When the Government Supported WritersHistorians in the News
tags: Great Depression, New Deal, WPA, Federal Writers Project
Max Holleran teaches sociology at the University of Melbourne.
Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America by Scott Borchert
When we think about the Works Progress Administration and the millions of jobs it provided, we tend to imagine heavy labor: men with pickaxes chipping away at rock for new roads, strapping masons hauling stones to construct courthouses or schools, or—the biggest dig of them all—the seven-state Tennessee Valley Authority, which built 16 hydroelectric dams. The WPA was an essential part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the infrastructure it provided is still used today. Yet those structures were a fringe benefit compared to its main purpose: employment.
By the time the WPA was created in 1935, it was obvious that the fiscal crisis that began on Black Tuesday in 1929 was not a mere recession: Unemployment was at 20 percent, and many Americans were losing hope of ever finding work again. The projects we now associate with the WPA are often masculinized and remembered in terms of structures alone, but much of the innovation of the New Deal was in recognizing that employment in America had fundamentally changed, moving away from purely industrial labor. In order to restart the economy fully, the country would also have to invest in knowledge workers.
Embracing creative types in 1935 was not straightforward. With people starving on Dust Bowl farms or crowding urban soup kitchens, there was little sympathy for anyone with ink stains rather than callouses on their fingers. The new book Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America by Scott Borchert explores the Federal Writers’ Project. While the FWP gave work to luminaries of the age like Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, and a young Saul Bellow, it also provided a steady paycheck to “teachers, beat reporters, clerks, lawyers, librarians, people laid off from advertising firms … white-collar workers whose jobs had disappeared.” It guaranteed a paycheck for the many people in the United States who did not work with their hands while also expanding the definition of who was a “creative.” These authors worked mainly on the FWP’s largest project: creating guide books for every state. They were definitive histories that avoided American triumphalism while also building a sense of pride and curiosity, imbuing local history with a lyrical depth that went beyond where to find a sandwich and some gas.
Borchert, through a series of biographical chapters on some of the best-known authors, engrossingly shows how the New Deal recognized art as labor and why that model should be reinvigorated today. In the past year, artists have struggled to put together Zoom theater and brand their writing on sites like Patreon, whereas in the 1930s, the FWP provided a framework for continued employment and collective endeavors for artists. With its reminder that creative labor was once seen—like a strategic reserve of fuel, weapons, or medical supplies—as worthy of federal protection, Republic of Detours mobilizes New Deal history to help us imagine what our society would be like if federal tax dollars supported a reserve army of muralists, poets, and oral historians.
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