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The Federal Writers' Project

Federal Writers' Project workers
Federal Writer's Project workers (National Archives)

The Federal Writers' Project was an extremely productive initiative of the WPA that resulted in many useful and still well-known works that primarily recorded facts about the country and illustrated facets of life in the United States.

Begun in 1935 and lasting four years, the main objective of the Federal Writers' Project was to put writers to work. Director Henry G. Alsberg and his successor John Newsome employed professional writers, editors, and researchers, art critics, and historians, paying around $20 weekly for a variety of material including oral histories, state and local information guides, children's books, ethnographies, and other works.

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston
(Wikimedia Commons)

Though the bulk of the FWP's 6,600 employees were everyday professionals, the program did employ several notable writers during its existence, including Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Eudora Welty (who was also employed by the WPA as a photographer), Saul Bellow, and John Cheever. These writers contributed to the same projects as their lesser-known co-workers; however, many continued their own work while being supported financially through their FWP projects, and others used their experiences with the FWP as material for later works.

The Federal Writers' Project, like other WPA endeavors, was not immune to conflict and criticism. Within the program, professional writers were critical of their non-professional cohorts and concerned that their participation in projects would create a substandard body of work. This turned out not to be the case, as seen in the popular and engaging American Guide Series, which was expanded to employ teachers and librarians, college graduates,

Hoosier Folklore cover
Hoosier Folklore, project of the FWP
(Library of Congress)
and reporters as writers in rural areas where professional writers were scarce. In addition, some critics were concerned that the "left-wing" writers were largely critical of American institutions and would undermine the projects in which they were involved.

Though the program had its detractors--W. H. Auden deemed the FWP "one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state"--the writers produced an impressive 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and many other writings like leaflets, radio scripts, and transcripts. Two of the most well-known projects include the American Guide Series, and the delicious "America Eats."

American Guide Series

American Guide poster
American Guide covers

Probably the best-known project of the Federal Writers' Project, The American Guide Series of books was championed by Katherine Kellock and designed to produce a comprehensive look at the country by state and aid in fostering a sense of national pride during a difficult time in U.S. history. In addition, the hope was that the guides would promote tourism by serving as a motivation for people to visit other areas by car.

Each of the 48 states was responsible for producing its own guide, and each followed a basic format that included information on the state's history, government, natural resources, industry, major cities and towns, and other facts. Pennsylvania's guide was the largest at 660 pages, and Idaho's the smallest at a still-impressive 299 pages (Idaho's guide was also the only one compiled by one person--Vardis Fisher). In addition to standard information, the guides included interesting tidbits such as

"Coon dogs are standard household equipment. The dogs are bright yellow, snuff-brown, or black-and-tan, long-eared, and sad-eyed. These dogs, with short names like Drum, Ring, Gum, Rip, Biff, and the like, are the pride of their owners, who think the coon dog should replace the American eagle." (Tennessee)

"[A] Nevada trait is an addiction to eating at counters. It is doubtful whether there is a restaurant in the State without one; even the smartest places feature counters. No Nevadan is quite sure why he likes "counter-eating"; but the counter offers company--and the true Nevadan is gregarious, as his passion for clubs and other social circles indicates." (Nevada)

"Mays Landing...is...the national capital of the nudists, who in 1937 designated the community as their headquarters. Reporters for tabloid newspapers beat a path to the park entrance each summer when the national convention of nudists is held, but the cult's requirement that visitors disrobe is an obstacle to complete coverage of nudist news." (New Jersey)

Guides were also produced for large cities as well as regions and territories, including Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. As the series branched out to include regions and territories, titles became more creative to entice visitors. Who wouldn't be intrigued by "Skiing in the East: The Best Trails and How to Get There," or "Ghost Towns of Colorado"?

Although the writers were paid by the WPA, each state had to find a means of funding the printing and distribution of the guides, and partnerships with Macmillan, Houghton Mifflin, and other publishers led to the creation of high-quality guides that are still in good condition today and are very collectible. Publishers have also reissued some titles that include updated information.

(Quotes from Remembering America: A Sampler of the WPA American Guide Series)

"America Eats"

American Legion Fish Fry
American Legion fish fry, near Louisville, Kentucky
by Marion Post Wolcott (Library of Congress)

In 1935, writers from the Federal Writers' Project, including Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, and Nelson Algren, were assigned the task of documenting America's social and cultural relationship with food and eating. The project, entitled "America Eats," included information on the roots of American cuisine, and explored the development of regional specialties. To achieve their assigned goals, writers visited church picnics, local celebrations, festivals, holiday parties, and many other venues where food was served, to observe and record the ways in which food plays a role in American culture.

