Federal Writers' Project (FWP)

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FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT (FWP)

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was created in 1935 as part of the service branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide work relief for writers and to develop writing and research projects approved by the WPA. In July 1935 Henry Alsberg was appointed project director. The project was organized into state branches across the country, and special units were also established in Puerto Rico, New York City, and Washington, D.C. From 1935 until the WPA's demise in 1943, about seven thousand people worked for the FWP, including a number of the most important American writers of the 1930s and 1940s. It produced several keystone anthologies of American writing that remain central to the study of American literature. The FWP also made the first comprehensive attempt to document American folklore and oral history, and created a series of guidebooks to states and regions of the United States that remain unparalleled in scope and quality.

The largest state branches of the Federal Writers' Project existed in Illinois and New York. Chicago was the center of the Illinois Project, which attracted the most important writers of the Midwest. Among them were Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy, who gathered material for their important migration study They Seek a City; novelist Nelson Algren, author of The Man with the Golden Arm; dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham; novelists Willard Motley and Frank Yerby; novelist Saul Bellow; and poet Margaret Walker. While working for the FWP, Richard Wright gathered materials for his 1941 book, Twelve Million Black Voices, in collaboration with Farm Security Administration photographer Edward Rosskam. Many of these Chicago writers comprised what critic Robert Bone later termed the Chicago Renaissance in American literature.

Notable writers who worked for the New York City Project included novelist and short story writer John Cheever; poet Waring Cuney; novelist Ralph Ellison (who drew on FWP interviews with Harlem residents in writing the 1952 classic Invisible Man); poet Claude McKay; social historian Roi Ottley; poet Kenneth Fearing; and novelist Anzia Yezierska. Many of the New York City writers, such as Earl Conrad, Sol Funaroff, and Claude McKay, had ties to the organized Left, including to the Communist Party; FWP writer Philip Rahv famously broke with the Communist Party and became an editor at the important literary journal Partisan Review. Other major American writers who participated in state FWPs include Zora Neale Hurston in Florida, John Steinbeck in California, and Conrad Aiken in Massachusetts. Among the important literary anthologies to emerge from the Federal Writers Project were American Stuff: An Anthology of Prose and Verse, published in 1937, and Poetry, published in 1938. Special issues of literary journals, such as the winter 1938 Frontier and Midland, were devoted entirely to FWP writings, and the May 11, 1938, New Republic included a feature titled "Federal Poets: An Anthology."

Yet it was in folklore and ethnic studies that the FWP made its most original contributions. From 1936 to 1937 scholar John A. Lomax served as national advisor on folklore to the FWP. Between 1936 and 1938, project writers conducted interviews with former slaves in more than a dozen states. During 1938, Benjamin A. Botkin served as both folklore consultant and folklore editor to the Federal Writers' Project. In 1944, Botkin assembled a selection of the slave interviews into Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery. Botkin also collected industrial folktales gathered such writers as Jack Conroy and Nelson Algren into A Treasury of American Folklore, which was published in 1944. FWP recordings of African-American musicians led to the release of records by Louis Armstrong and such compilations as News and the Blues: Telling It Like It Is. Other significant ethnic studies conducted by the project include The Italians of New York, published in 1938, Jewish Families and Family Circles of New York, published in 1939, The Armenians in Massachusetts, published in 1937, and The Hopi and The Navaho, published by the FWP in Arizona in 1937 and 1938, respectively.

In addition to the state and area guidebooks, the project also produced regional studies, both serious and light. Notable studies of regional folklore and folk music included Sodbusters: Tales of South-easternSouth Dakota and South Carolina Folk Tales: Stories of Animals and Supernatural Beings. Baseball, bird-watching, reptiles and amphibians, and skiing were subjects of other FWP books. Materials collected by FWP staffers also appeared in important books published after the demise of the project, including Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake's Black Metropolis, a monumental study of Chicago's South Side, and Jerre Mangione's The Dream and the Deal, still the most comprehensive first-person account of the Federal Writers' Project.

In September 1939 the Works Progress Administration changed its name to the Work Projects Administration, and the Federal Writers' Project became known as the WPA Writers' Program. The FWP, hobbled by funding cuts and accusations of communist influence, produced its last guidebook (on Oklahoma) in 1941. The WPA itself disbanded June 30, 1943.

The Federal Writers' Project was one of the great successes of the Roosevelt administration. It nurtured and sustained some of the most important American literary careers of the 1930s and 1940s, and its focus on social documentary approaches influenced the realism and naturalistic themes of American letters during the Depression and World War II. Oral historians such as Studs Terkel and archival enterprises such as Folkways Records extended the methods and findings of the FWP into the contemporary period. The FWP's attention to migration, urbanization, folk culture, ethnic studies, labor, and race also predicted the themes of government and university study of American culture and society in the postwar period.

See Also: AMERICAN GUIDE SERIES; FEDERAL ONE; FOLKLORISTS; WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION (WPA).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bone, Robert. "Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance." Callaloo 9, no. 3 (1986): 446–468.

Botkin, B. A., ed. Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery. 1945.

Brewer, Jeutonne. The Federal Writers' Project: A Bibliography. 1994.

Cappetti, Carla. Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. 1993.

Drake, St. Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. 1993.

Federal Writers' Project. American Stuff: An Anthology of Prose and Verse by Members of the Federal Writers' Project. 1937.

Mangione, Jerre. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935–1943. 1972.

Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. 1973.

Susman, Warren, ed. Culture and Commitment 1929–1945. 1973.

Swados, Harvey, ed. The American Writer and the Great Depression. 1966.

Bill V. Mullen