Rekindling The Federal Writers’ Project

Birds of the World

Birds of the World
A New York City WPA Federal Writers’ Project book.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

I’ve been writing a lot about the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) lately: articles, a play of sorts, more than a thousand emails to politicians, editors and various keepers of the New Deal flame. Miraculously, after all this badgering, the office of Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) has now drafted a bill to reinvent the Project.  

Hundreds of millions of Americans today have no idea that anything like the federally funded Writers’ Project even existed. From 1935 to 1943 the FWP produced well-written, still-delightful guide books to 48 states, most major cities and U.S. territories. It also recorded oral histories of Americans from coast to coast—including Zora Neale Hurston’s groundbreaking interviews with formerly enslaved people.  Writers as diverse as John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow and Richard Wright got their starts on the Project. 

Poster for Federal Writers' Project

Poster for Federal Writers' Project
Advertising “American Guide Series” volume on Illinois.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

I’ve been buttonholing people and rhapsodizing about the FWP for almost a year now. I can make the case for a reinvented FWP til I’m blue in the face, but I’m really only trying to convince to convince 536 people—federal legislators to pass the bill, and President Biden to sign it. Some of those marks will be pushovers. The rest could be murder. 

Plainly, these people may or may not care what I write in a national publication. But they damn well care about what their constituents think of them. They have to if they want to keep their jobs. Which is where, I hope, you come in. If you’re game, I ask you to write a letter or email on behalf of a reinvented Federal Writers’ Project to your member of Congress and/or senator. If you’re feeling frisky, throw in a local or statewide news outlet, too. 

This is asking a lot, I know. These days, somehow, we’ve all got so much unstructured time that it feels like we have none at all. But believe me, coming from you, letters like these will be read, and they will count.

I’ll even give you some free ammo. The librarians of Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, heaven bless them, have aggregated this list of links. to online versions of all but a few of the original WPA Guides.

American Guide Week

American Guide Week
WPA Writers’ Projects describe America to Americans.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

If you haven’t spent much time with the American Guide to your own state or city, I urge you to dive in. While you’re at it, flag a passage or two that you think the readers of your letters might appreciate. And if ransacking the entire 700-page California Guide, for example, strikes you as daunting, by all means consult this indispensable treasury of good WPA writing culled from all the state guides. However you do it, when you write your letters, quote from a passage or two from an original guide. This will help to make the original FWP come alive on a regional level for people who don’t know the first thing about it—and if you feel like it, by all means loop me in.

If you know the city or town where your recipient lives, you might consider including a relevant passage as a grace note. If you’re writing to a member of Congress, you might cite an especially lyrical or wry description or passage about their district. If you’re writing to a newspaper editor, maybe send an anecdote about some crusading frontier journalist in their vicinity who got themselves horsewhipped for their trouble. 

For instance, check out this nugget from the California Guide:

“Sebastian Vizcaíno, merchant-explorer, sailing into the bay in 1602, named it Monterey … and described it in such superlatives that those who came after him could not recognize it for 167 years.”

American Guide Seires

American Guide Series
WPA guide to the Golden State, history and culture, tours and trails, recreational facilities.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

Authorship of the guide was maddeningly anonymous, but that line could well have come from the California poet Kenneth Rexroth or the feminist writer Tillie Olsen, who worked in the FWP’s California office. Whoever wrote it, Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel) would probably get a big kick out of it.

Regardless of your state or the WPA guide you quote, make sure your reader understands that a new Federal Writers’ Project would be—like the original—a job-creation initiative. It would provide good, well-paying hard work for idle college graduates and laid-off workers (some of them journalists—but you can leave that part out.)  

During its nearly eight-year run, the original FWP provided jobs for about 700 professional writers, editors and—not the least important job description nowadays—fact-checkers. In addition to the professionals, the original FWP also employed about six thousand destitute men and women who could, maybe, put a sentence together, but had zero related work experience when hired. 

And yet, beyond its social and economic benefits, the most important goal of reviving the Federal Writers’ Project right now may be to help reintroduce a divided country to itself. 

You’ll be urging your readers to create a candid, empathetic modern equivalent to the original guides—written and edited by some of their own constituents and drawing on interviews with their neighbors. If it helps, picture your senator or member of Congress handing out these guides to office visitors like cigars. (If the eventual published guides provide too candid a picture of your region, by then it will be too late). 

Untitled, possibly Main Street of Twin Falls Idaho

Untitled, possibly Main Street of Twin Falls, Idaho
According to the Idaho State Guide, this town had the unusual distinction of being planned.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

The New Deal is alive and the Living New Deal proves it. The Federal Writers’ Project lives on, too—in the American Guides, in the works of the great writers it launched and sustained, and in its priceless oral histories—an art form that the Project more or less invented. 

Co-religionists, it’s up to each of us to demand the resurrection of the Federal Writers’ Project. If America needed it then, we sure as hell need it now.

You can find your member of Congress at https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative. You can find your senator at https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm.  You can find your local opinion editor at their newspaper or radio station’s website. But hurry. The news desert you irrigate may be your own.

On the Road with the American Guide Series

WPA American Travel Guides

WPA American Travel Guides
From the author’s collection
Photo Credit: Fern Nesson

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) between 1937 and 1942, is one of the best-known projects of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested driving tours and accompanying essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions also have their own WPA guidebooks.

Poster for American Guide Week

Poster for American Guide Week
President Roosevelt offered his support for the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide Series on this poster celebrating American Guide week, November 10–16, 1941. The individual state guides were meant, as he noted, to “illustrate our national way of life, yet at the same time portray variants in local patterns of living and regional development.”
Photo Credit: Poster courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Each guide was written by a team and published anonymously. Several now-famous American authors got their start working for the FAP. Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston were among those who survived the Great Depression as writers of the American Guides.

