In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Federal Writers’ Project under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, which was itself the largest New Deal agency. Just as the WPA provided jobs in construction, utilities, arts, and welfare, the FWP funded more than 6600 writers, editors, and researchers who compiled local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, and other works. The FWP produced upwards of 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and 340 articles, leaflets, and radio scripts. Here are a few famous writers who contributed.
1. Studs Terkel
Terkel employed the oral history techniques he learned while at the FWP as a model for his books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War.
2. May Swenson
The poet and playwright worked as a folklorist in New York City, interviewing department store employees about their personal lives and working conditions.
3. John Cheever
The Republican author and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize was a reluctant participant in the FWP and described his editorial duties as fixing “the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards.”
4. Richard Wright
Among other items, the author of the seminal Native Son wrote an essay on Harlem for the New York City guide for the FWP.
5. Conrad Aiken
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist contributed to the literature, theater, and music sections of Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People. He quit after five months, deriding most of his colleagues as “hopelessly incompetent, except for the photographers.”
6. Eudora Welty
Pulitzer Prize-winner and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Welty served as photographer for the Mississippi volume of the American Guide series.
7. Ralph Ellison
The author of Invisible Man is quoted in a Library of Congress document that his work on the FWP helped him in the conveyance of dialect: “I developed a technique of transcribing that captured the idiom rather than trying to convey the dialect through misspellings.”
8. Saul Bellow
At age 21, the Nobel laureate’s first FWP job was inventorying Illinois periodicals at the Newberry Library.
9. Zora Neale Hurston
The famed folklorist and author of Their Eyes Were Watching God had already published two works with origins in the folklore of the American South when she was hired to collect Florida folklore by the FWP.
BONUS: John Steinbeck
Although he worked for the WPA rather than the FWP specifically, Steinbeck was a fan of the FWP and its fabled American Guide series, which he described as “compiled … by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating.”