Library of Congress Symposium Celebrates the Federal Writers’ Project

Rewriting America, a symposium held at the American Folkways Center on June 16, 2023. Photo by Susan DeMasi.

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a unique New Deal program begun in 1935, provided jobs to thousands; published scores of books (including the celebrated WPA American Guide series); kickstarted the careers of such legendary authors as Richard Wright and May Swenson; and collected oral histories from immigrants and formerly enslaved people. In June, a symposium at the Library of Congress (LOC), “Rewriting America: Reconsidering the Federal Writers’ Project 80 Years Later,” celebrated the FWP’s legacy and continued influence.

It’s fitting that the symposium took place at the Library of Congress. When the FWP closed down in 1943 many of its documents were deposited there. Eighty years later, the collection, consisting of thousands of archival boxes and digitized materials, continues to be mined by historians, writers, educators, documentarians, and folklorists.

During its 8-year run, the FWP produced 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and 340 “issuances” (articles, leaflets and radio scripts.). Courtesy, NARA.

Hosted by the American Folklife Center, a special collections division in the LOC, the symposium’s agenda centered around the recently published “Rewriting America: New Essays on the Federal Writers’ Project (University of Massachusetts Press, 2022), edited by Sara Rutkowski. Speakers included some of the book’s contributing authors, as well as other researchers and writers in the field of FWP studies and oral history. Guha Shankar, American Folklife Center program specialist, organized the program along with FWP scholars Rutkowski, Deborah Mutnick, David Taylor, Jerry Hirsch, and Benji de la Piedra.          

William Colbert, Age 93. Alabama

William Colbert, Age 93. Alabama
The FWP’s Slave Narrative Collection documented over 2,300 first-person accounts of former slaves across 17 states. Courtesy, LOC.

Presentations centered on the politics and vision of the FWP; contemporary undertakings that are making use of the LOC’s FWP materials, including new readings of the narratives of enslaved African Americans; research into Asian American and Mexican American FWP writers; an upcoming FWP podcast; and a New York City-based multimedia project about Covid-19, inspired by the original FWP.

With the study of oral history so prominent in FWP studies, an internationally renowned oral historian, Alessandro Portelli, gave the keynote address, which “situated the FWP within the trajectory of the field of oral history and its intersection with current public humanities projects,” said LOC’s Shankar.

There was discussion about pending federal legislation introduced by Representative Ted Lieu (D-California), calling for a 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project. As proposed, the revived FWP would be run by the Department of Labor. As with the original FWP, all works created under the program would be archived at the Library of Congress and made widely available to the public.

American Guides poster

American Guides poster
The FWP’s American Guide Series published histories, automobile travel routes, photographs, maps, and descriptions of the diverse cultures and geography of all 48 states, as well as several cities and territories.
Courtesy, Work Projects Administration Poster Collection – Library of Congress.

The American Folklife Center (AFC) is designated the national center for folklife documentation and research. Its archive encompasses millions of items of ethnographic and historical documentation from the U.S. and around the world.

The symposium was hosted by the AFC, with support from by the American Folklore Society, the Oral History Association, and the Professional Staff Congress: City University of New York.  The Living New Deal contributed copies of its Map and Guide to the New Deal in Washington, DC, featuring 500 New Deal sites and a self-guided walking tour of the National Mall.

For more information about the symposium:

“Re-writing America”: AFC Symposium on the Federal Writers’ Project, by Guha Shankar

Research Guide

Republic of Detours—Rekindling Interest in the Federal Writers’ Project

FWP Poster

FWP Poster
Writers at work. Courtesy, NY City Municipal Archives.

During the Great Depression, improving the nation’s infrastructure wasn’t the New Deal’s only agenda. Economic recovery also meant providing useful relief jobs to creative professionals, leading to the establishment of Federal One, the umbrella organization for the Federal Art, Theatre, Music, and Writers’ Projects.

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) employed thousands of out-of-work editors, writers and others, and published hundreds of books in its quest to create a self-portrait of America. It supported writers through hard times and propelled careers, with authors such as Nelson Algren, Ralph Ellison, Saul Levitt, Kenneth Rexroth, Mari Tomasi, May Swenson, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright among the many authors who were part of this literary legacy.  This idealistic program endeavored, through its publications, to celebrate the mosaic of racial, ethnic and cultural identities in America. It also, unfortunately, attracted the attention of conservatives, anti-New Dealers and the first iteration of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), leading to the FWP’s shutdown.

