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 You can find your senator at  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.

Former book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle David Kipen served as Director of Literature for the National Endowment of the Arts under both Democratic and Republican Administrations. He teaches at UCLA and runs Libros Schmibros, the nonprofit bilingual storefront lending library he founded ten years ago. His books include Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542-2018 (Modern Library) and introductions to the WPA Guides to California, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego (UC Press). His work has appeared in the New York Times, Alta and the L.A. Times, where his May 20, 2020, feature helped gin up interest in reinventing the Federal Writers’ Project: . He’s also working on the California Creative Workforce Act, SB 628. He can be reached at [email protected].

The Ghosts Among Us—The WPA Slave Narratives

Old Slave Day Reunion, 1937, Southern Pines, North Carolina

Old Slave Day Reunion, 1937, Southern Pines, North Carolina
According to a local newspaper “…a day set aside for those of the colored race who lived during slavery days. These old timers came from far and near, spent a day in the Municipal Park telling of their experiences and recollections to the thousands that gathered about to see and hear them.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

“Lookee here, Mister, I jes an old colored woman, an I knows my place, an I wisht you wouldn’t walk wid me counta what folks might say.” The old woman saying this, Josephine Anderson, was formerly enslaved. It was October 30, 1937 when Anderson sat with Jules Frost, who was interviewing her in Tampa, Florida, for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). In her telling of the story, “mister” suddenly vanished. “He was gone; gone, like dat, without makin a sound. Den I know he be a hant.”

The ghosts of slavery still haunt. The Federal Writers’ Project’s Slave Narratives; A Folk History of Slavery in the United States was an enormous effort to collect the untold stories of those formerly enslaved.

The seeds for a collection of these oral histories were first planted in the 1910s and 20s, as scholars began taking note that those who had been enslaved were aging and their stories would die with them. Charles Johnson at Fisk University and John Cade of Southern University were eager to record those stories. Lawrence Reddick, a student of Johnson’s, had suggested a federally funded project through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1934. The FERA project was subsequently adopted by the Works Progress Administration. By 1936 the slave narrative interviews were fully underway and continued through 1938.

Zora Neale Hurston interviews Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown for the FWP

Zora Neale Hurston interviews Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown for the FWP
Eatonville, Florida, 1935
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

The Slave Narratives were a simultaneous effort among 17 state FWP branches. In addition to recording oral histories of the last living generation of former slaves, the FWP also documented African-American culture of that era, including songs, games and more. Card games, like “Georgia Skin,” “the most favorite gambling game among the workers of the South,” were described and discussed. Songs, like “I Surrender,” were sung. Josephine Anderson offered up some folk tales about witches: “Some folks reads da Bible backwards to keep witches from ridin em, but dat doan do me no good, cause I kaint read.”

African-American enslavement is a subject often relegated to elective classes rather than woven into the U.S. history curriculum. Black history is American history. American history is Black history, and the FWP recognized that.

Born in Slavery

Orelia Alexia Franks, 1937

Orelia Alexia Franks, 1937
Beaumont, Texas.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s under the WPA. At the conclusion of the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. In 2000-2001, the Library digitized the narratives and scanned 500 photographs for this online collection, including many never before publicly available.

Although the New Deal was tainted by racism, the stories of over 2,300 African Americans who had been born into slavery were deliberately preserved for the ages. The oral histories of men and women like Acie Thomas, Fannie McCay, Prophet Kemp, Mamie Riley, The Reverend Squires Jackson, Belle Buntin, Welcome Bees, Kiziah Love and many more, including that of Josephine Anderson, are imperfect. Many of the interviewers were white and they were interviewing Blacks in the Jim Crow South—many of whom were hesitant in speaking about their experiences.

“The compromising circumstances of the color line in 1930s America,” notes Catherine A. Stewart in her book, Living Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project, “made it almost impossible for blacks and whites to speak to one another freely about slavery.”

Elijah Cox, 1937

Elijah Cox, 1937
Texas (town unknown)
Photo Credit: Courtesy LIbrary of Congress

Of course, some interviewers were Black, notably the writer Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston had already published her magnum opus, Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, when she joined the Florida division of the FWP as a folklorist and contributor. “Well,” she wrote in one essay entitled “Turpentine,” “I put on my shoes and I started. Going up some roads and down some others to see what Negroes did for a living.”

Hurston knew, as do we today, that what Blacks did and do for a living, who they were and are, beyond the horrors of slavery, as the surging Black Lives Matter movement attests. Changes are afoot in classrooms around the country to share more of the Black experience.

Abe Livingston, 1937

Abe Livingston, 1937
Beaumont, Texas
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

The San Francisco School Board, for one, recently passed a resolution to teach the history, culture and contributions of African Americans to every K-12 student by the 2022-23 school year.

There is, as yet, no national curriculum or set of standards for teaching Black history in the United States. Only a handful of states require it, including Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and New York. Other states, however, are looking to join them. Black history will be in Connecticut’s curriculum in 2022. Colorado has recently mandated that minority groups be included in the teaching of civic government. Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont and other states are working with their school districts to establish curricula, as well.

