What if a single government initiative could (1) create fulfilling jobs for thousands of struggling Americans, (2) help irrigate “news deserts,” (3) create apprenticeships for recent humanities graduates, (4) preserve the vanishing stories of the disadvantaged and the elderly, and (5) reassure marginalized citizens that their stories are heard and valued?
Why on earth should anybody believe that one program could ever accomplish all this? The answer’s easy:
It worked the first time.
At its peak, the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project employed as many as 7,000 people, only a tenth of them professionals when the program began. It created cheap, informative, often funny, still delightful book-length “WPA Guides” to all 48 states, as well as 40 cities, 18 regions and territories, countless counties, and other, less mappable American phenomena. After dozens of local newspapers folded, the FWP reported lifesaving news of fire and flood. And it recorded the oral histories of 10,000 Americans—especially the stories of formerly enslaved people, creating by far the largest repository of its kind.
This relatively tiny New Deal program, costing 0.002 percent of the total WPA budget, also heralded a new era in American literature, which had produced only one Nobel Prize winner in the previous 40 years and proceeded to win 10 in the next 80. It helped start or restart a star-studded list of literary careers, including those of Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, and Ralph Ellison. (The last two became good friends—among innumerable otherwise hard-to-imagine interracial friendships begun on the project.)
The Federal Writers’ Project enabled Richard Wright, with barely a high school education, to quit mucking out hospital rooms for a living and find his calling as a writer. The FWP wound up subsidizing Wright’s concurrent work on Native Son—the novel that inspired Kamala Harris to pursue a career in law.
Oh, and it helped foster the greater sense of shared national purpose that eventually helped win a world war. All in all, not bad for a “boondoggle” that the House Un-American Activities once called “a splendid vehicle for the dissemination of class hatreds.”
With the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, and all the other Tribune papers sold in May to a hedge fund whose modus operandi is stripping newsrooms for parts, the time feels right for FWP 2.0. Alas, all we need is a functioning democracy to reauthorize the Writers’ Project and we’re home free. Luckily, the same reasons that make a reinvented project necessary also make it, for the first time in decades, feasible. Here’s how it could work.
Project offices around the country would recruit out-of-work professional writers, beached humanities and journalism grads, and gifted high school apprentices. Together they could create audio, video, digital media, and even, yes, books—whatever it takes, per the original project’s mandate, to “hold up a mirror to America.”
Half-time positions and shared overhead might help sustain endangered local journalists and their news organizations, too. As with the original project, overseeing it all would be a small central editorial office, ever vigilant against the evils of boosterism, bad grammar, and—crucially important for the statement it would make—unchecked facts.
Apart from the more quantifiable benefits enumerated above, a reinvented Writers’ Project ought to (a) affirm the importance of writing as a viable non-STEM career asset, (b) champion good writing and reading as a humanizing force, (c) motivate Americans to explore the curiosities and astonishments of their own country, (d) deepen local knowledge and social cohesion, and, ultimately, (e) help reintroduce a divided nation to itself.
Sensible allies should not be hard to come by. In a recent interview with me about their new, increasingly influential HBO documentary Our Towns, journalists Jim and Deb Fallows echoed authors as different as John Steinbeck and Thomas Pynchon in declaring their love for the ideals of the original project. “There’s a face of the country that most people never see, and we think this is newly crucial now,” Mr. Fallows said, adding, “We would like to pull the plow for it.”
From a political perspective, the idea has at least two things going for it. It’s patriotic, and it’s pork. Down to its very serifs, a Federal Writers’ Project remains an unfashionably, unapologetically, shamelessly patriotic example of what used to be called Americanism. Think of it as internal cultural diplomacy. Never turning away from the uglier aspects of our past or present, a new FWP would be, above all, a national valentine to open-minded, open-hearted curiosity—a kind of mental electrification project. All that, and a stack of pocket-sized giveaway souvenirs for every last congressional district office in the country.
One congressman seems to know this. In May, Representative Ted Lieu of California introduced a bill called “The 21st-Century Federal Writers’ Project Act,” aka House Resolution 3054. It would create 900–1,000 decent jobs for writers, editors, photographers, librarians, web developers, and others. Representative Lieu believes the bill is a perfect fit for the American Jobs Plan now making its way slowly, peristaltically, through Congress. At least a hundred cosponsors agree with him so far.
FWP 2.0 may or may not meet everyone’s definition of “infrastructure.” Rather, it’s the thing that some misguided technocrat once decided the word “infrastructure” was such a big improvement on. The 21st-Century Federal Writers’ Project Act is a public works project—a dam that could finally help hold back the national flood tide of stupidity and despair lately threatening to engulf us all.
Listen to David Kipen discuss the potential for a new Federal Writers’ Project on The Nation’s Start Making Sense podcast.