by John Syme
During an unprecedented economic crisis, in a country wracked by poverty, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the largest and most ambitious social and economic improvement program in the country’s history—deemed the New Deal. The effort to put Americans to work was managed by multiple government agencies, including the massive Work Projects Administration (WPA).
Under the auspices of the WPA, bridges and roads were built, national parks were created, and a cadre of more than 6,000 writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologists, geologists and cartographers were employed to document American life through the Federal Writers’ Project.
Black and white, known and unknown, young and working class, they fanned out across the country to compile local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children’s books and other works. Among the most celebrated of these publications were the 48 state guides known as the American Guide Series. The series was written and compiled by the FWP, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town.
Nearly eight decades later, author and Davidson College alumnus David A. Taylor ’83 picked up one of the guides, a move that led him down roads less traveled. His book Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America and its companion Smithsonian Channel documentary hold up a mirror to the character of America and some of its most important writers. The following interview explores the WPA through Taylor’s eyes.
“I’d want to shadow Zora Neale Hurston. Traveling with her…with be unimaginably dangerous, exciting and humbling.”
My wife and I took a trip across the country, and a friend of ours lent us her 1930s WPA guidebook to New Orleans. It seemed like this relic from another age wouldn’t be very useful to us now, but when we got to New Orleans, we were surprised at how rich its presentation was of social history and people’s lives. It wasn’t the way the Chamber of Commerce would have presented it—it was how people lived in that city, across race and class. That drew me in, to that guidebook and 48 others. I became curious about the people who created those books and I wrote an article for Smithsonian magazine. I became convinced there was an interwoven history and connections for people to explore in a book.
How did the vision develop from that first magazine article?
For the article, I had the privilege of talking with the great Studs Terkel, who at 96 was still vital and remembered that period when he first considered himself a writer particularly clearly. He wrote radio scripts and became friends with people in Chicago who went on to great writing careers, like Nelson Algren and Richard Wright. He said it was a “down time,” but it was an exciting time. That was vivid and very different from the typical view of the Great Depression. After the article, I proposed a book but publishers were skittish. So I teamed up with a filmmaker I’d worked with before and we proposed a documentary film to the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington. As that film got underway, I came back to the idea of the book that would be a companion to the film and cover more stories than we could get into the film.
The book was a great privilege to write. The work spread over eight years. While a lot of that was writing grant proposals and getting support for going ahead with the book and the film, it allowed time to sift through people’s collected papers, exchanges of letters between the writers, many of them very young at the time of the WPA. It was really a window into the life choices of a small sampling of bright people of all kinds, responding to a hard time, mostly with wit and humanity but also with fear and flashes of anger.
Is there an author whose writing about the WPA itself stands out particularly?
One of the ones who sticks with me is a young woman named Margaret Walker, who at age 20 had to lie about her age to get the job. She comes on and joins with this wide range of people, and she wrote about her impressions later, and she wrote wonderful poetry, and novels, and she was a great teacher herself later. She just captured some of the dynamism of the experience.
Others, unexpected for me, were the papers of Jim Thompson, a noir novelist of the 1950s, author of The Killer Inside Me. He worked with Stanley Kubrick later in Hollywood. But he started off in the ’30s, and it was fascinating to see how his darker views of human nature came out of his interviews in Oklahoma and west Texas history.
What other living writers from that time were you able to interview?
There were a few, like Studs Terkel and, in Florida, Stetson Kennedy, a young firebrand at the time in Florida. He was very generous with his time, and we interviewed him on camera as well as more extensively for the book. He just impressed me with his willingness to question the status quo as a young man, something I didn’t do very seriously until after my Davidson time.
What characters stuck with you after your work on Soul of a People?
A few of the characters who stick with me are ones that didn’t become famous and didn’t even think of themselves as writers later. One Oneida tribe member named Oscar Archiquette in Wisconsin really expresses a lot of the difficulty of his life and Native American life, and not only in English. That project in Wisconsin also documented Oneida life in the Oneida language and provides a precious link to a language that was being lost.
I’m interested in the lesser-known and even the non-writer characters who really engaged with the task of holding up a mirror to America. Another was Ruby Wilson, a nurse in Nebraska.
If you could project yourself back in time to David Taylor, WPA writer, which city or region would you want to be assigned to and why?
It’s tempting to pick a place that has changed dramatically like Albuquerque, or North Carolina, to feel life, from workers leaving the Reynolds plant in Durham to Hatteras to Asheville. I’d also love to be in New York with a license to ask people about their lives, like May Swenson and Ralph Ellison did. But probably I’d say Chicago, because amid the Depression’s worst—unemployment in Chicago was worse than anywhere else—you had in that office a phenomenal gathering of personalities. Besides the ones mentioned above you also had poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow (the future Nobel laureate of the bunch), choreographer Katherine Dunham, Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy—amazing writers but also extraordinary people.
If you could project yourself back to the rumble seat alongside a particular writer as reporting partner, who would it be and why?
Wow, a mind-boggling choice. It would be a blast to go along with Jim Thompson, finding routes through old Oklahoma with his brutal, dark wit. I’d probably die laughing. And in California, hiking the Sierras with Kenneth Rexroth (later mentor to the Beat poets), reporting the history of that spectacular landscape and its human contradictions of loggers and bohemians—that would be a dream. But ultimately I’d want to shadow Zora Neale Hurston. Traveling with her to juke joints, prisons and camps of indentured turpentine workers in remote corners of the Gulf Coast would be unimaginably dangerous, exciting and humbling. She was a fearless and masterful researcher. (At one point she traveled with a gun strapped to her waist for protection—and several times she just about needed it.) And she was an amazing storyteller and performer in her own right. To tag along in that world with someone so sharp, creative and playful in her intelligence—that would be a trip.