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Writers suffered enormously during the pandemic. The Federal Writers’ Project offers a template on how to help them—and the country.
By Scott Borchert ’08
early eight decades ago, the Federal Writers’ Project— the literary division of the New Deal’s vast jobs creation program—met an untimely demise at the hands of its enemies in Congress. Now it seems that Congress may invite its resurrection.
In May, Representatives Ted Lieu and Teresa Leger Fernández introduced legislation to create a 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project. Inspired by the New Deal arts initiatives—which produced government-sponsored guidebooks, murals, plays and more—their bill is a response to the havoc unleashed by the pandemic on cultural workers in all fields.
Here’s how a revived F.W.P., as currently envisioned, would work. Instead of hiring impoverished writers directly—as the Depression-era F.W.P. did—the new program would empower the Department of Labor to disburse $60 million in grants to an array of recipients, from academic institutions to nonprofit literary organizations, newsrooms, libraries, and communications unions and guilds.
These grantees would then hire a new corps of unemployed and underemployed writers who, like their New Deal forebears, would fan out into our towns, cities, and countryside to observe the shape of American life. They’d assemble, at the grass-roots level, a collective, national self-portrait, with an emphasis on the impact of the pandemic. The material they gathered would then be housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
The new F.W.P., in other words, would revitalize and repurpose portions of our existing cultural infrastructure. The plan is drawing support from the Authors Guild, PEN America and the Modern Language Association, as well as from labor unions. Never in the almost 80 years since the dissolution of the original F.W.P. has there been such a unified and resonant call for its return.
Then again, this is the first time in generations that writers have faced the kind of sustained economic hardships the F.W.P. was designed to address in the first place.
The best reason to support a new F.W.P. is also the most obvious. Like its predecessor, the project would be an economic rescue plan for writers, broadly defined: workers who have been grappling with a slowly unfolding crisis in their industry for at least a decade. Even before the pandemic, the combined stresses of the digital revolution, the so-called gig economy, severe cutbacks to local journalism outfits, and other related developments made writing a precarious business.
Then came 2020 and an economic shutdown that exacerbated all these trends. Not every writer felt the worst of it. Book sales went up and the most successful authors, journalists and editors continued to work relatively unimpeded. But less secure writers—and many millions of white-collar workers in writing-adjacent fields—were not so lucky.
A new F.W.P. would deliver a much-needed economic boost, especially if we follow the original project’s example and define “writers” as broadly as possible. That means throwing open the doors to librarians, publicists, fact-checkers and office assistants, as well as beat reporters, aspiring novelists and junior editors. The original F.W.P. considered all such people “writers” as long as they needed jobs and could successfully carry out the tasks of the project.
But writers aren’t the only ones who would gain from a new F.W.P. The project’s documentary work would make an invaluable contribution to the nation’s understanding of itself. Think of the vast treasury that would accrue in the Library of Congress, forming an indelible record of how ordinary Americans live: not only how we’ve weathered the ordeal of the pandemic and mourned the dead, but also how we work and relax, how we think about the burdens and triumphs of our pasts, how we envision the future.
There is tremendous potential in this undertaking. Clint Smith, writing in March in The Atlantic, argued for a revived F.W.P. that would collect the stories of Black Americans who survived Jim Crow, joined the Great Migration, and fueled the civil rights movement—a contemporary echo of the original F.W.P.’s work collecting narratives from formerly enslaved people in the 1930s.
This is right, I think, and crucial. A new project should also grapple with all the major forces that have shaped our moment, from the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt and the collapse of organized labor, to the rise of the women’s movement and gay liberation, to the impact of species extinction and climate change.
The critic and educator David Kipen, a driving force behind the legislation, believes a new F.W.P. would carry out “domestic cultural diplomacy”—the project, as he put it, “might just begin to unify our astonishing, divided, crazy-quilt country.” Today, as we face increasing alienation, division and political tribalism, this quest for national understanding is more urgent than ever.
Recreating the original F.W.P.’s geographical capaciousness would be a key to this effort. In the 1930s, the project had offices in every state; for a time, federal writers were on the ground in every county. This forced the project to include communities far removed from the levers of power—and from one another. A new F.W.P. would also need to cover the nation from coast to coast and border to border. And today’s federal writers would need to be as diverse as the populations they documented.
The original F.W.P. remains a source of inspiration, and rightly so: Its American Guide series is still read and admired, and the reams of material it gathered—including life histories, folklore, recipes and much else—have fascinated countless scholars and curious citizens alike. But its story contains warnings we ought to heed. The project faced opposition from the start. Some critics mocked the F.W.P. boondoggle and jeered at the “pencil-leaners” who staffed it. Others fixated on the presence of radicals, real and imagined, and even accused the F.W.P. of creating a “Red Baedeker.” (Unremarkably for the Depression era, Communists and other radicals did work for the project, as was their explicit legal right; the claim that they controlled it was, and remains, absurd.)
The F.W.P. and the other arts projects, especially the Federal Theater Project, drew such scorn in part because they were perceived to be the New Deal’s soft cultural underbelly: easy targets for critics who sought to undermine the Roosevelt administration’s robust (if also limited) government activism on behalf of the poor and the working class.
The situation today would most likely be worse. Opponents will complain about excessive spending or subversive elements in the F.W.P.’s ranks. But this is no reason to hold back. In the 1930s, the project’s staunchest enemies—nativists and white supremacists among them—denounced the F.W.P. as the worst kind of left-wing folly. But the project found supporters in chambers of commerce, travel associations, and, especially, the commercial publishing houses that released most of the F.W.P.’s books. In fact, 44 of those publishers issued an open letter in defense, arguing that no single private house could have accomplished what the F.W.P. did in a few short years, under conditions of enormous strain, and that curtailing the project would be “a severe deprivation to the reading public and to the enrichment of our national literature.”
They recognized what the nation stood to lose when the F.W.P. was destroyed, and they were right. Now, generations later, we have a chance to bring the project back. Let’s take it.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Copyright The New York Times. Scott Borchert is the author of Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, a history of the Federal Writers’ Project.
Photo at top: Martin Dies, Jr., representative from Texas, in November 1938, before a meeting of his committee to investigate subversive activities. The Federal Writers’ Project was a key target of the committee’s investigation (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, LC-DIG-hec-25320)