Fireside July 2021 Newsletter

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

An American Renaissance

Rep. Martin Dies with Hollywood studio executives, 1939
Texas Rep. Martin Dies, first chair of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration. Courtesy, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the midst of the Great Depression the federal government initiated a series of programs to hire unemployed artists and writers. Today, these provide a lens through which American history, values and everyday life were viewed in the 1930s. The first such program, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), 1933-1934, hired more than 3,700 artists during its 5-month existence. They produced more than 15,000 artworks in practically every type of public building. PWAP was replaced by the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (TSFA),1934-1943, which sponsored competitions and awarded commissions to selected artists who turned out more than a thousand post office murals. The WPA launched the Federal Art Project (FAP) in 1935, along with the Federal Writers’ Music and Theater Projects. All came under attack from conservatives in Congress and ultimately were defunded. The creative output that resulted from this unprecedented era of government sponsorship is now regarded as an American Renaissance. 

 

In this Issue:


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.”

Susan DeMasi is the author of the 2016 biography, Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. She is a visiting scholar in this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities program, “The New Deal Era’s Federal Writers’ Project,” as well as a contributor to an upcoming book on the literary legacy of the FWP, edited by Sara Rutkowski, for the University of Massachusetts Press. [email protected]

Turning Controversy into Consensus

Olin Dows, 1937

Olin Dows, 1937
Dows painted the post office murals in Rhinebeck and Hyde Park, New York. He served as an administrator for the first New Deal relief program for artists, the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), and later headed the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). Courtesy, Wilderstein Preservation.

The New Deal’s efforts to create jobs extended to thousands of artists on relief. Between 1934 and 1943, several government-sponsored programs dedicated to art and culture sponsored the creation of artworks in public buildings. The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, later renamed the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, commissioned more than 1,400 murals in post offices nationwide.

In addition to putting artists to work, the post office murals were seen as a way to boost general morale during hardships of the Great Depression. Many of the murals feature historical depictions of the places in which they reside. Some have sparked controversy for their depictions of race and gender.

The murals at the Rhinebeck, New York, Post Office are the work of (Stephen) Olin Dows (1904-1981), a native of the Hudson River Valley and family friend of FDR.  Dows studied at Harvard and the Yale School of Fine Arts and, significantly, spent the summer of 1929 in Mexico where he met such luminaries as Diego Rivera. 

Dows’ twelve murals at the Rhinebeck Post Office depict over 400 years of the region’s history, from the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 through the post office’s dedication in 1939.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Enslaved men had been described as “stevedores” in a 1940 brochure about the murals. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

Slavery was common in New York until it was abolished in 1827. Dows’ murals include several images of Blacks that likely were slaves. One mural portrays two men carrying cargo to a waiting sloop. Another shows a man working at a brick kiln. A third shows a youth harvesting corn.

Some Rhinebeck residents questioned whether depictions of enslaved people should remain part of a public mural. Dows’ depictions of Native Americans also came under criticism. When the Regional Office of the Postal Service, citing public concerns, announced last year that it planned to remove or cover the murals, Rhinebeck residents saw an opportunity to open a discussion about racial justice and Black history.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Depictions of Blacks and Native Americans sparked a community dialogue. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

The goal of the community conversation, which was held online owing to the pandemic, was to listen and understand, and not change minds. The participants included local officials and community representatives who adopted guidelines they called, “I say, I see…”  The discussions resulted in an alternative to removing the murals by improving their role as educational artifacts. 

Dows intended the Rhinebeck murals to be educational as well as a celebration of local history. In 1940 he authored a companion brochure explaining the murals panel by panel. When the murals came under threat, Dows’ original brochure became the inspiration for a new brochure that would address the murals’ controversial content.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.
Controversies can arise when New Deal-era murals include imagery considered offensive today. Courtesy, DCHS.

A consensus emerged around the need to provide historical context for the murals. The revised brochure, “Invisible People, Untold Stories” focuses on seven of the murals’ scenes. Under “The Mural Depicts,” text explains that General and Janet Montgomery, shown planting seedlings, settled in Rhinebeck in 1774.  Opposite, under “Source Materials Reveal,” we also learn that 421 of Rhinebeck’s 491 persons of color were enslaved.  In another example, “The Mural Depicts” we see Black “stevedores” at work. Under “Source Materials Reveal” we learn that one enslaved stevedore named Tom was 24 years old in 1799 and stood 5 feet 10 inches tall.  

”Invisible People, Untold Stories”
A community conversation resulted in a booklet that provides historical context for the Rhinebeck murals. Photo by Bill Jeffway.

The brochures are used in local schools, but the booklet is essentially an online tool. A digital kiosk, offering a self-guided educational tool that can be viewed from any touchscreen, is in development. Outreach to tribal representatives has just begun to evaluate the potential for more learning opportunities.

View the booklet, “Invisible People, Untold Stories”

Learn more about endangered New Deal artworks and ways communities and institutions can respond.

Bill Jeffway is Executive Director of the Dutchess County Historical Society. He serves on the research committee of Celebrating the African Spirit, and is the founder of HistorySpeaks, a consultancy that documents the past in relevant and colorful ways. [email protected]

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.