Revisiting the Federal Writers’ Project—the Nation’s First Self-Portrait

WPA Poster advertising American Guide Week.

WPA Poster advertising American Guide Week.
Courtesy, LOC

From 1935 to 1943 the WPA Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) employed around 10,000 people across the country to “hold a mirror up to America.” The FWP’s best known work is a collection of city and state guidebooks— the WPA Guides. Lesser known are the FWP’s interview recordings of everyday Americans living through the hardships of the Great Depression. The People’s Recorder, a national podcast, explores the people and legacy of the FWP in the voices of those who were there.

My own connection to the FWP reaches back nearly 30 years to when a friend loaned me a dog-eared reprint of the 1938 WPA Guide to New Orleans. I was fascinated by the guide’s commentaries on the Crescent City’s social history. For example, using the guide at the St. Louis Cemetery, I learned about local funeral rites, the effect of a yellow-fever epidemic on gravediggers’ wages and the connection between the cemetery’s centuries-old stone benches and modern patio furniture.

The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New Orleans

I searched out more WPA guides and, with filmmakers Andrea Kalin and James Mirabello at Spark Media, dug into the stories and interviews. That inspired “Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story,” an award-winning documentary about the FWP and life in America the 1930s.

In 2020 we decided to use podcasting as a way to dive deeper into the FWP. The first season of The People’s Recorder, launched in 2024, employs the recorded voices of FWP writers, editors and historians documenting life in the Jim Crow South, the cultures along the Gulf Coast, indigenous history in the Midwest and the Dust Bowl migration.

Author Zora Neale Hurston at New York Times Book Fair, 1937.

Author Zora Neale Hurston at New York Times Book Fair, 1937
Courtesy, Digital

The first episode features vintage archival recordings of President Franklin Roosevelt; FWP author Studs Terkel, who as a young man in the 1930s found himself “broke, just like everyone else;” and author Zora Neale Hurston describing how she learned songs from Black residents of rural Florida while on assignment for the FWP. “I just get in a crowd of people if they’re singing, and I listen as best I can and I start joining in,” she explains. “Then I keep on until I learn all the verses.”

The FWP was a relief program for the unemployed, yet several who got their start working for FWP went on to national renown, including National Book

America Writes

America Writes
The American Guides remain the Federal Writers’ Project’s best-known undertaking. Courtesy, LOC Prints and Photographs Division

Award winners Nelson Algren and Ralph Ellison, National Poet Laureates Gwendolyn Brooks and Conrad Aiken and Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow.  

“The project changed how we as a country looked at history itself,” says the podcast’s host Chris Haley. “The FWP did groundbreaking work, digging for stories that were on the verge of being erased forever, like the accounts of elderly African Americans who had been enslaved.”

"Recording Minnesota in Word and Picture," 1937
The FWP recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations and ethnic groups. Courtesy, Minnesota Historical Society.

Each month, the podcast features voices of those who were part of the FWP. Future episodes will continue to call on a new generation of FWP scholars—many who convened at last year at the Library of Congress symposium,“Rewriting America: Reconsidering the Federal Writers’ Project 80 Years Later,” celebrating the FWP’s legacy and continued influence.

The People’s Recorder is produced by Spark Media, with support from NEH and the state humanities councils of Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Nebraska and California. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Start listening here.

David A. Taylor is the author of Soul of a People and other books, and lead writer and a producer of The People’s Recorder. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Smithsonian and Discover. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC.