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The Enduring Lessons of a New Deal Writers Project

The goal of a new Federal Writers Project would be economic and cultural, putting writers to work capturing stories of the pandemic and this broader moment, while also serving as an archive for the existing work of local newspapers and non-profits.

Library of Congress

IN 1937, STERLING A. BROWN, a poet and literature professor at Howard University, published a forthright essay charting the history of Black life in his hometown of Washington, DC—from the district’s early status as the “very seat and center” of the domestic slave trade through the present-day effects of disenfranchisement and segregation. “In this border city, southern in so many respects, there is a denial of democracy, at times hypocritical and at times flagrant,” Brown wrote. “Social compulsion forces many who would naturally be on the side of civic fairness into hopelessness and indifference.” 

The essay was not the sort of thing you might have expected to find in a guidebook—let alone one paid for and published by the federal government—yet that’s exactly where it appeared: as a chapter in Washington, City and Capital, an early publication of a New Deal program known as the Federal Writers’ Project. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration founded the project two years earlier under the aegis of its Works Progress Administration, a relief program now best known for putting unemployed Americans to work building roads and bridges, but which also hired writers, actors, artists, and musicians—supporting creative labor while also launching programs in arts education, documentation, and performance. The guidebook—which was compiled as a template, of sorts, for similar works across the country—was hardly practical. It ran to more than a thousand pages; upon receiving a copy, Roosevelt reportedly quipped, “And where is the steamer trunk that goes with it?” But the reviews were positive.

At its peak, the Writers’ Project employed more than six thousand people. Some of its hires—Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, and Studs Terkel, among others—were celebrated, or would become so, but most qualified by dint of their economic circumstances. The result was an eclectic staff—“a mazy mass,” as Time magazine put it, of “unemployed newspapermen, poets, graduates of schools of journalism who had never had jobs, authors of unpublished novels, high-school teachers, people who had always wanted to write,” and so on. Putting writers on the public payroll was controversial, but as Harry Hopkins, the administrator of the Works Progress Administration, said at the time, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”

Credit: Library of Congress

The project’s overseers ruled out putting its writers to work on government reports; in the words of Jerre Mangione, its coordinating editor, wasting talent on bureaucratic drudgery would only have added “to the depression of the writers and the nation.” Granting them unfettered creative discretion was also ruled out, lest they crank out Marxist literature. Federal managers eventually settled on the idea of a guidebook with five regional volumes; in the end, different states and localities produced separate guidebooks, which included event calendars and tour itineraries. They also included essays like Brown’s. “This is not the well selected, carefully sculptured mosaic of formal history or geographical description,” one reviewer wrote, of the guidebooks’ style. “It is the profuse disorder of nature and life, the dadaist jumble of the daily newspaper.”

The guidebooks weren’t the end of the project’s output: it commissioned hundreds of other works, from oral histories to ethnographies and collections of folklore. One staffer went on assignment to Puerto Rico, reporting back on the rise of fascism there. In Wisconsin, members of the Oneida Nation were employed to record the language and history of their community. In the course of their guidebook work, writers in various states spoke with formerly enslaved people, and their interviews inspired a separate, broader initiative: an archive of more than two thousand first-person narratives about slavery. The archive was a “revolutionary opportunity to invite African Americans—not just as formerly enslaved individuals, but also as writers, as editors, as clerical staff—to be part of a federal project supporting this documentation of the past,” Catherine A. Stewart, a history professor at Cornell College, in Iowa, who has written a book about the project, says. “There was this idea that it was a rare moment to get the last generation to speak about the legacy of enslavement and emancipation.”

A photograph of Julia Ann Jackson, taken as part of the Federal Writers’ Project’s ex-slave narratives. Credit: Library of Congress

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While the project’s stated aim was to offer an economic lifeline to the unemployed, its managers had loftier cultural ambitions. Its first director, Henry Alsberg—a former journalist for the New York World and The Nation who dabbled in law, theater, progressive activism, and diplomacy, and who spent time in the nascent Soviet Union after the First World War—believed that the project could make a significant contribution to American letters by “seeing what is really happening to the American people” and documenting it. It was, by turns, a literary, anthropological, and sociological experiment. It was also radically journalistic—an exercise in sending reporters out into a misunderstood country and capturing the stories of people whose voices typically went unheard. The project paid close attention to style but also prized accuracy.

In September 1938, a hurricane devastated New England. Project staffers on the ground sprang into action to cover it; by the end of the following month, they’d published a book, New England Hurricane, that tracked the storm’s path up the coast in vivid, town-by-town detail, alongside photographs laying bare the damage. Readers learned that the Long Island Rail Road tracks at East Hampton had been “squeezed into bulging loops of steel”; that the passengers on a train “stalled at the very brink of catastrophe” in Connecticut spent the night drinking beer in the dining car; that the denizens of a Rhode Island athletic club found a live fish on the premises and kept it as a memento. One Rhode Island man “sat in a rocking chair on what bore some resemblance to a back porch, puffed at his pipe, and directed a crew of men sorting out the jigsaw puzzle that was once his home.”

