Federal Writers’ Project: Chronicling American Life During the Great Depression

By Donna K. Keesling

During the Great Depression, as many as one out of four Americans were without work. Through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), more than 8 million people were employed by the government on mostly manual labor projects. The WPA also included a provision for unemployed artists, including musicians, actors, directors and painters, and writers. The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was part of this provision which was called WPA Federal Project Number One.

The Roosevelt Administration, along with writers’ organizations and academic people felt that unemployed writers needed work appropriate to their skills, rather than what was offered by most WPA programs. WPA’s Federal Project Number One grew out of meetings held between Jackob Baker – the chief Civil Works Administration assistant in charge of special and professional programs, Baker’s assistant Henry Alsberg, and the writer Katherine Kellock. The project was divided administratively by specialty and led by professionals in each field.[1]

The FWP, funded under the Emergency Relief Appropriate Act of 1935, was established on July 27, 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Henry G. Alsberg, a writer and journalist, was appointed the national director of the FWP by Jacob Baker, architect of Federal Project Number One.

A unit of the FWP was established in every state in the country. Most of the workers at the state level, who were typically from the area in which they worked, had to qualify for Federal relief to be hired. At its peak, more than 6,500 men and women were employed by the FWP. In addition to poets and novelists, teachers, reporters, clerks, lawyers, librarians, and clergy found work with the FWP. Their abilities for the given assignment ranged from incompetent to very talented.

FWP workers visited people in their homes and recorded first-person accounts of historic events, stories, and folklore. The FWP also employed photographers who took photographs of some of the interviewees and their homes. According to author Jerrold Hirsch, national FWP officials “aimed to redefine American national identity and culture by embracing the country’s diversity” through their interviews and publications.[2]

The FWP produced at least one thousand publications and gathered a great amount of other material that was not formally published. The publications produced by the FWP included the American Guide Series, local histories, and books for children.

For the American Guide Series, FWP writers created a guide for each of the forty-eight states that were part of the country at that time, and one for the District of Columbia, the Alaska Territory, and Puerto Rico. They also created guides for select cities, towns, and special locales such as Death Valley. Author Scott Borchert describes the guides as a “mélange of essays, historical tidbits, folklore, anecdotes, photographs, and social analysis” and states that they “were deeply researched on subjects of little use to a traveler” but “barely mentioned diners, motels, and gas stations.”[3]

As part of the Folklore Project of the FWP, more than 300 writers from 24 states compiled and transcribed first-person stories – known as life histories – of Americans who lived at the turn of the century. The documents, typically 2,000 – 15,000 words in length, were of various formats including narratives, dialogues, reports, and case histories. They recorded the life histories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of occupations and ethnic groups. Included were stories of life and work from an Irish maid in Massachusetts, a North Carolina woman working in a textile mill, a farm wife from Vermont, and an African American person working in a meat packing house in Chicago.[4]

Benjamin Botkin, an American folklorist and scholar who served as the second FWP folklore editor, said that the “collected lore and narratives were to be used as the basis for anthologies which would form a composite and comprehensive portrait of various groups of people in America.”[5] Due to the short lifespan of the FWP, most of the anthologies were never published. However, the unpublished material was transferred to the Library of Congress and is now accessible online through the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940collection.

One of the most significant contributions of the FWP was the compilation of more than 2,300 first-person accounts of formerly enslaved people from 17 states. John A. Lomax, who served as the National Advisor on Folklore and Folkways for the FWP, directed the workers to conduct interviews with formerly enslaved people. The FWP workers were given specific instructions on what types of questions to ask and how to record the dialects of their interviewees. The interviewers turned the narratives over to the FWP director at the state level for editing. At the end of the project, edited transcripts were assembled and microfilmed as a seventeen-volume set, organized by state, entitled Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.[6]

Kevin Thomas, who wrote about the FWP for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Museum and Library website, states that the FWP was “criticized as providing a distorted and simplistic view of slavery and life on a plantation” but is “credited with preserving a large volume of personal narratives” that would have otherwise been lost.[7] The Library of Congress now holds this collection of first-person accounts and 500 photographs of formerly enslaved people. The collection is available online under the title Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.

There were writers who worked for the FWP who went on “to shape the American literary landscape” according to Kevin Thomas.[8] One of these writers was Saul Bellow, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. Ralph Ellison, whose novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953, was influenced by the people he interviewed and used a refrain he heard from a Pullman porter in his novel. Another FWP writer was May Swenson, considered one of America’s foremost poets in the middle of the 20th century.

In the fall of 1938, Congressman Martin Dies of Texas, head of the newly formed Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, set his sights on the Writers’ and Theater projects of Federal Project Number One. His committee leveled charges of Communist activity and propaganda against the arts projects. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, headed by Virginia Congressman Clifton A. Woodrum, also attacked the projects.[9]

Colonel Francis C. Harrington, who succeeded Harry Hopkins as WPA administrator, forced FWP Director Henry Alsberg to resign in the summer of 1939. Shortly thereafter, President Roosevelt signed a $17 billion WPA Relief Bill which included a provision stipulating that the Writers’, Music, Art, and Theater projects must now function through state sponsors. Jerre Mangione, author and former National Coordinating Editor of the FWP, states that many people expected the FWP project to die immediately but it did not because the “momentum of the work initiated during Alsberg’s rule was strong enough to keep it alive until the nation’s participation in World War II took precedence over everything else.”[10]The FWP, along with the other WPA projects, was dissolved in 1943.

Despite the end of the Federal Writers’ Project, field workers were able to chronicle the lives of ordinary – and extraordinary – Americans during a time of significant trial. Their stories live on in the Library of Congress as a resource for all.

[1] “American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 – About this Collection,” Library of Congress, accessed May 19, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/collections/federal-writers-project/about-this-collection/.

[2] Jerrold Hirsch, Portrait of American: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 1.

[3] Scott Borchert, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 4.

[4] “American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 – Articles and Essays.” Library of Congress. Accessed May 19, 2023. https://www.loc.gov/collections/federal-writers-project/articles-and-essays/introduction/.

[5] “American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 – About this Collection,” Library of Congress, accessed May 19, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/collections/federal-writers-project/about-this-collection/.

[6] “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 – About this Collection,” Library of Congress, accessed May 19, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/.

[7] Kevin Thomas, “The Federal Writers’ Project,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, July 14, 2020, https://fdr.blogs.archives.gov/2020/07/14/the-federal-writers-project/.

[8] Thomas, “The Federal Writers’ Project.”

[9] Jerre Mangione, The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers Project 1935 – 1943 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), 4.

[10] Mangione, 24.