The Federal Writers' Project
(FWP) was a United States federal government project to fund written work and support writers during the Great Depression
. It was part of the Works Projects Administration
, a New Deal
program. It was one of a group of New Deal arts programs known collectively as Federal One
Established on July 27
by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
, the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) operated under journalist and theatrical producer Henry Alsberg
, and later John D. Newsome
, compiling local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children's books and other works. The most well-known of these publications were the 48 state
guides to America (plus Alaska Territory
, Puerto Rico
and Washington, D.C.
) known as the American Guide Series
. The American Guide Series
books were compiled by the FWP, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state's history and culture, descriptions of its major cities, automobile tours of important attractions, and a portfolio of photographs. The Federal Writers Project was funded and put to work, as a Public Works in and around the west coast, through Washington, Oregon and California.
FWP was charged with employing writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologists, geologists and cartographers. Some 6,600 individuals were employed by the FWP. In each state a Writer's Project non-relief staff of editors was formed, along with a much larger group of field workers drawn from local unemployment rolls. Many of these had never graduated high school, but most had formerly held white collar jobs of some sort. Most of the Writer's Project employees were relatively young in age, and many came from working-class backgrounds.
Some FWP writers supported the labor movement and left-wing social and political themes. The rise of fascism and the emerging opposition to Roosevelt administration policies by conservative critics led many WPA artists to voice a political position. Most Writers' Project works were apolitical by their nature, but some histories and ethnographies were not. Some projects were strongly opposed by some state legislatures, particularly the American Guide Series books, and in a few states Guide printings were kept to a minimal number of copies.
Among the thousands who worked on the project were Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Arna Bontemps, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Rexroth, John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel, and Richard Wright. Blakey (2005) estimates that at any one time the Indiana office had fewer than 150 men and women on the payroll. Fieldworkers made about $80 a month, working 20 to 30 hours a week. A majority were women. Very few African Americans worked for any state project. As Blakey notes, "there were very few on the relief rolls who claimed literary expertise in the 1930s, so the FWP had few to choose from." (Blakey p. 42).
The overriding goal of the FWP was employment, but the project produced useful work in the many oral histories collected from residents throughout the United States, many from regions that had previously gone unexplored and unrecorded.
Federal sponsorship for the Federal Writers' Project came to an end in 1939, though the program was permitted to continue under state sponsorship until 1943. The program is nonexistent now.
A National Endowment for the Humanities
-funded documentary about the Federal Writers Project tentatively titled The Soul of a People: Voices From the Federal Writers Projectis
currently in production. The film will include interviews with notable American authors Studs Terkel, Stetson Kennedy, and famed American historian Douglas Brinkley
Famous FWP participants
- Blakey, George T. Creating a Hoosier Self-Portrait: The Federal Writers' Project in Indiana, 1935-1942 Indiana University Press, 2005.
- Brewer, Jeutonne P., The Federal Writers' Project: a bibliography, Metuchen, NH: Scarecrow Press, 1994.
- Fleischhauer, Carl, and Beverly W. Brannan, eds., Documenting America, 1935-1943, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
- Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project (2003)
- Mangione, Jerre, The dream and the deal: the Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943, Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
- Meltzer, Milton, Violins & shovels: the WPA arts projects, New York: Delacorte Press, 1976.
- Penkower, Monty Noam, The Federal Writers' Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1976.