For a 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project based on FDR’s New Deal Program
Alan Minsky for the PDA National Team
In Support of a 21st Century Federal Writers Project Modeled on FDR’s New Deal Program
FDR’s New Deal created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), putting millions of unemployed Americans back to work at the height of the Great Depression. One of the WPA’s most celebrated projects was the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) that hired thousands of writers, allowing them to continue plying their trade, generating quality works, and providing opportunities to young writers who would become legendary authors in the coming decades.
Now, a group of writers and activists are proposing that a new Federal Writers’ Project be launched—and PDA wholeheartedly endorses the proposal! In the coming days, one of PDA’s closest allies in Congress will be introducing legislation calling for the establishment of a 21st century FWP. The social and literary benefits of a new FWP will be as significant today as they were in the 1930s.
Tell President Biden to support a modern version of the Writers’ Project so we can employ thousands of experienced and emerging writers, promote reading, preserve our grandparents’ stories, and help reintroduce America to itself. Let us know if you act on this, and then contribute to our ongoing operations to make the world a more progressive place for all.
Need more reasons to act? Here are 10 good ones:
1. Even before COVID-19, more than 1,300 communities in the U.S. were considered “news deserts,” with news staffs shrunk by half over a decade. As of last May, 30,000-36,000 journalists and other media staffers had become unemployed or underemployed since COVID-19. Those numbers aren’t going down.
2. Even before COVID-19, 53 percent of recent college graduates were unemployed or underemployed. Most recent graduates are still marooned among the stuffed animals and model airplanes of their high-school bedrooms, waiting for entry-level jobs.
3. Eight in 10 people who have died of COVID-19 are 65 or older. Many of them had nobody to hear their life stories.
4. Several regions in America today qualify as “book deserts,” averaging one book for every 300 young people.
5. From 1935-1943, the original FWP trained more than 6,000 destitute men and women who had little previous experience. It also provided jobs for about almost 1,000 professional writers, editors, and—not the least important job description nowadays—fact-checkers.
6. Together they created cheap, informative, still enjoyable book-length “WPA Guides” to all 48 states, 40 cities, 18 regions and territories, countless counties, and other American phenomena. Many are still in print, and almost all are available free online. They need new research and writing to reflect all that’s changed in America, and all that’s survived.
7. The Folklore Project of the FWP recorded roughly 10,000 oral histories around the country, including 2,300 interviews with formerly enslaved people (many conducted by Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God). A similar effort today would spark local efforts in all 50 states to preserve and publish the stories of elderly, working-class, and other marginalized Americans.
8. The FWP gave their first writing jobs to beloved bestselling authors as different as Hurston, Richard Wright, John Cheever, Studs Terkel, Ralph Ellison, and Saul Bellow. A reinvented FWP would enable gifted writers to collaborate, enriching our cultural heritage.
9. Several of these canonical American writers might never have found their calling at all without the Project. Native Son author Richard Wright was mucking out operating rooms when he was hired. Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison later said, “I became a writer because I could work for the WPA, do research, and learn to practice my craft.” A comparable project today would seed a new generation of American writers.
10. The Project transformed American writing and reading, both here at home and around the world. Between 1901 and the start of the FWP in 1935, American literature won just one Nobel Prize. Since that year? Eleven, more than any other country. Our authors have enhanced our international standing—and, though not always happy about it, repaid the government’s investment in them with a fortune in taxes.
Thanks so much for anything you can do.