WPA Treasure: Is It Time for a New Deal for Writers?
One of our country's little-known treasures came out of the Federal Government's response to extremely high unemployment among writers during the Great Depression. As part of the WPA (Works Project Administration), the Federal Writers' Project was established in 1935 and signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The project tasked writers (earning about $80 a month each) with collecting and transcribing oral histories for a dying commodity: the generation that had lived through so many historic events and changes throughout the 19th century. Thanks to the WPA, we now have, through the Library of Congress, online transcripts documenting folklore, folk songs, and the narratives of former slaves, pioneers, participants from the Yukon Gold Rush, survivors of the 1900 storm that killed over 5,000 in Galveston, Texas, - all in their own transcribed words. Better yet, in some cases, the original tape recordings have been digitized, allowing historians, writers, and other researchers (remember Ken Burns' outstanding documentaries?) to hear the actual voices, rhythms, and cadences of the subjects. Some photographs are included as well in the collection, and if you go to Washington in person, you can find much more that has not been digitized in the Hall of American Memory.As I said, it's a national treasure, one I first became familiar with in my college library in the '80's, when I came across and fell in love with recorded folk songs from the late 19th century. Skin tingling, I listened to as much pressed vinyl and reel to reel as I could, and I marveled that the government would have the foresight to record something so fleeting and invaluable before it was lost forever.
So what about now, as bookstore chains collapse, publishers nervously regroup, and a host of writers suddenly find themselves cut from the lists? Do we have a corps of skilled workers at the ready, and are there stories so seemingly-everyday and humble that will be lost forever, taken to the grave, if we can't quickly catch them?
Is the idea of a renewed Federal Writers' Project something that has merit when weighed against our country's immediate, pressing needs? Do we still have the vision to consider an investment in the preservation of the past as a worthy building block of our nation's future?
These are the questions we should ask each other as writers before we ask our government for even the tiniest slice of the stimulus pie.