Writing years later, Daniel M. Fox, of Harvard, likened New England Hurricane to the output of Henry Luce’s magazine empire, which had launched Life as a photo magazine in 1936. “It is an American guide to devastation,” Fox wrote, of the hurricane book, “based on the conviction that the people who were conquering the most severe economic depression in the nation’s history had sufficient determination and vitality to recover from the onslaught of nature.” 

EXPERTS CREDIT THE FEDERAL WRITERS’ PROJECT with germinating some of America’s great literary works. Its oral histories helped inspire Dave Isay’s audio project StoryCorps; the author Colson Whitehead read the interviews with formerly enslaved people when he was researching his novel The Underground Railroad. The project’s guidebooks remain in use, and have many dedicated fans.

One is David Kipen, a writer and former director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts who now teaches at UCLA. Kipen discovered the guidebooks in college via the work of Thomas Pynchon (a fellow Writers’ Project devotee) and scoured secondhand bookstores to build his own collection; later, when the University of California Press reissued the state’s guidebook, Kipen wrote the introduction. After the pandemic hit, Kipen noticed the similarities between the period in which the original project was born and the present moment. “The situation of writers was not all that great to begin with—for years I’ve been saying the Great Depression is already here for writers,” Kipen told me recently. “It hit me that maybe some reinvention of the project—which would put writers back to work but also reintroduce the country to itself, because it seems like half of America seems so clueless about the other half and vice versa—would serve a double benefit.”

Kipen started lobbying for a new Writers’ Project in opinion columns and letters to lawmakers. One US congressman—Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat—wrote back to Kipen expressing interest in the idea, and now hopes to introduce a bill in the next Congress. The timing and exact details of the bill have yet to be finalized, but Lieu’s office says that a new project could be anchored within the Department of Labor or a cultural agency, and run as a grant program administered through existing community institutions, including news outlets. As with the original, the goal of a new project would be both economic and cultural, putting the next generation of talent to work capturing the stories of the pandemic—those of the elderly, for example—and this broader moment, while also serving as a national archive for the existing work of local newsrooms and nonprofits.

In Kipen’s conception, the new project would produce a multimedia mix of journalism and literature. “I like to think journalism, on a good day, can be literary,” Kipen says. “I think there should be cross-pollination, and something better than either should emerge.”

Even if a Federal Writers’ Project 2.0 doesn’t pan out, other bills that already enjoy the backing of numerous lawmakers could, at least in some small way, replicate the story-telling spirit, if not the centralized bureaucratic structure, of the original—by providing federal support for the media business, and in particular for local outlets, which are increasingly under-resourced and yet remain uniquely well-placed to document the country. “More than in the 1930s, those local newsrooms do have an infrastructure that could be used to both connect with the writers who need it the most, but then also to make sure that those funds are spread as widely as possible,” Jason Boog, the author of a recent book about the Depression-era literary scene, says. “By plugging in to those networks, they would be reaching tons of working writers and journalists all across the country.”

A couple of the journalism bills under consideration—one that would allow newsrooms to band together to negotiate with Big Tech and another that would make it easier for outlets to convert to nonprofit status—predate the start of the pandemic, and focus on regulatory relief. Bills drafted in the months since propose putting federal dollars on the table—by mandating that the federal government take out more advertising in local outlets, for instance, or by creating a series of tax credits for local-news subscribers and advertisers, and to help fund reporters’ salaries.    

“I think what the pandemic has done is broadened awareness beyond just a small cadre of policymakers,” Penny Muse Abernathy, a professor at the University of North Carolina who is a leading authority on local-news deserts, told me, referring to the industry’s financial plight. “We’ve begun to get almost a grassroots recognition—among philanthropists, among community organizers—that something is going on here and it needs to be addressed.” Abernathy says that staffers for Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington State Democrat, have discussed with her the possibility of a federally subsidized “universal subscription” for local news, with additional financial support for news initiatives in areas that currently lack a local outlet. (Cantwell’s office did not provide comment.) 

Earlier this year, many news organizations were able to claim forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, a general relief mechanism for small businesses, though local papers owned by large national chains weren’t eligible. At the time of this writing, Congress was still negotiating a second package, but some observers have warned that short-term relief will not be enough to save journalism from its failing commercial business model. “Those with the most clout want to do things like treat chain newspapers as local businesses to get the same benefits,” Craig Aaron, co-CEO of the media advocacy group Free Press, says. “That’s a Shake Shack bill… not a rethink-the-system kind of bill.” The media-specific proposals presented in Congress to date—the tax-credits bill, in particular—go farther, but still fall far short of radical systemic reform to the media industry, or the boldness of a related new initiative such as the Writers’ Project. 

