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Federal Writers' Project

Produced by the Federal Writers' Project, the American Guide Series of books presented American history, geography and culture, and stimulated travel to bolster the economy during the Great Depression

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was a United States federal government project to fund written work and support writers during the Great Depression. It was part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program. It was one of a group of New Deal arts programs known collectively as Federal Project Number One.


  • Background 1
  • Film 2
  • Notable participants 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6
    • Overview 6.1
    • Specific projects 6.2


Poster for the Illinois Writers Project radio series Moments with Genius, presented by the Museum of Science and Industry (c. 1939)

Funded under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the Federal Writers' Project was established July 27, 1935, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Federal Writers' Project operated under journalist and theatrical producer Henry Alsberg, and later John D. Newsome, compiling local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children's books and other works.

The most well-known of these publications were the 48 state guides to America (plus Alaska Territory, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.) known as the American Guide Series. The American Guide Series books were written and compiled by the FWP, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state's history and culture, descriptions of its major cities, automobile tours were one of the important attractions, and a portfolio of photographs. The Federal Writers' Project was funded and put to work, as a Public Works in and around the west coast, through Washington, Oregon and California.

FWP was charged with employing writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologists, geologists and cartographers. Some 6,600 individuals were employed by the FWP. In each state a Writer's Project non-relief staff of editors was formed, along with a much larger group of field workers drawn from local unemployment rolls. Many of these had never completed high school, but most had formerly held white collar jobs of some sort. Most of the Writer's Project employees were relatively young in age, and many came from working-class backgrounds.

Some FWP writers supported the labor movement and left-wing social and political themes. The rise of fascism and the emerging opposition to Roosevelt administration policies by conservative critics led many WPA artists to voice a political position. Most Writers' Project works were apolitical by their nature, but some histories and ethnographies were not. Some projects were strongly opposed by some state legislatures, particularly the American Guide Series books, and in a few states Guide printings were kept to a minimal number of copies.

George Dillard's oral history was recorded for the Slave Narrative Collection by the Federal Writers' Project (1936)

Notable projects of the Federal Writers' Project included the Slave Narrative Collection, a set of interviews that culminated in over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.[1]

Some of the work was "a socially-conscious art" in the sense that "these were not attempts to sugar-coat the lives of the authentic 'folk' in the realm of culture. Such projects were designed to effect an increased political awareness of the plight of sharecroppers, migrants, and the American proletariat" yet were nevertheless part of a "documentary trend" infused with "intense regionalism and celebration of the working class" with a turn away from European style, seeing "stylistic experimentation and a cosmopolitan imagination as socially-irresponsible indulgences not to be entertained in such times of national crisis" and embracing socially relevant facts and "national realism," noted Mark Krasovic writing for the New Deal Network, a project of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in collaboration with Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Marist College, and IBM,[2] adding,

The times had provided a human drama of immense proportions; there was no need to invent circumstances. Thus, many fiction writers turned toward 'documenting' the common people, those who suffered most brutally the effects of the Depression. The results were such books as Jack Conroy's The Disinherited and John Steinbeck's enduring classic The Grapes of Wrath.

Thousands worked on the project, including several well-known authors. Blakey (2005) estimates that at any one time the Indiana office had no fewer than 150 men and women on the payroll. Fieldworkers made about $80 a month, working 20 to 30 hours a week. A majority were women. Very few African Americans worked for the state projects, with the notable exception of the Illinois Writers' Project. One of the few racially integrated Project sites, the Chicago project employed Arna Bontemps, an established voice of the Harlem Renaissance, and helped to launch the literary careers of Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, and Frank Yerby (Mangione 1972).

The overriding goal of the FWP was employment, but the project produced useful work in the many oral histories collected from residents throughout the United States, many from regions that had previously gone unexplored and unrecorded.

