Henry Alsberg (c.1880-1970)

Henry Alsberg directed the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) from July 1935 until his firing in mid-1939 [1]. Overcoming significant internal and external obstacles, Alsberg and his FWP produced huge amounts of writing on many topics, particularly state and local histories. Much of this material is still readily available and used today, and many of the famous City Guides have been reprinted for present day audiences.

Alsberg was born c. 1880 and graduated from Columbia University and Columbia Law School in the early 1900s. He appears to have lost interest in the legal profession and, after three years of practice, tried his hand at writing, after studying literature at Harvard; journalism for several magazines & newspapers; and in the theater, as a playwright and director in New York City. One of his productions, an adaptation of the Yiddish play, “The Dybbuk,” played for a number of years in off-Broadway, Broadway, Chicago, and London theaters [2]. In addition, he served for a time as an assistant to the U.S. ambassador to Turkey and traveled overseas to help impoverished Jews.

Early in the New Deal, Alsberg worked as an editor for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) before being named director of the FWP by Harry Hopkins. After two years on the job, Alsberg noted the FWP’s progress: “In all there will be considerably over 200 books, aggregating more than 20,000,000 words… twice the size of the ‘American Dictionary of Biography’ which required fifteen years to complete… all our major books have been greeted with almost universal praise by the critics… An index to the demand for our books is to be found in their sales… the advance sales of the Massachusetts Guide, to appear within ten days, are reported to us by Houghton Mifflin as being phenomenal… Our project has had three Guggenheim awards in less than two years… Many of our writers, since they have been on the project, have turned out novels, research books, and have been constant contributors to the more prominent national magazines” [3].

As FWP director, Alberg faced many difficulties, including bureaucratic rules that hindered the hiring and work of his state directors; strikes and political bickering, especially in the New York and California offices of the FWP; alcohol problems among many of the writers; and criticism of the quality and output of the writing. Almost immediately the FWP was attacked by conservatives in Congress. In 1936, the Republican National Committee called the FWP a “festering sore of communism” and Alsberg “a noted Red” [4]. Alsberg defended himself by highlighting his past criticism of Russian communism [5]. Subsequently, the FWP came under scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC, also called the “Dies Committee”), which was attempting to root out and expose communism and other political movements they felt threatened the nation [6]. Foreshadowing McCarthyism, the HUAC used secret testimony in 1938 to condemn the FWP [7].

In 1939, Alsberg was replaced by John D. Newsom, whom Col. F.C. Harrington, the new head of the WPA, considered to be a more efficient manager [8]. In 1949, Alsberg edited The American Guide: A Sourcebook and Complete Travel Guide for the United States, which one reviewer described as a “huge, comprehensive and almost overpowering compendium of information, a triumph of organization and research” and a “culmination” of the WPA state guide series that Alsberg had supervised years earlier [9]. Henry Alsberg died in Palo Alto, California on November 1, 1970. He was 89 years old [10].

Sources: (1) “Four Will Direct Arts Work Relief,” New York Times, July 27, 1935; “Alsberg Ousted By WPA,” New York Times, August 10, 1939. (2) “Henry G. Alsberg, Led W.P.A. Project” New York Times, November 3, 1970; Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA; When FDR Put the Nation to Work, New York: Bantam Books, 2008 (pp. 293-295, 2009 paperback edition). (3) “Defends Writing Of WPA Authors,” New York Times, July 22, 1937. (4) “Writers’ Project Called Red Nest,” New York Times, November 2, 1936. (5) “Alsberg Denies He Is Red,” New York Times, November 2, 1936. (6) See, e.g., note 2 above, Taylor, pp. 392-427. (7) “Testimony Cited On WPA Book Bias,” New York Times, November 27, 1938. (8) See note 2, Taylor, p. 437. (9) Orville Prescott, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, August 12, 1949. (10) See note 2, New York Times.

Alsberg Henry