Come January, however, the US will have a Democratic president again. Joe Biden, traditionally a moderate, has sought, of late, to style himself as a latter-day FDR—and Kipen, for one, sounds optimistic that the new administration will be receptive to ideas like reviving the Writers’ Project. Earlier this year, Kipen served on a committee that advised the Biden campaign on arts policy; he says that he used his perch to push his proposal, and that there was some enthusiasm for it among his peers. (Kipen also tried sending one of the original project’s guidebooks to the Bidens’ home as a gift, but it was returned to sender. Biden’s transition team did not return my requests for comment about the Writers’ Project or Biden’s plans for the media generally.)

“I think this could be a very hopeful enterprise. And I think America is as short on hope these days…as it’s short of liquidity and health and all the other things it’s obviously running low on,” Kipen says. “There is America enough to cover and writers in need of work enough to cover it.”

THERE WAS MUCH ABOUT the Federal Writers’ Project that is unworthy of replication. While managers at the federal level pushed state offices to hire Black staff, state officials were often reluctant to do so, and Black writers were often forced to work on segregated teams. “They were the last to be hired and the first to be fired,” Stewart, the historian, says. The project’s interviews with formerly enslaved people are a precious resource, and interviewees usually found a way to speak their truth for the historical record, Stewart adds—but the writers the government hired to interview them were mostly white; some were descendants of slave-owners, and a few were even members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Often, interviewers would transcribe quotes in a racist approximation of Black Southern dialects.

While Alsberg was a visionary, he was also, by all accounts, a lousy manager. The Writers’ Project was often beset by bureaucratic infighting and by friction between the federal leadership and state offices. Nor was the project’s cultural philosophy without controversy. Many Americans distrusted the government’s involvement in storytelling; as the writer David A. Taylor has noted, in parts of the Southwest, project writers came to be known as el Diablo a pie, or “the Devil on foot.” Critics on the left disdained the project as a counterrevolutionary endeavor designed to co-opt and suppress intellectuals’ radical political instincts. Right-wing politicians, by contrast, saw its output as a radical threat to American values. 

While the project was progressive in many respects, it was premised, too, on a conservative view of cultural exceptionalism and unity. (Speaking in the 2009 documentary Soul of a People, the historian Douglas Brinkley referred to it as “an orgy of Americanism.”) Still, in the late thirties, the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee targeted the project, citing Alsberg’s past dalliances with the Soviet Union and supposed subversive material in the guidebooks themselves. Alsberg lobbied to keep the project alive, but even some of his colleagues felt he didn’t do enough to stand up to Martin Dies, the Texas congressman who chaired HUAC. Dies’s smears—amplified in headlines nationwide—spawned broader congressional pressure targeting other New Deal arts programs. In 1939, lawmakers killed the Federal Theater Project (on its final night in New York, actors brandished “WANTED” signs accusing a prominent congressional critic of murdering Pinocchio). The Writers’ Project got a stay of execution, but only on the condition that it source more funding from state governments going forward. Amid broader personnel changes, Alsberg was ousted, and the project eventually petered out. Many of the manuscripts it had been working on were only catalogued years later. 

Henry Alsberg, director of the Federal Writers’ Project, speaks to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Credit: Library of Congress

Today, we find ourselves in a new era of congressional wrecking tactics, toxic propaganda, and institutional distrust—not least of journalism. Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania, sees a direct line from then to now—Red-baiting, he says, helped lock in a cultural fear of government intervention across the economy. The potential for a well-developed, publicly funded media system, of the type that exists (and thrives) in many other democracies, has been one casualty of that legacy, he says. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting funnels public funds to NPR and PBS, though its stations are mostly funded privately. The corporation got a small emergency funding boost in the springAaron and others have argued that Congress should substantially increase its appropriation, and could also use it as a conduit to fund nonprofit and commercial outlets.) 

Many journalists have internalized the notion that it’s inappropriate for the government to fund their work and are not necessarily keen to accept public cash. As Susan Smith Richardson, the CEO of the Center for Public Integrity, wrote recently for CJR, that mindset is seen as a “badge of honor” across the industry. Richardson noted that the CPI’s receipt of a federal loan under the Paycheck Protection Program didn’t prevent it from later investigating that scheme, but other outlets have balked at the specter of a conflict of interest—Axios, for instance, took a loan but returned it following public criticism.

