“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.”

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.

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 Kippen, 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 Kippen’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.”