WPA Life Histories About the Federal Writers' Project

The Federal Writers' Project materials in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division are part of a larger collection titled The U.S. Work Projects Administration Federal Writers' Project and Historical Records Survey. The holdings from Federal Writers' Project span the years 1889-1942 and cover a wide range of topics and subprojects. Altogether, the Federal Writers' holdings number approximately 300,000 items and consist of correspondence, memoranda, field reports, notes, graphs, charts, preliminary and corrected drafts of essays, oral testimony, folklore, miscellaneous administrative and miscellaneous other material.

Well over one-half of the materials in this record group pertain to the American Guide, the sobriquet for the critically acclaimed state guides. The remainder of the material reflects other areas of interest that developed as the project grew in maturity. They include a rich collection of rural and urban folklore; first-person narratives (called life histories) describing the feelings of men and women coping with life and the Depression; studies of social customs of various ethnic groups; authentic narratives of ex-slaves about life during the period of Slavery; and Negro source material gathered by project workers. In addition, drafts of publications and intended publications are included. These publications express concern with the direction America was taking and with the preservation and communication of local culture. Titles include Hands That Build America, From These Strains, Lexicon of Trade Jargon, and Pockets in America.

The arrangement of the larger collection generally reflects the division of work within the Writers' Project such as material relating to The American Guide, the Folklore Project, Social-ethnic Studies, and Slave Narratives. Other series are compilations for archival purposes such as administrative papers or Negro studies material. Still others are groups of similar material such as printed matter and the like.

The plight of the unemployed writer, and indeed anyone who could qualify as a writer such as a lawyer, a teacher, or a librarian, during the early years of the Depression, was of concern not only to the Roosevelt Administration, but also to writers' organizations and persons of liberal and academic persuasions. It was felt, generally, that the New Deal could come up with more appropriate work situations for this group other than blue collar jobs on construction projects. To the Administration's liking were plans generated from a series of meetings held in 1934 between Jacob Baker, Harry Hopkins' chief Civil Works Administration assistant in charge of special and professional programs, Henry Alsberg, Bakers' assistant, Katherine Kellock, a writer familiar with international and social organizations, and others. The outcome of these sessions was a project for all the "arts," (labeled Federal One), divided administratively by each specialty and headed by professionals in the field. The Writers' Project, later characterized by some as the federal government's attempt to "democratize American culture," was approved for federal monies in June, 1935. Baker chose his assistant, Alsberg, as director. As the Project continued into the late thirties, the director was powerless to stop increasing criticism by reactionary Congressmen who were intent on shutting down the enterprise. In October 1939, the Project's federal monies ceased, due to the Administration's need for a larger defense budget. After 1939, emasculated, the Project sputtered along on monies funded to the states, closing completely one year or so after America's entry into World War II.

Researchers should note that the American Memory collection presented here is a coherent portion of the Library's larger Federal Writers' series and the WPA collection. It includes the life histories and corollary documents assembled by the Folklore Project within the Federal Writers' effort.

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