American Guides: The Federal Writers' Project and the Casting of American Culture

American Guides: The Federal Writers' Project and the Casting of American Culture

by Wendy Griswold


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In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans were nearly universally literate—and they were hungry for the written word. Magazines, novels, and newspapers littered the floors of parlors and tenements alike. With an eye to this market and as a response to devastating unemployment, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration created the Federal Writers’ Project. The Project’s mission was simple: jobs. But, as Wendy Griswold shows in the lively and persuasive American Guides, the Project had a profound—and unintended—cultural impact that went far beyond the writers’ paychecks.

Griswold’s subject here is the Project’s American Guides, an impressively produced series that set out not only to direct travelers on which routes to take and what to see throughout the country, but also to celebrate the distinctive characteristics of each individual state. Griswold finds that the series unintentionally diversified American literary culture’s cast of characters—promoting women, minority, and rural writers—while it also institutionalized the innovative idea that American culture comes in state-shaped boxes. Griswold’s story alters our customary ideas about cultural change as a gradual process, revealing how diversity is often the result of politically strategic decisions and bureaucratic logic, as well as of the conflicts between snobbish metropolitan intellectuals and stubborn locals. American Guides reveals the significance of cultural federalism and the indelible impact that the Federal Writers’ Project continues to have on the American literary landscape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226357836
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/19/2016
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Wendy Griswold is professor of sociology and Bergen Evans Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern University. American Guides is the second volume of a trilogy on culture and place; the first volume was Regionalism and the Reading Class, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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American Guides

The Federal Writers' Project and the Casting of American Culture

By Wendy Griswold

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-35797-3


Putting People to Work

    The unemployed
    without a stake in the country
    without jobs or nest eggs
    marching they don't know where
    marching north south west —
    and the deserts
    marching east with dust ...
    these lead to no easy pleasant conversation
    they fall into a dusty disordered poetry

Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes

The unemployed — the faces of the Great Depression, victims and symbols of America's economic collapse — were the problem. And just as Carl Sandburg was finishing his American epic, the Works Progress Administration was putting together the solution. The WPA's goal was simple: take men and women off the relief roles and put them to work.

The Great Depression gave rise to the New Deal; the New Deal generated the WPA; the WPA produced Federal One; and Federal One launched the Federal Writers' Project, the subject of this book. This sequence unfolded from the spring of 1933 to the summer of 1935. As a response to unemployment, the charge of the Federal Writers' Project was jobs, nothing else. Nevertheless, both the work that the Project would undertake and the cultural impact that it would have were a direct result of the rocky, scorpion-infested political landscape in which it struggled to survive.

"Try Something": The Early Years of the New Deal

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated president of the United States on March 4, 1933, a quarter of the American workforce was out of a job. Unemployment had been growing every year since the stock market crash, going from an average of 3.3 percent during the 1920s to 8.9 percent in 1930, 15.9 percent in 1931, 23.6 percent in 1932, and 24.9 percent in 1933. The situation — "no easy pleasant conversation" indeed — was dire.

Herbert Hoover, FDR's predecessor, believed that the free market would eventually correct itself so the crisis did not require much government interference, but late in his administration he made one move that, though modest in its ambitions, established key precedents for New Deal programs including the Writers' Project. In July 1932 Hoover authorized the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, under the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, Title I, to give aid to state and local governments and to make loans to banks, railroads, and other businesses. (See appendix A for the acronyms and organizations of the New Deal era and appendix B for the key dates.) Not a jobs program per se, the RFC channeled funds to state relief programs. Its rules required that recipients be not just unemployed but destitute; it further stipulated that projects undertaken should be on public, not private, property (so they could not be turned to private gain), that they be "worthwhile," and that they not replace work already being done by employed workers. Continuing throughout the New Deal and the Second World War, the RFC rules set the pattern for federal action — that projects undertaken by the government not compete with or duplicate what the private sector was doing and that they be intrinsically worth doing — although the RFC itself was more a banking than a relief program and gave no hint of what was to come.

In the 1932 presidential election, Roosevelt, then governor of New York, campaigned against Republican Al Smith by advocating aggressive government intervention in the economy: "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Many intellectuals at the time favored such government experimentation; as Stuart Chase, the economist who coined the term "New Deal," put it, "Why should Russians have all the fun remaking a world?" This "try something" message resonated with the voters as well, who had grown impatient with government passivity. Carrying all but six states, Roosevelt won in a landslide.

Roosevelt would indeed try many things. He began his presidency with an explosion of legislation known as the Hundred Days: banking reform, farm relief, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. On Sunday evening at the end of his first week in office Roosevelt delivered his initial fireside chat, in which he reassured Americans that their savings were safe and that "together we cannot fail." His eloquence and energy buoyed the nation's spirits. "America hasn't been so happy in three years as they are today," Will Rogers concluded. "The whole country is with him, just so he does something. If he burned down the Capitol we would cheer and say 'well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.'"