 American Guide

American Guide
The FWP published travel guides to 48 states and some regions and cities. Photo by Addie Borchert.

After Congress defunded the FWP in 1939, it was soon nearly erased from the public mind. A host of books, starting with Jerre Mangione’s 1972 book, The Dream and the Deal, resurrected interest in the FWP, helping to re-establish the importance of the Project.

Scott Borchert’s new book, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, (2021 Farrar, Straus and Giroux) adds an important voice to understanding this seminal federal effort, particularly now that legislation has been introduced to establish a 21st century FWP

Borchert’s well-researched history of the Project is offered alongside a historical backdrop. The American literary scene converges with cultural and political themes, stretching from the aftermath of the Civil War through the 1930s. The narrative and inviting writing style are welcoming to both FWP scholars and readers new to the Project.

Gathering of Nuggets

Gathering of Nuggets
The frontpiece of the FWP’s 1939 book, “Idaho Lore”. Courtesy, LOC.

Borchert’ interest in the FWP began with the discovery of a treasure trove of American Guide books in his great-uncle’s attic.  The American Guide series, the centerpiece of the FWP’s accomplishments, spanned every one of the then-48 states, as well as Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C. and dozens of cities and regions. Each guide included not only travel tours, but also essays on local folklore, history and geography.

Borchert’s telling of the FWP encompasses everything that made the agency special: the oral history/slave narratives collected by FWP workers; aspiring, soon-to-be famous writers; the evolving American Guide book series; segregation and racism in the Southern States; the “secret” creative writing unit approved by FWP director Henry Alsberg—and much more.  

Temple Herndon Dunham, Age 103

Temple Herndon Dunham, Age 103
From “Born in Slavery, Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project.” Courtesy, LOC Slave Narrative Collection.

Borchert examines previously unexplored aspects of the Project, including important but lesser known editors and writers like Vardis Fisher, the director of the Idaho Writers’ Project. Fisher, a novelist who grew up on a homestead, almost singlehandedly wrote his state’s guide, the first to be published. Readers also learn about Katharine Kellock, the FWPs highest-ranking woman, a powerhouse who helped devise the tour sections of the guide books. Borchert also brings us the story of writer Sherwood Anderson’s little-known involvement in the New Deal, as he traveled the nation to write for the FDR-endorsed magazine, Today, reporting on the impacts of Roosevelt’s new policies.

Rep. Martin Dies with Hollywood studio executives, 1939

Rep. Martin Dies with Hollywood studio executives, 1939
Dies head a House Special Committee to combat un-American ideologies. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration. Courtesy, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.

No book on the FWP is complete without the battle played out in newspapers of the day, between Congressman Martin Dies, who chaired HUAC, and FWP’s beleaguered director Henry Alsberg, who struggled to save the Project and its writers from reactionary elements. Borchert also highlights the cultural and historical events that influenced HUAC and triggered its creation.   

The legacy of the FWP is often wrapped around its famous writers and its work relief programs. Borchert points to yet another legacy.

Henry Alsberg

Henry Alsberg
The founding director of the FWP testifying at HUAC hearing, 1938. Courtesy, LOC.

“The FWP, utterly and explicitly, was anti-fascist by design,” Borchert writes. He reminds us that the FWP was created while fascism was taking hold abroad and domestic groups like the Ku Klux Klan tried to worm its way into American society. “This was the backdrop against which the FWP was initiated, the fascist upsurge that it sought— through the American Guides and other efforts—to oppose.”

New York City Never Stops Eating

1st Avenue Market, Manhattan, ca. 1937

1st Avenue Market
Manhattan, ca. 1937
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

When the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), the literary arm of the WPA, closed down in 1943 — after a prolific few years that saw hundreds of publications issued — massive amounts of research materials and unfinished manuscripts were put away, unused. Now, more than seventy years later, many of those documents are seeing the light of day in the form of books, documentaries, and exhibitions.

In September, the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) launched an exhibit, Feeding the City: The Unpublished WPA Federal Writers’ Project Manuscript, 1935-1942, drawn from the unpublished manuscript written and edited by members of the New York City unit of the Federal Writers’ Project.

Writers at work, Federal Writers Project

Writers at work
Federal Writers Project
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

“What did New Yorkers eat? Where did the food come from? How was it marketed?

The New York City Municipal Archives exhibit provides the answers to these questions, just as just as the Municipal library (located in the same facility and closely associated with the Archives)  provided answers to WPA researchers and writers who did research there during the Projects’ heyday.

