The Federal Writers’ Project

Great Depression: Run on the Banks. NPx 74-20(1007)

by Kevin Thomas, Special Events Coordinator

The Great Depression left many Americans without jobs and subsequently, without identity. For artists, this was especially serious. In response to this, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) established Federal Project Number One, to help provide public employment for artists who had no recourse to ply their trades.

Within Federal Project Number One, programs were set up to provide work for artists in fields such as art, music, theater, and writing. This month marks the 85th Anniversary of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Established on July 27, 1935, the program provided work for thousands of writers and journalists, and produced publications ranging from the American Guide Series, to local histories, and children’s books. FWP’s Director, Henry Alsberg, also wanted to use the program to help create a “self-portrait of America,” and to that end he dedicated large efforts to gathering first-person accounts of historic events, stories, folk-lore, and other significant intangible heritage, known as the “Life History and Folklore Projects.” Many significant authors, poets, and photographers worked for the FWP, including many women and African-Americans, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, May Swenson, Saul Bellow, and Robert McNeill.

William Colbert, Age 93. Alabama United States, 1936. Between 1936 and 1938. Photograph.

Perhaps the most significant project that resulted from FWP, was the Slave Narrative Collection – a compilation of over 2,300 first person accounts from former slaves, across 17 states. While later criticized as providing a distorted and simplistic view of slavery and life on a plantation, the program is credited with preserving a large volume of personal narratives on the subject, which would have otherwise been lost forever. The collection is housed today in the Library of Congress.

Federal Writers’ Project, Sponsor. Illinois: A descriptive and historical guide / galic. Illinois United States, None. [Chicago, ill.,: wpa federal art project, between 1936 and 1940] Photograph.

Of all the projects the FWP undertook, the most popular may have been the American Guide Series. Published from 1937-1941, the American Guide Series was a collection of guidebooks for each state and major territory of the country (excluding Hawaii), as well as select regions and cities. They contained the subject’s history, as well as descriptions of its culture, major cities, as well as travel interests such as sightseeing tours and photographs. For many Americans, they were the window into the nation, and provided a gateway to seeing America, either by car, or in their home. They were the most comprehensive account of the United States ever assembled according to author John Steinbeck.

The Federal Writers’ Project, along with its parent, Federal Project Number One, began to fade by 1939, with some projects being cancelled or divested from the federal government. The program, along with the other components of Federal Project Number One, had fallen under accusations of communist activity and sympathy by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Alsberg would be fired and the FWP would shift to state sponsorship, continuing until 1943 as the Writer’s Program.

Over the course of its existence, the FWP published hundreds of major publications, and would employ thousands of Americans during the Great Depression, many of whom would go on to shape the American literary landscape. The programs of Federal Project Number One, and the FWP, also provided Americans at the time, with access to the arts, and delivered much needed inspiration and entertainment, in a decade of volatility. 

Federal Music Project, Macbeth.  Works Progress Administration. NPx 93-37(3)

The legacy of the FWP can still be felt today. Scholars have benefitted from the first person accounts preserved by the FWP and many significant works of literature followed from FWP employees, including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).

While far from the most remembered New Deal Program, the Federal Writers’ Project remains a notable part of America’s story.