Marilyn Irvin Holt is an independent historian and writer. She is the author of several books, including Linoleum, Better Babies, and the Modern Farm Woman, 1890–1930 (Nebraska, 2006), The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America (Nebraska, 1992), and her latest, Nebraska during the New Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project in the Cornhusker State (December 2019).
Writers are People Too
When the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was established in 1935 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), critics quickly pounced. Putting men to work on WPA building projects was one thing, but paying “creative types” to sit on their backsides and write was a waste of government money. Never mind that the FWP would employ only about seven thousand nationwide while WPA construction hired millions. Critics considered the FWP a frivolous make-work New Deal program. To the naysayers, WPA director Harry Hopkins shot back, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.”
Americans saw and experienced what was happening in farming communities, in manufacturing, in big city and small-town businesses. They were far less aware of the depression’s impact on the publishing industry. Book sales dropped, royalties shrank, and publishers were less likely to take a chance on lesser-known writers. Newspapers and magazines cut back on staff or closed altogether. The FWP was designed to provide jobs to “needy” writers, poets, one-time reporters, editors, and columnists. (Nine out of every ten hired were “on the dole”; the remainder were unemployed but not registered on official relief rolls.) The FWP also hired out-of-work librarians and teachers, as well as individuals who had little, if any, literary experience, but who might have useful clerical or managerial skills and could learn on the job. In Nebraska, for instance, the last of the project’s four state directors had been an insurance agent; a woman, with a degree in osteopathy, became a project researcher and writer; and one of the project’s best and most productive fieldworkers was a former department store sales manager.
However, the majority of Nebraska’s workers were poets, writers of non-fiction and fiction, editors, and newspaper people. One woman, for example, had written for farm newspapers and magazines, and there was the one-time newspaperman and member of the Nebraska Legislature with a wealth of writing and editorial experience. Some FWP employees had been students of Lowry Charles Wimberly, editor and founder of Prairie Schooner, and had their works published in that literary magazine. Men and women came from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. As a unit they were expected to meet the national FWP’s goal of completing a guidebook about the state.
Under the FWP’s plan each state, U.S. territory, and the District of Columbia was to produce a guidebook about itself, describing the natural environment, economic and social development, history, and the people. “Original and previously unpublished historical facts and lore concerning America” were encouraged. When completed, the guidebooks would constitute the American Guide Series. The series, said FWP officials, would highlight America’s diverse regions and populations while reinforcing a sense of national unity against the rise of militarism, fascism, and communism in other parts of the world. It was an admirable goal, but on the ground, completing a guide took time (at least two years, with a few states taking up to five). To quiet political critics and keep congressional funding, the FWP’s national director told projects to get something—anything—into print while they continued to work on their guides. Washington suggested town guides, ethnic studies, and pamphlets on folklore and music.
The Nebraska project took the directive to heart. It published pamphlets and booklets on pioneer life and various aspects of folk culture. Much of the content was gathered from oral history interviews conducted by fieldworkers, but not all. Schoolchildren became “consultants” for a pamphlet on children’s games, and Paul Beath was brought in as an expert consultant and writer on the subject of Nebraska’s folk hero Febold Feboldson. Also published were town guides (although disputes over content shelved the Omaha guide), an ethnic study of the Italians in Omaha, a history of African Americans in the state, short histories commissioned by various departments at the University of Nebraska, and other incidental publications. Considering that the Nebraska project never had more than fifty-five workers (often less) and that people came and went (some staying for only a short time), it is rather amazing that the project was so productive.
Nebraska finished its guide in 1939, and continued to develop and publish material until closing down in 1942. By that time, the national FWP was on its way out. There was no longer a place for it in war-time America. For me as a writer, a compelling part of the FWP story are the personal circumstances of the workers who “had to eat just like other people.” Rudolph Umland, third director of the Nebraska project, described the employees as “geniuses and eccentrics who joined our heterogeneous band for a time to contribute their two-cents worth to the guidebook or to interview old timers.” Mari Sandoz, an unpaid project consultant, called the group a “motley crew of writers” trying to do their best. They were not, however, always a congenial band, as Umland implied. There were personality conflicts, divisive political leanings, and a few inflated egos. Still, one gets the feeling that, despite their differences, the employees managed to create an overall environment of amicability and enthusiasm for the job. The long-term result was a body of work that contributed to preserving and understanding the state’s multi-layered social, political, and economic history.