Pencil Leaners

From Public Books:

Between 1935 and 1939, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)—an initiative funded by the Works Project Administration under the New Deal—provided employment for some 6,000 jobless writers [in the United States]. Today, as stunned authors in Australia and around the world come to terms with the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, that experiment deserves reconsideration. As the ABC recently noted, Australian writers—who earn, on average, less than $13,000 directly from their work each year—will be affected on multiple levels: by the cancellation of festivals, talks, and other paying gigs; by the closure of bookshops; by redundancies and cuts in publishing houses; and by job losses in the related industries (from academia to hospitality) through which they supplement their incomes.

It was the American New Deal more than anything else that legitimated the kind of stimulus packages again being discussed in Australia not just for the arts but across the economy. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the crisis of the Great Depression forced him, despite his own fiscal conservatism, to rush through various rescue measures of a now-familiar nature. The US government guaranteed bank loans to prevent further financial collapses; it encouraged industrial cartels to control prices and production levels; it purchased unsold crops from farmers; and through the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and, eventually, the Works Progress Administration it sought to create jobs.

Recent calls for postpandemic bailouts for artists in general or writers implicitly evoke that legacy.

. . . .

Obviously, the publishing scene today—dominated by vast multinationals, for whom books are merely part of a broader engagement with the “entertainment industry”—differs greatly from the more small-scale milieu of the 1930s. Even so, it’s still worth noting how contemporary thinking about funding literature differs from the Federal Writers’ Project in several important ways.

Most importantly, the job schemes of the 1930s as a whole, including the Writers’ Project—emerged from intense class struggles in a way that today’s plans do not.

In her history of the Works Progress Administration, Nancy E. Rose writes:

Starting in early 1930, unemployed councils, organized by the Communist Party, began to lead hunger marches to demand more relief. On March 6, 1932, which was proclaimed International Unemployment Day, hunger marches took place throughout the country. … In general, cities with strong Unemployed Councils provided better relief.

Agitation by the unemployed coincided with intensified industrial disputation. By 1934, some 1.5 million workers were on strike and FDR went to the polls the following year in the midst of a massive wave of industrial action, in which the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations played an important role. Those titanic clashes paved the way for the Second New Deal, under which the most significant reforms (including the WPA) were implemented.

Crucially, writers themselves fought, through explicitly political groups like the Writers’ Union and [before that] the Unemployed Writers’ Association, for the program from which they benefited. In 1934, the UWA’s secretary Robert Whitcomb explained:

The unemployed writers of New York City do not intend to continue under the semi-starvation conditions meted out to them. If the government does not intend to formulate some policy regarding the class of intellectual known as a writer … then the writer must organize and conduct a fight to better his condition.

The following year, with something like a quarter of the entire publishing industry out of work, the two organizations launched a widely publicized picket of the New York Port Authority, in which their members carried signs reading: “Children Need Books. Writers Need Bread. We Demand Projects.”

. . . .

The authors employed by the FWP included many who went on to conventional success, people like Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Malcolm Cowley, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Kenneth Patchen, Philip Rahv, Kenneth Rexroth, Harold Rosenberg, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, Frank Yerby, and others. As David A. Taylor notes in Soul of a People, his history of the FWP, “four of the first ten winners of the National Book Award in fiction and one in poetry came from this emergency relief project.”

. . . .

Thus, even though the program did actively recruit some literary stars, the author Anzia Yezierska, who’d previously worked in Hollywood, experienced enlisting in the New York FWP as a kind of proletarianization. “There was,” she wrote later, “a hectic camaraderie among us, though we were as ill-assorted as a crowd on a subway express, spinster poetesses, pulp specialists, youngsters … veteran newspapermen, art-for-art’s-sake literati, clerks and typists … people of all ages, all nationalities, all degrees of education, tossed together in a strange fellowship of necessity.”

Not everyone approved of this camaraderie—W. H. Auden dismissed it as “absurd”; one of the project’s own directors complained that “all the misfits and maniacs on relief have been dumped here”

. . . .

The FWP faced especial hostility and ridicule, with one editorialist complaining that it meant that literary “pencil leaners” would join the “shovel leaners” of the WPA. Again, the authorities stressed the project’s utility, with its remit described in an official announcement as the

employment of writers, editors, historians, research workers, art critics, architects, archaeologists, map draftsmen, geologists, and other professional workers for the preparation of an American Guide and the accumulation of new research material on matters of local, historical, art and scientific interest in the United States; preparation of a complete encyclopedia of government functions and periodical publications in Washington; and the preparation of a limited number of special studies in the arts, history, economics, sociology, etc., by qualified writers on relief.

It duly enlisted its staff to labor on perhaps a thousand volumes, including 50 state and territorial guides, 30 city guides and 20 regional guides. David Taylor describes these texts, composed by a dazzling group of writers, as “a multifaceted look at America by Americans, assembled during one of the greatest crises in the country.”

Many writers resented their tasks (at one point, Yezeriska was sent to catalog the trees in Central Park); many worked on their own manuscripts on the side.

. . . .

In books like Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk TalesBibliography of Chicago Negroes, and Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, FWP employees collected the folklore that Zora Neale Hurston described as “the boiled-down juice of human living.” They interviewed people who had been enslaved, generating an astonishing assemblage of reminiscences. It’s thanks to the FWP that we have a small number of audio clips in which we can hear the actual voices of the survivors of slavery explaining what was done to them.

Alfred Kazin described how, in the late 1930s:

Whole divisions of writers now fell upon the face of America with a devotion that was baffled rather than shrill, and an insistence to know and to love what it knew that seemed unprecedented. Never before did a nation seem so hungry for news of itself.

Link to the rest at Public Books