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Dreaming of a Federal Writers’ Project 2.0

The New Deal-era program enlisted writers and artists to create guides to every state in the nation. The result is a time capsule of a country gone by. What if we did it again?

The Federal Writers' Project captured the lore and peculiarities of an America we no longer know. Should we do it again?
The Federal Writers' Project captured the lore and peculiarities of an America we no longer know. Should we do it again?Wikimedia Commons/Sutton Cavalchire

Over an eight-year period in the middle of the Great Depression, a cadre of the nation’s most talented writers were deployed across the country to examine the personalities and peculiarities, the traditions and taboos, the character and customs, of the various states. They burrowed into the geology, the history, the politics, the economies, and the industries of their assigned states. They produced a remarkable outburst of books that were respected then and are cherished now. And as a national political correspondent and columnist for four decades, I have found those books a resource of incalculable beauty and value.

In their pages I have learned how clammers in Damariscotta, Maine, tap the beaches at low tide to force the bivalves to “spout out tiny streams of water that betray their hiding places in the mud.” (You need this sort of image to describe the wiles of Down East voters reluctant to profess their political preferences.) I have discovered how residents of an old Alabama settlement named Drake Eye turned to producing peanuts and peanut butter after the boll weevil infestation nearly destroyed the cotton crop in 1910. (You need to know about boll weevils if you are writing about conservative Southern Democrats during the Ronald Reagan years.) I have learned about the tradition of the candlewick bedspread in Dalton, Ga. (You need to know about how this handicraft spawned a booming industry if you are writing about the role of textiles in the American economy.)

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Though some of these volumes have been updated, the majority of them, the result of the Depression-era labor of 6,000 writers working under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, are out of date, or at least dated. Many of the folkways (the custom of cussing at the moon is no longer a prominent civic activity in Marblehead, for example) and ways of life (shrimp pickers paid $1.50 a day in Biloxi, Miss.) described in these pages have vanished. New ones (the advent of the cookie table at weddings in Pittsburgh, for instance) have sprouted across the country, while others have blossomed into new prominence (Juneteenth, marking the end of slavery, is one).

A reboot of the Federal Writers’ Project would reflect both the country’s diversity and the importance of that diversity to the character of the country. The new Texas volume, for example, surely would not include its 1930s characterization of Juneteenth (“Every Negro who can play a fiddle or a guitar brings his instrument, while the others break spontaneously into the ‘blues,’ work songs or spirituals”), but just as surely would note that the state has sent nine Black members to the House since 1973, with Houston electing two Black mayors.

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But why, at a time when we live online — when even the folded road map has been replaced by Google Maps — do we need what is in essence an act of curating our regional cultures?

Because such a national undertaking would in effect be creating a repository of stories that, taken inside each state and together, would help us understand the larger American story. Because a cataloguing of our culture is a bow of respect to that culture. Because revising books written eight decades ago gives us a chance to appreciate the changes underway in our land, and to celebrate them. Because the very exercise of preparing a revised set of guides would reveal the richness of even the remotest crossroads of our country. Because it could help preserve regional traditions and regional differences being wiped away, by corporate-spawned conformism, by the leveling effect of the Internet, by the declining appreciation for history .

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If we build it, the readers will come. This is more urgent now than it was even in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt years, when regional accents were more distinctive, when each part of the country had a dinnertime diet peculiar to its crops and growing season, when regional newspaper editors set the conversations of their communities, and when mass communication meant radio and nothing more. Today regional differences are in eclipse, and it is more important than ever to record, and perhaps preserve, those differences. Otherwise a new generation of Americans might not know that sweet tea is a drink served in the South, or that coffee-flavored milk is peculiar to Rhode Island, or that Moxie is a bittersweet gentian-root beverage favored in Maine, though it has never been bottled there. The volumes of FWP 2.0 would contain the air of being there that the originals possessed — the very elements that made John Steinbeck say that he wished he could cram the entire series into his suitcase as he moved across the country.