For most of its lifetime, the Project faced a barrage of criticism from conservatives and particularly the House Un-American Activities Committee (also known as HUAC) and its chair, Congressman Martin Dies of Texas.[3] Federal sponsorship for the Federal Writers' Project came to an end in 1939, though the program was permitted to continue under state sponsorship until 1943.


A National Endowment for the Humanities-funded documentary about the Federal Writers' Project, entitled Soul of a People: Writing America's Story premiered on the Smithsonian Channel in September 2009. The film includes interviews with notable American authors Studs Terkel, Stetson Kennedy, and popular American historian Douglas Brinkley. The companion book was published by Wiley & Sons as Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America.

Unchained Memories are the stories of former slaves interviewed during the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project. This HBO[4] film interpretation directed by Ed Bell and Thomas Lennon [10] is a compilation of slave narratives, narrated by actors, emulating the original conversation with the interviewer. The slave narratives may be the most accurate in terms of the everyday activities of the enslaved, serving as personal memoirs of more than two thousand former slaves. The documentary depicts the emotions of the slaves and what they endured. The "Master" had the opportunity to sell, trade, rape, or kill the enslaved, for retribution should one slave not obey.

Notable participants


  1. ^ Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
  2. ^ The Ex-Slave Interviews in the Depression Cultural Context
  3. ^ Mangione, Jerre (1996). The Dream and the Deal: the Federal Writers’ Project, 1935-1943. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. p. 4.  
  4. ^ HBO

Further reading

  • Banks, Ann, ed., First-Person America, W.W. Norton, 1991, an anthology of oral history interviews collected by the Federal Writers Project.
  • Blakey, George T. Creating a Hoosier Self-Portrait: The Federal Writers' Project in Indiana, 1935-1942 Indiana University Press, 2005.
  • Brewer, Jeutonne P., The Federal Writers' Project: a bibliography, Metuchen, NH: Scarecrow Press, 1994.
  • Fleischhauer, Carl, and Beverly W. Brannan, eds., Documenting America, 1935-1943, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project (2003)
  • Kelly, Andrew. Kentucky by Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 2015. ISBN 978-0-8131-5567-8
  • Kurlansky, Mark, The Food of a Younger Land, Penguin, NY, 2009.
  • Mangione, Jerre, The Dream and the Deal: the Federal Writers' Project, 1935–1943, Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
  • Meltzer, Milton, Violins & shovels: the WPA arts projects, New York: Delacorte Press, 1976.
  • Penkower, Monty Noam, The Federal Writers' Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1976.
  • Taylor, David A., Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America, Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley & Sons, 2009.

External links


  • U.S. Senate: The American Guide Series (.pdf) Bibliographic overview of the guides.
  • U.S. Works Projects Administration (American Guide Series) eBooks: 20th-Century US History: Federal Writers' Project Books (mostly Travel). Links to over 100 free full-text guides.

Specific projects

  • Exhibit by the Library of Congress of recordings, documents, and essays by the Federal Writer's Project for Florida Folklife
  • Federal Writer's Project by Petra Schindler-Carter
  • Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, Library of Congress: American Life Histories
  • Federal Writers' Project in Nebraska, Lincoln Libraries
  • Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State (1939) Online full-text PDF edition
  • Almanac for New Yorkers, 1938
  • Guide to the Old Dominion, Full hypertext of the WPA guide to Virginia with maps, tours, and critical essays on Virginia and the WPA in the Depression
  • New Deal Network: The Great Depression, the 1930s, and the Roosevelt Administration
  • 1939 Federal Writer's Project: Exhibit on the Conchs of Florida , Online version, State Archives of Florida
  • Powell, Lawrence N. "WPA Guide to New OrleansLyle Saxon and the ," Southern Spaces 29 July 2009.
  • "Federal Writers' Project", Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture
  • New York: A Guide to the Empire State (1940) at Google Books
  • Florida Negro Papers at the University of South Florida
  • The Marcus Christian Collection in the LOUISiana Digital Library.
  • Federal Writers' Project Materials on African American Life in South Carolina
  • New Orleans City Guide (1938) at the Internet Archive
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