March 12, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
The Federal Artists’ Project was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which started during the Depression. This program allowed artists, writers, musicians, and actors the ability to earn money at a time when jobs and money were scarce. Writers, for example, collected oral histories from across America in an attempt to understand the country, document hardships and successes, and better understand the impact of economic policy. An article on the Library of Congress website explains: “These accounts were meant to be published in a series of anthologies that would form a mosaic portrait of everyday life in America. There were projected volumes on granite carvers, western pioneers and tobacco workers, among others. But by the end of the Depression, the New Deal arts projects were under attack by congressional red-baiters. Following America’s entry into World War II, the Writers’ Project came to a halt. A vast store of unpublished material was housed in the Library of Congress and was overlooked until recently.” Those that questioned the worth of this program did so for multiple reasons, one of which was an unwillingness to believe that writing and story-telling should be considered a job. Sifting through the varied reaction to the Federal Writer’s Project raises the question of what Americans might consider work.
Merriam-Webster defines work in a number of ways. The first of its definitions has three parts, which reads: “a) to perform work or fulfill duties regularly for wages or salary; b) to perform or carry through a task requiring sustained effort or continuous repeated operations; and c) to exert oneself physically or mentally especially in sustained effort for a purpose or under compulsion or necessity.” After watching the banks fail and the markets crash during Hoover’s presidency, President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to programs that would put people to work immediately. He authorized programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) in order to give people a sense of purpose and identity while also offering a steady wage.
According to the The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, the CCC was widely accepted. Jobs lasted about six months and included infrastructure maintenance and development as well as environmental hazards like pest control and fire fighting. The WPA, on the other hand, included all sorts of jobs, some of them legitimate (according to polls), and some not. The WPA’s programs, though, questioned subsistence living. It granted a wage that allowed people a small view of security. The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction also claims that the WPA was equally popular and unpopular. It reads:
A 1939 Institute of Public Opinion poll found that, when asked to name “the worst thing the Roosevelt Administration has done,” 23 percent of Americans picked “Relief and the WPA,” making it the most unpopular New Deal measure. Given the American prejudice against federal relief and the potential for political abuse, it was scarcely surprising. The same poll found that, when asked to name “the greatest accomplishment of the Roosevelt administration,” 28 percent of Americans picked “Relief and the WPA,” making it the most popular New Deal measure. Given the variety and local popularity of relief projects, this was unsurprising too.
Some of the authors supported by the WPA included May Swenson, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. Even after the program ended, they continued to use these stories as frames for their more popular works. The question as to whether or not the WPA offered legitimate jobs can perhaps never fully be answered. However, by scanning through the database housed with the Library of Congress, one receives a depth of understanding not present in history books alone. To hear people’s stories in their own words is powerful and helpful. Not only are the authors who received payment of import, but the stories speak about the American experience in a way that few others can. These documents tell the stories of Americans and of humans and you can now access many of them from the comfort of your own home.
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