On the bookshelf
Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Writers to Rediscover America
By Scott Borchert
FSG: 400 pages, $ 30
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For a few years during the Great Depression, the federal government paid writers to write. Novelists, poets, journalists, teachers, librarians, ministers – just about anyone who could compose a sentence (and some who couldn’t) received a paycheck for producing hundreds of publications that captured the freeways and American customs, history and times.
Although it saved some of the country’s most talented writers from starvation, the Federal Writers Project had a short life. Targeted by anti-communist crusaders and budget cutters, the FWP expired during World War II. But now we are in 2021, and after a year of Covid-19, many organizations that support writers are on life support. Could the screenwriters’ project be reborn? Representative Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, thinks so and has sponsored legislation that would revive a version of the FWP. It would do well to read Scott Borchert’s engaging new book, “Republic of Detours,” a lively chronicle of the exuberant years of the FWP.
Borchert begins his story with Henri alsberg, writer, playwright, foreign correspondent and international first aid worker with the appearance of “adorable Saint Bernard” who became the first director of the FWP. Alsberg helped shape the organization, which at its peak employed around 4,500 people and produced hundreds of publications, including collection of oral histories of former slaves.
But his main goal was to produce a series of American Guides, one for each state. They were intended as a way to document local history and promote travel, but have evolved into “a mixture of essays, historical snippets, folklore, anecdotes, photographs and social analysis – as well as an abundance of routes thickened with great tales, strange sites and characters from olden times. In short, the writers had a very long leash. They mostly worked in state offices with uneven supervision, and the quality of their work ranged from inspirational to tasteless to just plain horrible.
Vardis Fisher personified the challenges of supervising a group of writers in an era before the Internet. The son of Mormon settlers and an apotheosis of rugged Western individualism, Fisher was chosen to lead the FWP’s Idaho office and tasked with hiring local scholars and writers to chronicle history, customs and superstitions. of State. Fisher, convinced that no one could do it as well as they could, wrote most of the guide. Editing it was an ordeal: “Alsberg wrote to Fisher to remind him that it was unacceptable for the guidebook to point out which cities were ugly, even if it was true.” Despite or because of Fisher’s stubbornness, the Idaho Guidebook, the first to be published, received rave reviews from historians on the orders of Bernard DeVoto.
Other authors have used the FWP to launch their own work. Nelson Algren has joined the Chicago office in a city hit by the Depression. Years later, Algren would “credit the FWP for keeping the suicide rate low”; he went to work on a variety of bread and butter assignments. But he was above all a field worker, let loose to gather raw materials. He “hung out around grimy boxing rings, gangster social clubs and the city’s night court; he observed die-hard players, exhausted dance marathon runners and racetrack dwellers. He wrote it all and this rich material helped form the core of Algren’s later novels, including “The Man with the Golden Arm” in 1950, which won a National Book Award.
Pioneering black writer Zora Neale Hurston worked out of the project’s Florida unit, in a strictly separate state hostile to President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hurston had made a name for herself as an anthropologist, folklorist, playwright, and author, and she refused to join the FWP due to a required “poor man’s oath” certifying that the applicants were destitute. But she needed the money. By far the best-known author in the Florida office, Hurston received the modest title of “junior interviewer” and was assigned to one of the “black units” of the project. But Hurston had a knack for turning racial barriers to his advantage. While working on a new novel, she would disappear for weeks; his superiors would send a letter requesting an update and eventually a thick manila envelope would arrive, “stuffed with material on Florida folk traditions.” Much of this was material collected for other projects, but it was gold that no one else could have mined.
Hurston was a “passionate strategist of racial deference,” and her views on America’s racial work clashed with those of fellow project writer and seminal black author, Richard Wright. But like Hurston, Wright turned the work at FWP to his advantage. Eventually, he got a grant to work on his own writings and produced one of the most outspoken indictments of American racism written, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” his chronicle of his terrorized childhood in Mississippi. segregationist. Wright’s essay, collected in an FWP publication, fueled animosity from politicians to kill the program.
As a management challenge, the FWP office in Manhattan was the worst of the worst, a pot stirred by 31 different unions and splinters of unions, including an active cell of the American Communist Party. A director, Orrick Johns, was insanely beaten by a despised job seeker, who then “poured alcohol on John’s wooden leg and set it on fire.” When Representative Martin Dies Jr. of Texas held hearings to investigate the alleged Communist infiltration of the Works Progress Administration (the FWP was a division of the WPA), his committee looked into social unrest as well as Wright’s essay, which a witness criticized against as “so vile that it is unsuitable for young people to read.”
The Dies report put the FWP on life support. But regardless of the commercial or literary measure, it was a smash hit: in 1941 there were 268,967 American guides printed, with almost as many city and town guides. The FWP has circulated over 3.5 million articles, and its liberal hiring philosophy has allowed thousands of people to skip the lines and devote themselves to meaningful work.
Today, with systemic unemployment worsened by the pandemic and many arts organizations decimated, Lieu’s legislation would seek to replicate this success in a 21st century version of the project. California lawmakers are considering a similar bill. Borchert produced an essential roadmap for their efforts: “Republic of Detours” is a living history of the project and its authors, but it offers something even more valuable: a lesson in organizational challenges and poisoned politics that ultimately condemned the FWP not in spite of its best intentions, but because of them.
Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in Seattle, writes about books and authors.