Consider that today’s America is an entirely different country than the one depicted in the original American Guide series. The 1930 Census, for example, reported 1.3 million Mexicans in the United States; now, more than eight decades after the publication of the original volumes, there are more than 60 million Hispanics in the country, and from many more places than Mexico. There were only about a quarter of a million Asians in the country when these books were published; today there are more than 20 million.

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Moreover, the FWP books missed one of the great demographic events in American history: the Great Migration that brought Black people from the rural South to the industrial North, transforming both the places they settled and the places they left. That migration began around 1916 but tapered off in the years in which these books were written, only to spike again when 4.3 million Black people left the South in the 1950s; commensurate numbers followed in the next decades.

Just as the 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics, compiled by Harvard president Charles Eliot in 1909, no longer represent the sum total of the knowledge that an educated person should possess, the guides of the Federal Writers’ Project no longer represent a comprehensive look at American culture. They are valued today principally as historical guides, antiquarian treasures that reflect where we came from, not where we are and surely not where we are going. They are more nearly like the General Motors “Futurama” pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which envisioned transatlantic travel by “rocketgun” — the leading exhibit at the fairgrounds at the very time some of these FWP books were being produced.

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When these volumes were written, some 5.1 million Americans lived on farms or were tenant farmers; the number has fallen by half — a change in the nature of a country where, in 1781, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God.” Today’s New Hampshire, for example, is far more diverse than it was when it was defined by mills (in Manchester) and mountains (in the North Country). The state’s textile workers — the mill girls, who were fading from prominence in the 20th century, with the gigantic Amoskeag mills closing while the guide was being prepared — have been replaced by female entrepreneurs in high tech. And surely this sentence, regarding the governor of New Hampshire (“He is elected for a term of two years, and his official title is ‘His Excellency.’”) must be altered in a state where for 10 of the 20 years between 1997 and 2017 women held the office of governor.

Next, consider what the original guides omitted that would be included today: An acknowledgment and celebration of the cultural contributions of gay, trans, and gender-queer Americans and the way they have helped transform American life. Though there was a vibrant gay life in the 1920s, a furious counterreaction — which scholars associated with the end of Prohibition and which helped bring about so-called state “sexual psychopath” laws — followed in the 1930s, just when these volumes were produced. Chad Heap, the George Washington University scholar who wrote “Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940,” says, “When the Federal Writers’ Project began working on their guidebooks in 1935, the women and men who participated in the project were almost certainly aware of the vibrant gay and lesbian nightlife and popular culture that had flourished in many US cities during the 1920s and early ’30s.” Heap adds, “By the time the final manuscripts were readied for publication, the backlash against gay men and lesbians had become so intense that little, if any, of the writers’ personal knowledge of queer life in America — or the material they gathered on the topic — made it into print.”

A new set of FWP books must correct for that. The Nebraska volume, for example, must include a section on the Old Market District and Southeast neighborhood of Omaha, where gay life is flourishing, just as the Massachusetts volume must include Provincetown, the Florida edition must examine Wilton Manors, and the Mississippi volume should include Camp Sister Spirit, sometimes regarded as the “Stonewall of the South.”

Now is the time to deploy a new platoon of writers and artists of many races, ages, and sexual identities to produce a new series of portraits of America. Joseph Frazer Wall, a Grinnell College historian who wrote the introduction to a 1986 reissue of the Iowa guide, hailed the Federal Writers’ Project as “an unprecedented venture by the federal government into the subsidization of the arts.” Out of work or underemployed, the nation’s creative class was drafted into a collective endeavor: creating a time capsule of an America now gone by. In the Great Depression that spawned the original volumes, Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée struck gold with a song called “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” In our own time we might think of struggling writers and artists and, in throwing a lifeline to them, recall the first sentence of that ballad: “They used to tell me I was building a dream . . .”

David Shribman, previously the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.