John Woods is president of CWL Publishing Enterprises. He has worked in book publishing since 1970 and recently worked on Making the Good Life Last: 4 Keys to Sustainable Living by Michael A. Schuler (Berrett-Koehler). He was a Volunteer in Ethiopia from 1965 to 1968. His son Christopher Woods was a PCV in Kazakhstan from 1996 to 1998. Here John reviews Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America by David A. Taylor.
Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America
by David A. Taylor (Mauritania 1983–85)
Reviewed by John Woods (Ethiopia 1965–68)
Imagine in this current economic travail if one of President Obama’s initiatives was to fund a project where out-of-work writers were employed to create travel and cultural guides to every state and several major cities in the United States. I’m pretty sure the right wing cable chatter and blogs would go crazy over this. Yet this is just what happened during the 1930s when the WPA set up what was called the Federal Writer’s Project. The mandate from Congress was to “hold up a mirror to America.” Ah, yes, those were different times.
The interesting thing about this project is the quality of the work and the prominence of the writers it attracted. The book chronicling all this is David A. Taylor’s Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression in America. As a way to help us understand the project, we learn first how the project came to be and then the author has chapters on how guides were developed in places like West Idaho, California, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and more.
Any number of prominent writers either got their start or found employment during the depression with the project, including names like Richard Wright, who edited essays for the Illinois guide and then came to New York, where he wrote about black history. Zora Neale Hurston, a preeminent writer of African American literature also found a home for a while with the project. And the 22-year-old John Cheever, when he couldn’t make money with his writing any other way, took a job as an editor in Washington DC, working on the guides.
The book includes numerous excerpts by these and many other writers, along with descriptions of how they lived and worked in the various venues in which they found themselves. In the chapter titled “Chicago and the Midwest,” we hear the story of how Studs Terkel, Richard Wright (before he went to New York), Saul Bellow, and Nelson Algren all ended working in the Chicago office. Here’s one paragraph the captures what it must have been like:
The Chicago office was an exceptional version of what Henry Alsberg could scarcely have hoped for when he said that WPA writers “will get an education in the American scene”: a community of talents that would absorb the local culture in each place with fresh eyes and imaginations. Algren and Wright provided alphabetical bookends to a startling roster that included Saul Bellow (in his first paid writing job), novelists Ana Bontemps and Jack Conroy, choreographer Katherine Dunham, Terkel, and poet-novelist Margaret Walker.
We can only imagine what directions the lives of these artists might have taken had they not been able to hone their craft in the writers’ project. And do you know the name Louis LaMoore? He was another writer who joined the project as young man. We learn that he had a reputation as one known to stretch the truth about his background. Later, though, he went on to change his name to Louis L’Amour, becoming the famous author of novels of the Old West.
The book has many such tales of writers who found their first viable jobs with the project. And it is replete with accounts of the challenges involved in creating guides for different states and regions. In other words, this book brings together the stories and history of arguably an important piece of our twentieth century cultural heritage along with insights into what life was like during the depression. For this reason alone, it is worth reading, but beyond that, any aspiring writer should appreciate that even for the great writers, things didn’t always come easily.
John Woods is president of CWL Publishing Enterprises (www.cwlpub.com), a book packaging that produced the Briefcase Books series (36 titles) published by McGraw-Hill. He recently worked on Making the Good Life Last: 4 Keys to Sustainable Living by Michael A. Schuler (Berrett-Koehler).