The display, which runs through March, 2019, offers vintage recipes, oversized, bold photographs of New Yorkers shopping for groceries, and excerpts from the unpublished manuscript, which complemented other FWP projects that were planned to chronicle America’s food culture.

Waiting on customers in an Italian grocery store , Manhattan, 1937

Waiting on customers in an Italian grocery store
Manhattan, 1937
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

Had it been published, it’s not hard to imagine the book and its promotional catchphrase, “New York City Never Stops Eating,” adorning bookstore displays.

Two books published recently, America Eats: On the Road with the WPA (Bloomsbury, 2008) and Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead Books, 2009), used the material the WPA collected to show America’s eating habits nearly a century ago.

Federal Writers’ Project units were formed in each of the 48 states, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and major cities. The Project’s writers, editors, and researchers told the story of America through travel guidebooks and other publications. The NYC Unit was one of the most prolific units.

Description of foodstuffs at a Sicilian grocery.

Description of foodstuffs at a Sicilian grocery.
FWP writers went to the city’s ports, warehouses, restaurants, and wholesale markets to interview New Yorkers who had some role in feeding the city.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

It’s fitting that the exhibit is shown at the Municipal Archives building, itself part of a larger story of the WPA writers’ relationship to the city and particularly to Rebecca Rankin, the City’s reference librarian from 1920 through 1952 who led the way for the formation of the Archives. According to Assistant Commissioner of DORIS Kenneth R. Cobb, when the FWP project closed down, 6o cartons of the FWP’s materials (including 13 boxes from Feeding the City) were sent to the Archives to “to have and hold forever,” at least partially due to the help Rankin provided to the writers, along with her commitment to progressive principles. (For more on Rankin, see this NYC DORIS article.)

The Municipal Archives houses a trove of other FWP and WPA materials. Among them are documents collected for the FWP’s Ethnic Heritage books. The Italians of New York and an English and Yiddish version of The Jewish Landsmanschaften of New York came out in 1938 and 1939. A book about Spanish-speaking New Yorkers was planned but never published. Those research materials reside in the archive.

Also in the care of the Archives are photographs taken by the WPA in 1939 and 1941 documenting every city building, surveys and architectural descriptions of houses of worship within the five boroughs, reports on child nutrition and education, and more.

To see the exhibit, visit the NYC Municipal Archives 1st Floor Gallery, 31 Chambers Street, Manhattan. The gallery is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Thursday: 9 a.m. to 7p.m.; Saturday: 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The Municipal Archives preserves and makes available New York City government’s historical records.

Potatoes: A layout for the never-published book.

A layout for the never-published book.
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

Feeding the City

Feeding the City
FWP writers went to the city’s ports, warehouses, restaurants, and wholesale markets to interview New Yorkers who had a role in feeding the city.
Photo Credit: Susan DeMasi


“Be a nuisance where it counts,” The Legacy of Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Writer and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“It is as if there were places and times in which human activity becomes a whirlpool which gathers force not only from one man’s courage and ambitions and high hopes but from the very tides of disaster and human foolishness which otherwise disperse them.”

“A whirlpool which gathers force.” Interestingly, these words were written by Marjory Stoneman Douglas–the namesake of the school in Parkland, Florida, where in February, yet another shooting massacre took place.

American Guide to Miami

American Guide to Miami
Published under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project, the American Guide Series contains detailed histories of each of the then 48 states and major cities and towns.

Douglas, who died in 1998 at the age of 108, might have been describing the student activists who have taken up the fight against the NRA and the politicians who support archaic gun laws. But Douglas’s words appeared in the foreword she wrote to the 1941 edition of A Guide to Miami and Dade County, one of the books in the Works Progress Administration’s American Guide series.

The WPA guides, published by the New Deal’s Federal Writers Project between 1935 and 1943, were intended to create jobs and spur tourism during the Great Depression. The FWP hired thousands of unemployed writers, librarians, clerks, researchers, editors, and historians around the country—including Douglas, a journalist, and activist throughout her long life.

Douglas is best known for her tireless crusade to save the Florida Everglades. But throughout her life, she also supported such causes as women’s rights, civil liberties, and racial justice.

The Everglades, River of Grass

The Everglades, River of Grass
Douglas’s book, published in 1947, the same year that the Everglades became a national park, remains a call to action.

She was a suffragette at Wellesley College, and actively fought for women’s right to vote until the 19th Amendment was enacted in 1920. Arriving in South Florida in 1915 when barely 5,000 people lived in Miami, she began her career as a society columnist for her father’s newspaper, which later became the Miami Herald.

