- Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America
At the height of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began an ambitious effort to put writers to work recording the lives of everyday Americans. The WPA Writers' Project employed thousands of writers who traveled the country with tape recorders and notepads, recording folktales, music, and life histories. The most anticipated assignment of the project was the American Guide Series that promoted driving tours of every state, highlighting local color and out-of-the-way attractions. The guides informed and inspired the work of later authors from William Least Heat-Moon to Michael Chabon. John Steinbeck pored over the WPA state guides while researching The Grapes of Wrath, and with a camper full of canned goods and state guides, Steinbeck and his French Poodle circumnavigated the lower forty-eight in the early 1960s, chronicled in Travels with Charley. In Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America, author David A. Taylor explains that he found the state guides as compelling as Steinbeck and Chabon and set out to uncover the experiences of the writers behind the guides—the people who traveled the back roads of Idaho, the alleys of Harlem, and the neighborhoods of New Orleans to capture America and its people during the Great Depression. The result of Taylor's curiosity is an accessible, straightforward glimpse into some of the most important American writers of the 1930s and 1940s. In the process of recounting their adventures, Taylor demonstrates how these writers shaped the way Americans tell their histories.
At first blush, Soul of a People offers us little insight into the Americans whose life stories and neighborhoods fill the state guides, but Taylor's focus is on the WPA writers, who, like most Americans, were struggling to pay rent and feed their families. "Through them, stories emerge of intense personal struggle. At their core," explains Taylor, "these experiences raise questions about what it means to [End Page 117] be American, how we respond to crises, and the tension between the American ideal and American reality" (6). The book is organized geographically and Taylor develops over a dozen characters sprinkled throughout the Federal Writers Project (FWP) locations. Taylor explores New York and Chicago through Richard Wright. Stetson Kennedy and Zora Neale Hurston are Taylor's escorts through Florida. Vardis Fisher nearly singlehandedly writes the state guide in Idaho, and in California, Kenneth Rexroth provides Taylor with a guide through San Francisco and the state's natural wonders.
Throughout Soul of a People, Taylor tells both triumphant and heartbreaking stories of the writers who shaped the state guides. More intriguing than the stories about American writers, however, is Taylor's assertion that the WPA Writers' Project created room for women, African Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities to pursue, record, and publish their own histories. Meridel Le Sueur, a writer for the Writers' Project in Minnesota, used her knowledge of working women's lives to write The Girl, a novel that catapulted her onto the national stage as a "pioneering author of the women's movement" (72). And although they approached their writing very differently, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright found the space through the WPA to write compassionately and realistically about black life in America.
Taylor also includes a nuanced explanation of the emergence of modern folklore—that "branch of academia stuck awkwardly between anthropology and literature" (77). Benjamin Botkin, a professor of folklore at the University of Nebraska, took over as the WPA 's director of folklore from John Lomax in May 1938. Committed to the documenting of folk culture, Botkin urged the FWP writers to be thorough and impartial in their interviews and to employ what he called "realistic regional literature" (76). "The writing he championed would do more than describe, more than report," observes Taylor, "it would help change how people related to one another" (76). Botkin and the WPA writers believed that America's strength lay in its diversity, and that by documenting...