In Support of a 21st Century Federal Writers Project
By Alan Minsky, Executive Director – Progressive Democrats of America
One of the great programs of FDR’s New Deal was the WPA Works Progress Administration, which put millions of unemployed Americans back to work at the height of the Great Depression. One of the most celebrated projects of the WPA was the FWP, the Federal Writers Project, which hired thousands of writers and gave them an opportunity to continue plying their trade. The results were impressive, generating many celebrated works and providing opportunities to many 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. We feel the social, and literary, benefits for the country of a new FWP will be as significant today as they were in the 1930s.
As they used to say in the golden era of newspapers, Read More About it!
We Must Reinvent the Federal Writers’ Project and Help Unify America Around Our Shared Stories
- Even before COVID, more than 1,300 communities in the U.S. were considered “news deserts.”Newspaper staffs had shrunk by 51% over a decade. As of last May, between 30,000 and 36,000 journalists and other media employees had become unemployed or underemployed since COVID-19. Those numbers aren’t going down.
- Even before COVID-19, 53% of recent college graduates were unemployed, or underemployed.Most recent graduates are still marooned back among the stuffed animals and model airplanes of their high-school bedrooms, waiting for entry-level jobs.
- Eight in 10people who have died of COVID-19 are 65 or older. Many if not most of them had nobody to tell their stories to.
- Several regions in America today qualify as “book deserts.”Such neighborhoods can average one book for every 300 young people.
- Between 1935 and 1943, the original Federal Writers’ Project 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.
- 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.
- The Folklore Project of the FWP recorded roughly 10,000 oral histories around the country.These included 2,300 interviews with formerly enslaved people (many conducted by Zora Neale Hurston, the 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.
- 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. (The last two number among the many lifelong interracial friendships formed on the Project between Americans who otherwise might never have met.) A reinvented FWP would enable gifted writers to work together and practice the profession they were born for, enriching our cultural heritage.
- 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 went right into the WPA and found a place in society…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, helping to knit up our fraying national unity.
- The Project transformed American writing, and reading, both here at home and around the world. Between 1901 and the start of the Federal Writers’ Project 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.
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.