Like Henry Alsberg, director of the FWP and editor of the WPA American Guide series, Douglas spent time in Europe after World War I aiding war refugees. Upon returning to Florida, she turned to covering social and environmental themes, including the importance of preserving the Everglades and its ecosystem.

Douglas, who stood 5 foot 2 and weighed barely 100 pounds, famously did battle with the Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Florida, and powerful business interests over draining the Everglades for agriculture and real estate development. Her 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass, still considered groundbreaking, “galvanized public interest in protecting the Everglades,” according to the Florida Department of State. In 1969, at age 79, Douglas founded Friends of the Everglades.

When she was 103, President Bill Clinton, calling her the “Grandmother of the Glades” presented Douglas with the Medal of Freedom. Still-wild portions of the Everglades are named in her honor. At a ceremony on Earth Day, 2015, Douglas’s home in Dade County, Florida, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Student March

Student March
Students in Parkland, Florida mounted a campaign to end gun violence after 17 died at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But more than these “official” honors Douglas would surely be proud of the students who hail from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for carrying on her efforts to build a better world.

“Be a nuisance where it counts,” Douglas once said. “Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption, and bad politics—but never give up.”

John Rothchild, who helped write Douglas’s autobiography, said that her death was the only thing that could “shut her up.”

He added, “And the silence is terrible.”

Where We Gonna Get It, Dad? Johnny Cash at the Dyess Colony

Young Johnny Cash. Cash moved to the colony in 1934 with his parents and five siblings.

Young Johnny Cash
Cash moved to the colony in 1934 with his parents and five siblings.

“Will we get cold and hungry, will times be very bad? When we’re needin’ bread and meat, Where we gonna get it, Dad?”

Upon hearing Johnny Cash sing those lyrics, one wouldn’t typically think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New Deal, or any of the myriad programs that arose from the FDR administration’s response to the Great Depression. In fact, that’s not what the song is about. But it could easily describe how Cash and his family felt as they faced poverty and hunger when he was a young boy. Fortunately, the Cashes made it through those hard times thanks to a New Deal agricultural program that helped resettle destitute farmers.

Dyess Housing. Five hundred homes were constructed at the colony. They included acreage, a barn, a chicken coop, and a mule.

Dyess Housing
Five hundred homes were constructed at the colony. They included acreage, a barn, a chicken coop, and a mule.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

The name of the experimental program was far from glamourous: Colonization Project #1, later called the Dyess Colony after William Dyess, an Arkansas FERA administrator. But for the Cashes, it had to be dazzling. Indeed, Johnny Cash called it “the promised land” in his autobiography. Arriving in 1935 when the future country music star was just three years old, they were among the five hundred families who were resettled on wild but fertile land that needed tending.

All were given a plot of land complete with a barn, chicken house, shed, a five-room house, and enough money to begin the arduous task of clearing the land and growing crops. A community center, administration building, schools, a theatre, and other buildings rounded out the small community.

Porch at Dyess Colony, 1940

Porch at Dyess Colony, 1940
The Colony was named for William Reynolds Dyess, the first Arkansas administrator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) after he was killed in a plane crash in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress

While Johnny Cash’s father and other farmers remained independent and were expected to pay the government back, they also participated in cooperative efforts to buy supplies and sell crops.

After visiting the town in 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about it in her column, My Day. She watched children scurry about, and looked into the faces of these pioneers, saying, “I decided they had character and courage to make good when an opportunity offered and at last that opportunity seemed to be within their reach.” Perhaps little “J.R.” Cash was among those scurrying children.

Canning Workshop. A Dyess Colony cooperative project for Arkansas farmers during the Depression.

Canning Workshop
A Dyess Colony cooperative project for Arkansas farmers during the Depression.
Photo Credit: Ben Shahn, FSA

It was, like many such programs, imperfect, particularly in its treatment of African Americans, who were excluded from joining the whites-only Colony. Dyess, after lying in disrepair for many years, is now an historic site, with the Greek columned administration center, the singer’s boyhood home on “Road 3,” and other buildings restored. This year, both the singer and the New Deal were honored at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival,  held in October on the grounds of the Dyess Colony. Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson were among the singers performing in the field next to Cash’s restored house.

The New Deal saved Johnny Cash’s family. Perhaps it’s ironic that his fame, in turn, has saved Dyess.