Though the project was quite ambitious, with a large amount of material both gathered and created by FWP writers, "America Eats" was never published in its entirety, largely due to loss of interest and a lack of funding. In 1992, a large portion of Nelson Algren's contributions to the project was published by the University of Iowa Press. More recently, Pat Willard and Mark Kurlansky have published books that contain material from "America Eats," but much of the texts from the project remain in archives nationwide.

The writers on the project compiled a treasure trove of food-related information, including anecdotes from everyday Americans, histories of local cuisines, both familial and regional, and many mouth-watering recipes. Here is description of Indiana family reunions from Nelson Algren's writings:

Pie Social
Farm boy eating pie he bought at auction and which was made
by the girl with whom he is eating, Muskogee Co., Oklahoma
by Russell Lee (Library of Congress)

"The family reunion is another old Indiana custom, dating from the calico and blue jeans era. On a Sunday in July or August, fifteen or twenty will be scheduled in the public parks and churchyards of every county seat in the states.

"When the baseball game has died away and the whiskey has been downed, dinner is ready and the entire clan assembles. The meat platters are first to move--chicken rolled in flour and fried in shallow fat to a rich, crisp, baked ham, beef roaded thoroughly to a heavy, tender darnkess, gravied meat loaf kept hot for serving on a big camp-range.

"The vegetables which follow include potatoes--creamed, scalloped, mashed, and chopped into salad--baked beans, green beans, lima beans, scalloped corn, sliced tomatoes and fresh or pickled beets. Flanking them are deviled eggs, coleslaw, cottage cheese, and an endless variety of homemade pickles, sauces, relishes, jams, jellies, preserves, butters, and savories. Served at the same time is coffee, no matter how hot the day, poured in an endless stream from the spouts of great coffeepots wielded by tireless women." (p. 35-37)

Included in the "America Eats" project are recipes used often during the Great Depression. Some variations of these have been recreated by 94-year-old Clara Cannucciari, videorecorded along with her personal remembrances of the Depression, and available via YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/DepressionCooking.

corn dodger poem

Selected Bibliography

Nelson Algren
Nelson Algren
(Wikimedia Commons)

Algren, N., & Schoonover, D. E. (Ed.). (1992). America eats. Iowa City: University of Iowa. FKL TX 715.2 .M 53 A44 1992

Baker, R. L. (2000). Homeless, friendless, and penniless: the WPA interviews with former slaves living in Indiana. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press. E444 .H66 200

Brinkley, D. (2003, August 2). Unmasking writers of the W.P.A. [Electronic version]. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/02/books/unmasking-writers-of-the-wpa.html?pagewanted=all

Flynn, K. A., & Polese, R. (2008). The New Deal: a 75th anniversary celebration. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith. E 806 .F58 2008

Gross, A. S. (2006). The American Guide Series: Patriotism as brand-name identification. Arizona Quarterly, 62. Doi: 10.1353/arq.2006.0003

Hobson, A. (Ed.). (1985). Remembering America: A sampler of the WPA American Guide Series. New York: Columbia University Press.FKL E 169 .R395 1985

Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison
(Wikimedia Commons)

Kurlansky, M. (2009). The food of a younger land: a portrait of American food...from the lost WPA files. New York: Riverhead Books. TX715 .F685 2009

Mangone, J. (1996). The dream and the deal: the Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 [electronic version]. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. Retrieved from http://bert.lib.indiana.edu:3143/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=acls;idno=heb00791.

Pinsky, M. (2009). Write now. Why Barack Obama should resurrect the Federal Writers Project and bail out laid-off journalists. Retrieved from http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=428819dc-f4bf-4db3-a6e8-1b601c8fe273.

Schindler-Carter, P. (1999). Vintage snapshots: the fabrication of a nation in the WPA American Guide Series. Frankfurt: Peter Lang. E 175.4 .S35 1999

Willard, P. (2008). America Eats!: on the road with the WPA. New York: Bloomsbury.

Online resources

Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (IU Libraries resource)

"A More Abundant Life": Federal One and the Federal Writers' Project

"America Eats" (Imagination): American Treasures of the Library of Congress

America Eats: A Hidden Archive from the 1930's (NPR)

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938

Federal Writers' Project: New Deal Web Guide (Library of Congress resources)

Great Depression Cooking with Clara

Recipes from the "America Eats" Project (NPR)

Northwest History: A Call for a New Federal Writer's Project

WPA State Guides (from the U.S. Senate). A description of each of the guides