Pickard, though, thinks industry attitudes about public funding are slowly shifting. And for all that Trump and his allies have done to smear the national media, lawmakers from across the political spectrum tend to have a more favorable view of local journalism. “Even among conservatives who hate ‘the media,’ they still typically will have warm, fuzzy feelings about their local media, whether it’s their local newspaper or their local broadcaster,” Pickard told me. “And I think that’s a potential leverage point: Americans across the ideological spectrum do care about local journalism.” Indeed, many of the media bills proposed in Congress have at least some bipartisan support. Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump loyalist from Georgia, and Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, the Senate majority leader and his fellow Kentucky Republican, have signaled their support for antitrust exemptions for news outlets negotiating with Big Tech. Rep. Dan Newhouse, one of the cosponsors of the tax-credits bill, is also a Republican.

Clearly, there are many complex dynamics at work here. Republicans generally seem motivated more by the prospect of giving Big Tech a bloody nose than steering federal dollars into local-news coffers, let alone a new project modeled after the New Deal—and that’s assuming they intend to legislate at all under Biden’s presidency, and not just obstruct, snarl, and smear from the sidelines. Democrat-led state governments that could pick up the slack in funding journalism, meanwhile, have more demands on their cash than they have cash to go around. (Though the state of New Jersey will soon begin distributing journalism grants following a campaign spearheaded by Aaron’s group, Free Press.) 

At the very least, Pickard says, ideas like the Writers’ Project should feature in the public discourse around saving journalism. “The by-product, which I think is almost as important as the immediate aim, is to broaden our imagination about what’s possible, and to be able to point to these things that we did—that Americans did, in our own history,” he says. “If nothing else, rhetorically we should really be pushing on this.”

Boog notes that the original project came about as a result of writers forming unions and marching alongside other working-class interests; in 1935, writers’ groups picketed repeatedly in New York, carrying placards with slogans like “Children Need Books. Writers Need A Break. We Demand Projects.” Today, journalists tend to work at a remove from their colleagues in the printing plant and distribution hub. But within newsrooms, media unions have been increasingly assertive in recent years—including some affiliated with the NewsGuild, which was founded in 1933, in the crucible of the Depression.

“You have to reach the point where writers are marching in the street every day, alongside all of these other people who are suffering, and saying, We need help,” Boog says. “When it reaches that point, that’s when help comes.”

LATE LAST YEAR, C. ZAWADI MORRIS decided to shutter BK Reader, the hyperlocal news outlet she ran in Brooklyn, after a long struggle to make it financially viable. A couple of ad placements kept the site running through the early months of 2020, but when the pandemic hit New York, Morris saw the writing on the wall. “I was like, Oh, forget about it, we’re closing,” she says. 

But BK Reader didn’t shut down. Morris successfully applied for various sources of emergency philanthropic funding. And she quickly saw the pandemic as a unique storytelling opportunity. Her mind turned to the many individual perspectives that risked going unheard, particularly those of vulnerable or marginalized groups. For many Black residents of Brooklyn, the early uncertainty surrounding the pandemic “was not entirely unfamiliar,” she wrote later. Now “the rest of America had been swindled into the existential crisis its Black citizens could have given CliffsNotes for, if asked.” When we spoke recently, Morris asked me if I had read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. “You can understand a person’s character by what tools they choose to fight with in the midst of crisis,” she said. The pandemic, she thought, was “gonna be a snapshot of what our character is.”

Inspired by the Federal Writers’ Project, Morris launched the COVID-19 Writers’ Project, a multimedia effort to document the pandemic stories of Brooklyners from different walks of life: medical experts, high school students, the formerly incarcerated. Working with another editor, Morris interviewed subjects over Zoom, a constraint that initially disappointed her but came to feel appropriate. Later, after receiving grants from groups including the Pulitzer Center, the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists, and the American Medical Association, she was able to expand the team working on the project. It was eventually published on Scriibe, a nonprofit site affiliated with BK Reader (which is for-profit).

Morris and her team organized the COVID-19 Writers’ Project into chronological phases, and ended it, in September, on the theme of recovery. “We hoped that there wasn’t going to be another spike,” Morris said. “But of course, here we are now in another spike.” She told me she’d like to have continued tracking the lives of the people she interviewed, had she had access to continued funding—one of her subjects just lost their mother; another had to move for financial reasons. For now, BK Reader, at least, continues to cover the pandemic. “But of course, I’m fearful,” Morris told me. “When COVID goes away, what’s the sustainability of grants?” 

I asked Morris whether she would accept public funding, should the government make it available to her—putting the “federal” in her COVID-19 Writers’ Project. “Oh, absolutely,” she said. “That’s awesome. That would be so progressive if they did something like that.” 

Any public money would have to come with a guarantee of editorial independence, she said. But “at the heart of it, journalism is a public service, kind of like teaching. And it should be treated that way.”

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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