Colony Administration Building, Dyess, Arkansas

Colony Administration Building
Dyess, Arkansas Administration Building  Source

Class of 1950 Dyess High School

Class of 1950
Dyess High School. Photo provided by Michael Boyink.  Source
Photo Credit: Courtesy, U-A Historic Dyess Colony


J.R.Cash boyhood home
Dyess, Arkansas
Photo Credit: Courtesy U-A, Historic Dyess Colony

Cash family home
Recently restored
Photo Credit: Courtesy U-A, Historic Dyess Colony


A 20-million Word Experiment in Collective Writing Henry Alsberg and the FWP
By Susan DeMasi

American Guide Series

Federal Writers' Project Poster
American Guide Series
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

In the first half of the 20th century—before he fell through the cracks of history—Henry Alsberg’s byline appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines. When Harry Hopkins tapped him to lead the Federal Writers’ Project in 1935, Alsberg had already lived a remarkable life.

Born in New York City in 1881, Alsberg spent the 1920s as an activist and writer in the U.S. and abroad. He worked on behalf of political prisoners, reported on the geopolitical changes in Europe and Russia for The Nation and other publications, and aided Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. He produced and wrote plays at the Provincetown Playhouse and the Neighborhood Playhouse. In 1930, he helped Emma Goldman edit her autobiography. His close friendship with Goldman developed at least partially from her open stance on homosexuality. As a gay man living in horrendously dangerous times, Alsberg found a safe haven in her company.

By the time of the Great Depression, the boundlessly energetic Alsberg had suffered economic as well as personal setbacks. Freelance writing jobs were scarce. A contract with the Metropolitan Opera House to adapt one of his plays fell through. But Roosevelt’s New Deal brought a promising new deal for Alsberg.

Alsberg with Eleanor Roosevelt, an ardent FWP supporter, 1938 At WPA Exhibit in Washington, D.C.

Alsberg with Eleanor Roosevelt, an ardent FWP supporter
At WPA Exhibit in Washington, D.C., 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy of National Archives

At age 53, he landed a writing job with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and authored America Fights the Depression, a large-format book promoting the accomplishments of the Civil Works Administration (CWA). Then, he brought his progressive beliefs to the Federal Writers’ Project, which he headed from 1935-1939.

Under Alsberg’s guidance, the Project—dubbed by Pathfinder Magazine as “a 20-million word experiment in collective writing”—produced hundreds of books. The highly acclaimed American Guide series detailed the histories and cultures of each of the then-48 states, Alaska, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico, and provided descriptions of every major city and town.

Among the 10,000 unemployed people hired by the FWP over its 8-year existence were many up-and-coming writers, including John Cheever, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright. Ralph Ellison, May Swenson, and others collected oral histories for the FWP, preserving by the thousands the life stories of former slaves, immigrants, factory workers, and other Americans who didn’t typically make it into the history books.

Henry Alsberg, Director of the Federal Writers' Project Testifying at House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearing, 1938

Henry Alsberg, Director of the Federal Writers' Project
Testifying at House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearing, 1938

Alsberg and Hallie Flanagan, his counterpart at the Federal Theatre Project, constantly battled with anti-New Deal forces. Their mutual nemesis, Congressman Martin Dies, chair of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), led the opposition that ultimately defunded both projects in 1939. Colonel Francis Harrington, Harry Hopkins’ successor as head of the WPA, ordered Alsberg to resign, but he stubbornly refused to leave while he was in the midst of ushering a number of books to publication. Harrington fired Alsberg; the FWP was renamed the WPA Writers Program, and continued in a diminished capacity under state auspices until its closure in 1943.

After a brief speaking tour, Alsberg resumed freelance writing and returned to New York City, living for a time next to Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn—later renamed the Stonewall Inn—today a landmark of the gay rights movement. In 1942, he returned to Washington D.C. as an editor for the Office of War Information. But that didn’t last long. The Civil Service Commission investigated Alsberg for being in an “immoral,” homosexual relationship, forcing him to resign.

FWP display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair Oversized American Guide books placed on a U.S. Map

FWP display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair
Oversized American Guide books placed on a U.S. Map

He returned to writing and working as an editor for Hastings House into his 80s. In his final years, he moved to Palo Alto to live with his sister, a civil rights activist. He often visited City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, where his friend, Vincent McHugh, a former New York City FWP editor, was involved in the Beat poetry scene. After Alsberg’s death in 1970, McHugh recalled their FWP years: “We were one of the Berkeleys of the 1930s.”

Alsberg and the Federal Writers’ Project changed the literary landscape of America. We can look forward to this legacy expanding exponentially as more original FWP materials become digitized.