The Hundred Days' crowning achievement was the National Industry Recovery Act/National Recovery Administration, passed on June 16, 1933. The act contained two parts: Title I, the NRA, entailed economic planning and regulation, while Title II authorized borrowing over $3 billion for building projects. Although the NRA only lasted two years — the Supreme Court ruled it to be unconstitutional in 1935 (in any case, its economic impact had been disappointing) — Title II established the Public Works Administration, under Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. Working on the logic of priming the pump, the PWA contracted with private firms for its projects, which then hired their workers on the private market, so PWA employees were never on the government payroll. The PWA poured money into massive construction projects like New York City's Triborough Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State and Fort Peck Dam in Montana, the Overseas Highway that connected Key West to the rest of Florida, as well as thousands of road, sewage, school, and airport construction projects.

The Hundred Days also brought Harry Hopkins to Washington, DC, as coordinator of federal relief efforts. "A welfare worker from the Cornbelt, who tended to regard money (his own as well as other people's) as something to be spent as quickly as possible, [Hopkins was] a studiously unsuave and often intolerant and tactless reformer." Born in 1890, raised in Iowa, and educated in the progressive tradition of Grinnell College, Hopkins built a career in social work administration in New York City that culminated in his directorship of the state's Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. Under Hopkins's leadership, TERA put 80,000 New Yorkers to work. While most of their jobs involved road construction, sanitation, or parks and schools, a few were clerical or white-collar positions, including one program specifically for artists.

Hopkins's TERA experience convinced him that government had the ability and the responsibility to provide both relief and jobs for the unemployed. When Roosevelt took office in March 1933, Hopkins met with fellow New Yorker Frances Perkins, the new secretary of labor, to pitch his ideas: Federal money should go directly to the states (an arrangement the RFC had already established) and a single agency, working through state branches, should manage grants, provide relief, and create jobs. Perkins took the plan to FDR, a week later it went to Congress, and the Federal Emergency Relief Act, allocating $500 million in outright grants to states for relief, became law on May 12. The president put Hopkins at the head of the new agency. (Table 1.1 compares TERA and the various federal relief and/or arts programs.)

Harry Hopkins spent FERA money fast, making grants to seven states his first day on the job. The Washington Post fretted that "the half-billion dollars for direct relief of States won't last a month if Harry L. Hopkins, new relief administrator, maintains the pace he set yesterday in disbursing more than $5,000,000 during his first two hours in office" and Hopkins cheerfully responded, "I'm not going to last six months here, so I'll do as I please." Determined to avoid political patronage, Hopkins hired staff as dedicated as he was and as expansive in their view of government's responsibilities. A piece of this expansive view that came directly from his TERA experience was Hopkins's conviction that white-collar and professional workers ought to be included in employment programs. At a conference of social workers in June, he promised that under FERA "at least two million men are going to be put to work," and not just the unskilled but professionals as well.

At the same conference, Hopkins vented his growing frustration. The states were slow to act. PWA moved at a snail's pace (Hopkins and Ickes had very different styles of management, and the rivalry between them was intense). FERA's goal of two million jobs was nowhere near enough to meet the demand. Hopkins had come to believe that the federal government should not just channel funds through states and localities but should provide jobs directly.

In the fall of 1933 unemployment remained high, winter was coming, and Hopkins worried about how the jobless would manage. So he persuaded FDR to create a temporary jobs program, the Civil Works Administration. The CWA focused on small projects like road repair that could be launched quickly. Half of its workers came from FERA's work relief rolls and half were hired directly into the program. CWA did not require workers to pass a means test, and as a result it had many more applicants than it did jobs. On its first payday in November, CWA issued checks to over 800,000 workers, a figure that rose to 2.6 million by mid-December. Field investigators sent out by Hopkins reported on the energizing impact of CWA. At its peak in January 1934 the CWA employed 4,264,000 workers.

Having been stung by criticism that FERA jobs were pointless leaf raking, Hopkins tried to ensure that CWA jobs were, as Frances Perkins put it, "socially useful."(This much-repeated phrase was the progressive spin on Hoover's "worthwhile.") Although most CWA workers were manual laborers, some 190,000 were "non-manual and professional"; most of these were teachers, but the category included 3,000 artists, writers, and musicians, recalling TERA's employment of artists. Republicans and conservative Democrats criticized the CWA in general and its employment of artists and writers in particular, to which Hopkins famously responded, "Hell! They've got to eat just like other people."

For all the expectations it raised, CWA was never intended to be other than a short-term emergency program and it was demobilized in February and March 1934. Once again FERA became the chief work-relief agency, though it never had more than 2.5 million workers. The PWA funded massive projects in virtually every county in the nation, but it worked through private contracting, and the hiring was based on skills, not on who needed the paycheck. Hopkins continued to push for a more ambitious federal jobs program, but FDR held back for months, hoping the economy would rebound. Instead, as 1934 ground on, things got worse. Unemployment barely budged. A persistent drought in the Midwest brought dust storms and rural dislocation. Calls for action came from the left, for example, the American Communist Party, through popular movements and populists like the Townsend movement, Father Coughlin, and Huey Long, and from the right, for example, the anti–New Deal American Liberty League.