Less renowned and anonymous writers deserve equal credit. They were a careful and inquisitive bunch with a wide range of talents and interests. The wealth of knowledge conveyed in each guide is astonishing.  From architectural history, economic research, fishing and hunting, folklore, regional foods, cooking, Native American history, literature, regional language differences, botany, geology, race relations, labor movements, to women’s rights—there was someone at the FAP who could write with authority on it.

I first became interested in the guides in the 1980s when I was a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brandeis University. In that pre-internet era, finding the WPA guides presented quite a challenge. It took me nearly five years searching used bookstores around the country to amass a complete set of the 48 state guides and many regional and city guides—most of them first editions. 

The guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity of the country at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guides are as much fun to read today as they must have been for travelers in the 1930s.

The Crescent City

The Crescent City
New Orleans City Guide, 1938

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras
New Orleans City Guide, 1938

Maps from Oklahoma Guide

Maps from Oklahoma Guide
Stages of development of the Oklahoma through its history
Photo Credit: Fern Nesson

For years, I considered writing about the guides, but it was not until last November, after 20 years as a lawyer, 25 more as a teacher, and the last three as a student of fine art photography that I hit upon a format for doing so. After completing my MFA I found the time to travel and decided to use the guides as inspiration for where to go. Going back to their delightful mélange of cultural and historical essays and suggested back roads seemed a wonderful way to explore the country. Reportedly John Steinbeck hit the road with the WPA guides when he embarked on a 10,000-mile road trip with his poodle in 1960, memorialized in his travelogue Travels With Charley: In Search of America.  

The project has been endlessly fascinating. Remarkably, much along the routes remains unchanged, at least in the places I have visited so far. Yet, much has changed—some things for the better, others distinctly not. Old houses in Maine that were derelict in the 1930s are now beautifully restored homes for wealthy summer residents. Once sleepy towns and small cities are today engulfed by sprawl and strip malls. The encouragement that the guides gave to sightseeing by automobile—tourism being a way to lift the economy—now seems positively regrettable, cars being no longer a novelty but a bane.

Snake River Gorge from "Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture,” 1937

Snake River Gorge from "Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture,” 1937
Idaho was the first state guidebook in the American Guide Series created by the Idaho Federal Writers’ Project. At the time Idaho had less than half a million residents and few people were planning to go there.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives,

One thing that should never be regretted is the American Guide Series itself. Not only do the guides provide invaluable historical source material and interesting routes for tourists, they also express trenchant but subtle criticism of injustice in our country. The writers exposed racism, anti-unionism, poverty, and inequality when they saw it. Without comment, they let the statistics speak for themselves. But their message was clear: this country could and should do better by its people.

The idealism and open-heartedness with which the FWP explored our country’s diversity, geography, and challenges led me to want to follow in their footsteps. So far, I have completed eight photo essays with the guides as a travel companion. I cannot think of a better way to see this country.

Vermont Guide to the Green Mountain State

Vermont
Guide to the Green Mountain State
Photo Credit: Courtesy Fern Nesson

 

Books: The WPA American Guide Series Makes a Comeback

WPA Guide to California, 1939

WPA Guide to California
1939

In another sign that America is waking up to the rich legacy left to us by the WPA, the American Guide Series— out of print since the 1940s—is being reissued as quality paperbacks, which are selling well. Over the last decade, university presses and other publishers have rediscovered the value of these well-researched, vividly written and wide-ranging guidebooks. Though the books are now 70 years old, “they are no more obsolete than any other great works of American literature,” says David Kipen, who wrote introductions to the recently reprinted WPA guides to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

The guidebooks are probably the best-known publications of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project. Like other WPA arts projects, the American Guide Series had multiple goals. It employed out-of-work writers, fostered a sense of local pride, and promoted much-needed tourism. While the federal government paid the salaries of some 6,000 writers of the series, each state was responsible for printing and distributing the books.

The guides more or less followed a standard format—covering the geology, history, industry, agriculture, government, and natural resources of each of the 48 states and the District of Columbia. Major cities, large towns, and characteristic regions were discussed in detail, and sometimes embellished with cultural trivia and regionalist charm  Readers could find out, for example, that Mays Landing, New Jersey is the national capital of nudism; that Nevadans like to eat at lunch counters; and that the favorite names for Tennessee coon dogs are Drum, Ring, Gum, and Rip.

WPA Guide to New York City

WPA Guide to New York City
1939

The guidebooks were so popular that the series expanded to cover 27 individual cities; fifteen regions, such as the Berkshire Hills and Monterey Peninsula. Many of the guides had annotated “motor tours” and some were exclusively dedicated to destinations, such as “Ghost towns of Colorado,” and “The Ocean Highway: New Brunswick, New Jersey to Jacksonville, Florida.”

One of the most interesting of American Guide Series is “Washington City and Capital.” Originally published in 1937, it is replete with fascinating history and lore, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt questioned its utility as a guidebook because it weighs four pounds. A condensed, more portable size was subsequently published.

Like the murals the WPA commissioned for government buildings, these books assured Americans that their local sights and activities were part of a great American story worthy of being captured in print or paint.

The American Guide Series died out with the rest of the New Deal in the early 1940s, but the books became sought-after collectors’ items and are still used by travelers and valued by history buffs. Indeed these guidebooks remain useful and entertaining. They offer, in Kipen’s words, “a keepsake of all that’s lost, a Baedeker to how much survives, and an example of what writers and America once did for each other, and might again.”