Reinventing the Depression-era Federal Writers' Project could help reintroduce America to itself

September 7, 2021
In The News

Congress is going to the movies this week, and you’re invited. 

Rep. Ted Lieu has arranged a free public virtual screening for the nation – and for his colleagues on the Hill – of Soul of a People, a terrific Smithsonian documentary about the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. This follows a bill he and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced in May, the 21st-Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, which is jockeying for inclusion this week in the upcoming $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package. 

The bill would hire 900 writers to reinvent a New Deal initiative whose work can still educate and delight readers 85 eighty years later. Among the Federal Writers’ Project’s many gifts, it created the American Guides, a shelf of useful, cheap, shockingly well-written book-length explorations of all 48 states at the time, plus Puerto Rico and Alaska. The Project also recorded roughly 10,000 oral histories around the country, including 2,300 invaluable interviews with formerly enslaved people. 

At a $3.5 trillion concession stand, the $60 million it would take to hire 900 writers (including editors, photographers, web developers, librarians and teachers) barely amounts to a Raisinet. Of all the major bills currently eligible for the package, HR 3054 may just be the smallest. But if it succeeds, a new Federal Writers’ Project might also, someday, number among the most important.

Writing to heal an ailing country

A reborn FWP might enable us to confront five of the more pressing problems afflicting America today, a quintet we might think of as The Five Nobodies:

  1. Nobody listens. Half the country feels unheard by the other half. 
  2. Nobody values local journalism. Small-town papers are closing or cutting way back, leaving nobody to tell local stories for hundreds of miles around.
  3. Nobody, or far too few of us, have friends a lot older or younger than we are. Older Americans fear the younger ones, the young ones resent the old, and the middle-aged get it from both sides.
  4. Nobody values the humanities. College graduates in English or history departments – at least where colleges still maintain English or history departments – are graduating straight back into their high-school bedrooms. 
  5. Nobody agrees on simple facts. 

Who thinks COVID has made any of these problems better? Hands?

A new Federal Writers’ Project would chronicle our halting recovery from the pandemic and begin to address these Five Nobodies. It would listen to American stories, put laid-off writers back to work,  create mentorships between the generations, champion the importance of good, clear, elegant writing, and make the statement that facts matter, and they’re worth checking and rechecking until we get them right. 

In short, FWP 2.0 would help reintroduce America to itself.

This is personal to me. Last January, I spent four hours Zoom-teaching my UCLA writing class while, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my country coming unglued. On social media, my students were seeing it too. I asked them to compose something about their reactions, and one of them wrote, “America is a joke.” 

Well, not to me it’s not.  To me America is the great writers on my syllabus,  writers like Zora Neale Hurston, a granddaughter of slaves who wrote one of the most assigned novels in American schools today, and Saul Bellow, a Jewish immigrant who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

What do Hurston and Bellow have in common? They’re just two of the many promising writers whom the original FWP lifted out of poverty and into history. (Also, interestingly, they were both Republicans.) 

Our 'most precious and overlooked resource is stories'

As a great contemporary American author, Rebecca Solnit, has written of HR 3054, “The United States’ most precious and overlooked resource is stories, the stories of all the people who live far beyond the spotlight…The idea of sending waves of writers out to connect to these stories and maybe preserve them, as the oral historians of the Federal Writers Program did, is gorgeous.”

As you may have heard, Congress is a little busy right now. Not every member may make the time to tune in to a well-made, moving documentary about a tiny project that their predecessors had the wisdom to authorize 85 years ago. 

Just in case they can’t attend, please watch Soul of a People for them. These days, even without COVID, the distance between Americans can sometimes feel like six miles. The idea of striking up an apolitical conversation at a movie with a total stranger can seem as farfetched as recognizing your member of Congress in the next seat over. Tuesday night, if only online, both can happen. 

If you see your members of Congress in the chat room, don’t be intimidated. Ask ’em to pass the Raisinets. And then – with an email or with a call to their office – ask them to pass the 21st-Century Federal Writers’ Project Act.

David Kipen served as the NEA's Director of Literature and National Reading Initiatives under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He teaches at UCLA and runs a nonprofit bilingual storefront lending library, Libros Schmibros. Follow him on Twitter: @davidkipen