David Shribman: “Dreaming of a Federal Writers’ Project 2.0”

From an Ideas column in the Boston Globe by David Shribman headlined “Dreaming of a Federal Writers’ Project 2.0”:

Over an eight-year period in the middle of the Great Depression, a cadre of the nation’s most talented writers were deployed across the country to examine the personalities and peculiarities, the traditions and taboos, the character and customs, of the various states. They burrowed into the geology, the history, the politics, the economies, and the industries of their assigned states. They produced a remarkable outburst of books that were respected then and are cherished now. And as a national political correspondent and columnist for four decades, I have found those books a resource of incalculable beauty and value.

In their pages I have learned how clammers in Damariscotta, Maine, tap the beaches at low tide to force the bivalves to “spout out tiny streams of water that betray their hiding places in the mud.” I have discovered how residents of an old Alabama settlement named Drake Eye turned to producing peanuts and peanut butter after the boll weevil infestation nearly destroyed the cotton crop in 1910. I have learned about the tradition of the candlewick bedspread in Dalton, Ga.

Though some of these volumes have been updated, the majority of them, the result of the Depression-era labor of 6,000 writers working under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, are out of date, or at least dated….

A reboot of the Federal Writers’ Project would reflect both the country’s diversity and the importance of that diversity to the character of the country. The new Texas volume, for example, surely would not include its 1930s characterization of Juneteenth (“Every Negro who can play a fiddle or a guitar brings his instrument, while the others break spontaneously into the ‘blues,’ work songs or spirituals”), but just as surely would note that the state has sent nine Black members to the House since 1973, with Houston electing two Black mayors.

But why, at a time when we live online — when even the folded road map has been replaced by Google Maps — do we need what is in essence an act of curating our regional cultures?

Because such a national undertaking would in effect be creating a repository of stories that, taken inside each state and together, would help us understand the larger American story. Because a cataloguing of our culture is a bow of respect to that culture. Because revising books written eight decades ago gives us a chance to appreciate the changes underway in our land, and to celebrate them. Because the very exercise of preparing a revised set of guides would reveal the richness of even the remotest crossroads of our country. Because it could help preserve regional traditions and regional differences being wiped away, by corporate-spawned conformism, by the leveling effect of the Internet, by the declining appreciation for history.

If we build it, the readers will come. This is more urgent now than it was even in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt years, when regional accents were more distinctive, when each part of the country had a dinnertime diet peculiar to its crops and growing season, when regional newspaper editors set the conversations of their communities, and when mass communication meant radio and nothing more. Today regional differences are in eclipse, and it is more important than ever to record, and perhaps preserve, those differences….

Consider that today’s America is an entirely different country than the one depicted in the original American Guide series. The 1930 Census, for example, reported 1.3 million Mexicans in the United States; now, more than eight decades after the publication of the original volumes, there are more than 60 million Hispanics in the country, and from many more places than Mexico. There were only about a quarter of a million Asians in the country when these books were published; today there are more than 20 million.

Moreover, the FWP books missed one of the great demographic events in American history: the Great Migration that brought Black people from the rural South to the industrial North, transforming both the places they settled and the places they left. That migration began around 1916 but tapered off in the years in which these books were written, only to spike again when 4.3 million Black people left the South in the 1950s; commensurate numbers followed in the next decades….

When these volumes were written, some 5.1 million Americans lived on farms or were tenant farmers; the number has fallen by half — a change in the nature of a country where, in 1781, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God.” Today’s New Hampshire, for example, is far more diverse than it was when it was defined by mills (in Manchester) and mountains (in the North Country)….

Next, consider what the original guides omitted that would be included today: An acknowledgment and celebration of the cultural contributions of gay, trans, and gender-queer Americans and the way they have helped transform American life. Though there was a vibrant gay life in the 1920s, a furious counterreaction — which scholars associated with the end of Prohibition and which helped bring about so-called state “sexual psychopath” laws — followed in the 1930s, just when these volumes were produced….

Now is the time to deploy a new platoon of writers and artists of many races, ages, and sexual identities to produce a new series of portraits of America. Joseph Frazer Wall, a Grinnell College historian who wrote the introduction to a 1986 reissue of the Iowa guide, hailed the Federal Writers’ Project as “an unprecedented venture by the federal government into the subsidization of the arts.” Out of work or underemployed, the nation’s creative class was drafted into a collective endeavor: creating a time capsule of an America now gone by. In the Great Depression that spawned the original volumes, Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée struck gold with a song called “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” In our own time we might think of struggling writers and artists and, in throwing a lifeline to them, recall the first sentence of that ballad: “They used to tell me I was building a dream . . .”

David Shribman, previously the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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