New Jersey is making moves to mandate Black education. Ebele Azikiwe, a 7th grader at Cherry Hill, New Jersey’s Beck Middle School, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Black history is history and it’s a history everybody should know.”

The ghosts of Josephine Anderson and many others are still among us—conserved at the U.S. Library of Congress so that we may all learn from them.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.

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

Susan Rubenstein 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]

“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.”

Susan Rubenstein 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]

Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project, by Susan Rubenstein DeMasi

“The 1930s was the most creative period in American cultural life” claimed actress Toby Cole when I interviewed her shortly before her death at 92. I thought she was exaggerating because she had worked for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) during the New Deal.  But after reading Susan Rubenstein DeMasi’s absorbing biography of Henry Alsberg, who headed the Federal Writers Project (FWP), I’m inclined to agree. It is virtually impossible to imagine such inventive individuals as Alsberg and Hallie Flanagan, who headed the Federal Theater Project during the New Deal, being hired by government today—even in a Democratic administration. 

A rumpled bear of a man from a secular New York Jewish family, Alsberg was born in 1881 in New York and died in Palo Alto 89 years later after spending a lifetime necessarily hiding his homosexuality from all but radical friends like Emma Goldman.

DeMasi calls the 1920s “arguably his most active period, [when] he energetically segued from journalism to refugee relief work to theatrical pursuits to political endeavor,” but it is the work he did as head the Federal Writers Project for which, thanks to DeMasi’s book, as well as David A. Taylor’s 2009 Soul of People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, Alsberg will be gratefully remembered for the FWP’s volcanic output under his inspired leadership.  

In 1934 Alsberg edited the large format book America Fights the Depression whose more than 200 photos showed the myriad of ways in which the new Civil Works Administration hired more than four million people to wage constructive war against the economic calamity during the winter of 1933-34.

It was probably on the strength of that book that WPA chief Harry Hopkins entrusted Alsberg to muster his own army of thousands of unemployed writers. Alsberg wanted to use that talent to reflect Americans back to themselves just as photographers of the Farm Security Administration, notably Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, were doing at the same time—even when that meant lancing popular mythology and telling the stories of those left in the dust. 

The most famous outcome of the FWP was the now classic WPA guidebooks to all 48 states and many American cities. It also spawned hundreds of other books as well as transcripts of thousands of interviews including those with ex-slaves at the end of their lives and countless pages of research never published but now an invaluable resource to historians, ethnographers, folklorists and others.

Often difficult, utopian, and self-described as a “philosophical anarchist,” Alsberg was himself surprised to find himself working as an administrator within the government. A lifelong progressive in his politics, Alsberg had much to hide from the New Deal’s enemies, and DeMasi does a splendid job not only of resurrecting a secretive man’s life but delineating the reactionary forces in Congress that ultimately brought him and Hallie Flanagan down in a Communist witch hunt that foreshadowed the McCarthy era.

In her introduction, DeMasi admits that in writing her book, she fell in love with Alsberg. You will, too, in reading it.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

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.

Susan Rubenstein 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]

Our Mark on This Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America’s Parks

Our Mark on this LandFor anyone seeking out the finest examples of the New Deal, no road trip is complete without a copy of Our Mark on This Land. In the manner of the Federal Writers’ Project guides to the states, Helen and Ren Davis have compiled a superb illustrated guide to the extraordinary contributions made by the Civilian Conservation Corps to our national parks and forests and our state parks. Those public lands were vastly expanded during the Great Depression largely because of the labor provided by three million CCC “boys” as well as President Roosevelt’s lifelong commitment to conservation.

The book opens with a 55-page introduction to the CCC that is one of the finest summations of its origins, organization, philosophy, and accomplishments I’ve read. It introduces some of the key players including the designers of the “National Park-rustic”-style buildings featured in the book’s illustrations as well as the landscape architects who strove for an artful artlessness in the way roads, campgrounds, and lookouts were constructed.

The second section is a state-by-state guide to select parks, including maps, brief histories, and CCC-built features. “Destination parks” are provided for those seeking out the all-stars. The final section is an appendix of supporting information and an extensive bibliography about the CCC.

The book is generously illustrated with photos of parks and structures, many taken by the Davises. If the sixteen color plates whet your appetite for more of the same, I’d also recommend Cynthia Brandimarte and Angela Reed’s excellent Texas State Parks and the CCC: The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Our Mark on This Land is a work of love as well as scholarship. It will make you want to hit the road to seek out what the Davises found in their own travels. Don’t leave home without it.

Reviewed by: Gray Brechin, Ph.D. is Project Scholar for the Living New Deal.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

Books: The WPA American Guide Series Makes a Comeback

WPA Guide to California, 1939

WPA Guide to California

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

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.”

Barbara Bernstein founded the online New Deal Art Registry and is now the Public Art Specialist at the Living New Deal Project.