When a Democratic surge in the midterm elections strengthened Roosevelt's hand, Hopkins made his move. Over the Thanksgiving holiday he pursued the president to his Warm Springs retreat to pitch a more aggressive approach for an expanded jobs program. Reports of the gigantic plan leaked out — the New York Times called it Hopkins's "End Poverty in America" plan, coming with an $8–9 billion price tag — but Roosevelt was persuaded.

On January 4, 1935, FDR addressed Congress on the State of the Union. Article II of the US Constitution requires that the president "from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Presidents traditionally deliver this address in January, and in outlying their legislative agendas, they speak as much to the American people as to Congress. In his address Roosevelt argued that long-term relief, also known as government handouts or the dole, fostered dependence and passivity. Relief was "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. ... Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers." Employment was not primarily an economic issue but a moral one. Five million people were currently on the relief rolls. Of these, a quarter were unable to work and needed direct relief from state and local government and private charities, but all the rest were able and eager for jobs. Roosevelt asked Congress

to make it possible for the United States to give employment to all of these three and one-half million employable people now on relief, pending their absorption in a rising tide of private employment.

It is my thought that with the exception of certain of the normal public building operations of the Government, all emergency public works shall be united in a single new and greatly enlarged plan.

He set out his vision, actually Hopkins's vision, of a program that would give the unemployed work, and work that was "useful — not just for a day, or a year, but useful in the sense that it affords permanent improvement in living conditions or that it creates future new wealth for the nation." Wages would be higher than the dole but less than what industry paid. Projects should not compete with private enterprise or with works already undertaken; instead, "if it were not for the necessity of giving useful work to the unemployed now on relief, these projects in most instances would not now be undertaken [emphasis added]." The president reeled off the types of projects he had in mind — slum clearance, rural housing, rural electrification, reforestation, soul erosion prevention, highway construction — and assured the nation that "beyond the material recovery, I sense a spiritual recovery as well." Useful work would contribute to both.

While the plan's legislative prospects were rosy, a persistent thorn emerged. The House quickly passed legislation authorizing $4 billion for the jobs program, but as the more deliberate Senate debated for weeks, in the course of its committee hearings a new word entered the nation's vocabulary. A craft teacher named Robert Marshall explained to the senators that he taught "boon doggles," which he defined as "a term applied back in the pioneer days ... things men and boys do that are useful in their everyday operations or recreations or about their home. They might be making belts in leather, or maybe belts by weaving ropes ... maybe a tent or a sleeping bag." Critics pounced. The New York Times ran headline "$3,187,000 Relief Is Spent Teaching Jobless to Play. 'Boon Doggles' Made." "Boondoggles" came to mean the government shelling out for pointless work, and the term stuck. The New York Sun even ran a column featuring "Today's Boondoggle." Throughout the history of the WPA, critics and humorists prospected for boondoggles, especially in construction and in artistic or intellectual projects.

Boondoggles notwithstanding, the Senate finally voted through its version of the jobs bill, and on April 8, 1935, both houses passed the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act authorizing $4.8 billion for work relief. Roosevelt signed it the same day. Although both Ickes and Hopkins had been candidates, the president chose Hopkins to run the new program because he had demonstrated that he could spend money fast putting people to work. The act established a three-part structure: (1) Applications and Information to vet proposals from states and cities; (2) Allotments, which Ickes headed, to pass vetted proposals on to the appropriate agency; and (3) the Works Progress Division, with Hopkins in charge, to track projects and keep things moving. When announcing the new program in a fireside chat on April 28, Roosevelt promised it would be free from politics:

I well realize that the country is expecting before this year is out to see the "dirt fly." ... This is a great national crusade to destroy enforced idleness, which is an enemy of the human spirit generated by this depression. Our attack upon these enemies must be without sting and without discrimination. No sectional, no political distinctions can be permitted.


Excerpted from American Guides by Wendy Griswold. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Illustrations
Introduction: Casting Culture

Part One: Jobs for Writers
Chapter 1. Putting People to Work
Chapter 2. Keeping Writers out of Trouble

Part Two: Guides for Travelers
Chapter 3. Guiding Travelers
Chapter 4. Seeing America

Part Three: Cultural Federalism
Chapter 5. Negotiating Federalism
Chapter 6. Describing America

Part Four: Readers and Authors
Chapter 7. Guiding Readers
Chapter 8. Choosing Authors

Part Five: Casting Culture
Chapter 9. Defining Literature
Chapter 10. Using Books

Conclusion: Casting American Culture

Appendix A: Organizations and Acronyms
Appendix B: Key Dates for the Federal Writers’ Project, New Deal Relief Programs, and American Travel
Appendix C: New York State’s Directors
Appendix D: Contents of the 48 State Guides
Appendix E: Authors
Appendix F: Comparison of Canon Definers: Pattee, Parrington, Spiller, Baym (Norton), and American Guides
Appendix G: US Census Regions and Divisions


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