers Project. Writers who have manned the project include Guggenheim fellowship holders and many others of recognized talent. (Larson, 1939).

“Talent” seems a bit of an under-statement to describe literary giants like Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, John Cheever, and Zora Neale Hurston (who was employed by the Florida Writers’ Project, which was directed by the folklorist Stetson Kennedy).

Zora Neale Hurston, half-length portrait, standing, facing front, looking at book, American Stuff, at New York Times Book Fair
Zora Neale Hurston looks at the Federal Writers’ Project book American Stuff at the New York Times Book Fair, 1937. Find the archival scan here.

Besides the guidebooks, life histories collected by the writers documented the everyday experiences and reflections of Americans from all walks of life. Numbering over 10,000 such accounts, a significant sample of these unpublished texts are available online at the Library of Congress’s website: American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. As the website notes:

People who told stories of life and work during the 1930s include an Irish maid from Massachusetts, a woman who worked in a North Carolina textile mill, a Scandinavian iron worker, a Vermont farm wife, an African-American worker in [a] Chicago meat packing house, and a clerk in Macy’s department store.

A significant figure in the collection of the life histories is the folklorist Benjamin Botkin, who guided the efforts of the fieldworkers. Botkin was the head of the Folklore Section at the Library of Congress, the predecessor to the American Folklife Center archive; he succeeded John and Alan Lomax in the role. Botkin was deeply committed to an inclusive, democratic ideal of equitable and dignified representation of all people in the FWP’s work. He urged the writers to meet and talk to people on the streets, at their places of work and at home, in order to gain a deeper understanding of their perspectives and ways of life: “By assembling occupationally and ethnically diverse life histories, he hoped to foster the tolerance necessary for a democratic, pluralistic community” (ibid). Botkin’s career has been the subject of thoughtful consideration in an edited volume by Lawrence Rodgers and Jerrold Hirsch (2010); closer to home, AFC produces a scholarly lecture series that is named after him.

A man holds a book next to a microphone.
Benjamin A. Botkin reads from one of his books at the Library of Congress in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Botkin family.

Given the many divisions in the country at the time, it is unsurprising that this aspirational vision of American society was opposed by the narrower authoritarian impulses of exclusionary political forces that succeeded in de-funding the FWP and similar projects soon after their inception. The image of Henry Alsberg, FWP director, being questioned by the “red-baiting” House Committee Investigating Un- American Activities about the presence of communists in the Project, symbolizes the political pressures that were brought to bear on Federal One initiatives (Mutnick 2014).

The symposium audience will have an unique opportunity to hear from subject matter experts on the above-named topics and others, besides. Several participants have contributed essays to the recently released anthology, Rewriting America: New Essays on the Federal Writers’ Project (2022). The authors will consider aspects of the FWP and some of the principal figures mentioned above and also examine subjects that have not received greater attention in previous scholarship. These include the obscured perspectives of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Mexican Americans, who contributed to the FWP, both as the subjects of life histories and as writers. A notable feature of the anthology is the extent to which authors bring historical phenomena forward into the present and address how the archival collections provide models for dealing with major economic, political and cultural upheaval in the contemporary moment. In addition to highlighting the “writerly” aspects of the FWP, presentations will also demonstrate the value of the archival collections for current digital media productions. These wide-ranging perspectives will play a prominent part in the individual presentations and the subsequent discussions that follow each of the four roundtable sessions (see the schedule of presentations and the biographies of speakers).

Image of Henry Alsberg sitting at a desk covered in books and papers,, FWP director, 1938
Henry Alsberg, Director of the Federal Writers’ Project, testifies before the House Committee investigating Un-American Activities, 1938. Library of Congress. Find the archival scan here.

Another exciting aspect of the symposium is that Dr. Alessandro Portelli will deliver the keynote address. Dr. Portelli is a leading international figure in the fields of public and oral history, is a folk music scholar and recordist, and has relied upon the FWP narratives for his own path-breaking work in locations ranging from Rome to Harlan County, Kentucky. We are pleased to note that Dr. Portelli’s presentation will be livestreamed as a webinar. Please register here to hear Dr. Portelli’s remarks and subsequent discussion in a webinar format.

Finally, we hope to see you at the Library on June 16 for this important and stimulating gathering. As with our public programs, it is free and open to the public, but we urge you to register in advance, as seating is limited in the Madison Building’s Mumford Room (6th floor). Register at this link. The symposium will be recorded on video and placed online, so if you are unable to attend in person, check the Library of Congress website soon for the video.

References:

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Library of Congress Website.

Larson, Cedric. The Cultural Projects of the WPAThe Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Jul., 1939), pp. 491-496 (6 pages)

Mutnick, Deborah. Toward a Twenty-First-Century Federal Writers’ Project. College English, November 2014, Vol. 77, No. 2 (November 2014), pp. 124-145.

Rodgers, Lawrence and Jerrold Hirsch (eds). 2010. America’s Folklorist : Benjamin A. Botkin and American Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for the helpful intro to the symposium and the notes on the Writers’ Project history. Just as a side note, readers may be interested to know about the photo on the wall behind Ben Botkin, taken by Jack Delano in 1943. It is identified by the catalog-record title “Chicago, Illinois. Train pulling out of the south side of the Union Station,” and is part of the LC Prints & Photographs Division’s FSA/OWI collection. Here’s a link to the archival version: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017843759/. This image was produced during the final months of activity by Roy Stryker’s FSA/OWI unit, when the photographers’ assignments emphasized the domestic response to World War II, including the effectiveness of the nation’s railroads. Stryker’s photo unit–as most readers will know–had been launched in 1935 the same national documentary “mood” as the Writers’ Project. The 1943 imagery marks the unit’s final chapter just before a congressional funding cutoff shut them down.

  2. Thank you for yuour insightful note about the context and content of the images, Carl. if we had world enough and time, the work of the FSA/OWi would have been tops of the list to take a deep dive into during the symposium. Maybe another year…?!
    Regards,
    Guha Shankar

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