Sometimes, the best ideas aren’t new ones, they’re recycled old ones. After all, if it worked once, it can work again. Reps. Ted LieuTed W. LieuBass raises nearly million since launching LA mayor campaign Space race needs better cybersecurity Buttigieg touts supply achievements at ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach MORE (D-Calif.) and Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) understand that. They’re trying to bring back one of the most successful programs of FDR’s New Deal: the Federal Writers Project.
Established in 1935, the Federal Writers Project (FWP) was part of the great Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which provided federal jobs for 3 million men and women in the middle of the Great Depression. Under the WPA, Americans were put to work, not only building new roads, schools, airports, and bridges, but, as part of its Federal Project Number One, staging new theatre, creating new artwork, composing new music — and writing new books.
At its peak, the FWP employed 6,686 writers. Those hired included out-of-work writers, like former newspaper and magazine workers, as well as white-collar and blue-collar workers with no writing or editing experience. Yet the results were amazing and still resound today. As literary critic David Kipen recently noted in The Nation, the FWP launched a “new era” in American literature. In the 40 years before the FWP, America had won only one Nobel Prize in Literature; in the next 80 years, we won 10.
By January 1939, more than 275 major books and booklets had been published by the FWP, including by some who count among the most important American writers of the 20th century. Zora Neale Huston, Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, John Cheever, Studs Terkel, May Swenson, Richard Wright, and Saul Bellow all got their start working for the FWP. No American university can claim that pedigree.
Two FWP projects have particular historical significance. First, the Slave Narrative Collection: 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs, based on interviews with former slaves conducted between 1936 and 1938. It’s the first national story of slavery told by former slaves themselves, now a much-treasured and frequently-cited archive of the Library of Congress.
Second, the best-known of FWP publications, the American Guide Series: a locally-written account of life in each of then-48 states and several cities, plus the Alaska Territory, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. With literary, and often humorous, verve, each volume included the history of the state or territory and the state of its economy, described every city and town and provided photographs, maps, recommended automobile travel routes, and told the story of how its citizens had managed to survive the Depression.
Imagine how exciting such a survey would be today. Under Lieu and Fernandez’s plan, introduced as HR 3054, $60 million of the mammoth $3.5 billion American Jobs Plan would be dedicated to hire out-of-work journalists, aspiring writers, and graduate students to fan out in cities, towns, and rural areas — where they would “hold up a mirror to America,” and then tell the story of how Americans in each state and territory pulled together to survive COVID-19, perhaps the second-greatest challenge in our history. Unlike most federal programs, recreating the Federal Writers Project means a government initiative that all Americans of all stripes would be part of, appreciate, and enjoy.
To me, it’s the literary parallel to the space program, but a whole lot cheaper. Think about it. For only $60 million — the cost of two seats on Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosFree speech, Whole Foods, and the endangered apolitical workplace Space: One important thing that might retain bipartisan focus Virtual realities may solve Fermi's paradox about extraterrestrials MORE’s next flight to space! — we can unleash America’s creative spirit to soar above all those issues that now divide us, focus on what unites us, and bring this country back together. Congress could make no wiser or more lasting investment.
Press is host of “The Bill Press Pod.” He is author of “From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire.”