Hopkins did not often wax eloquent about his vision for the WPA or for America under the New Deal. He was too busy. Sharp retorts and easy bantering were more his style, and while these left enemies and friends alike with no doubt where he stood, he rarely gave voice to the full flights of his idealism. But that July, he revealed his dreams for the arts and more on a cross-country rail trip with Hallie Flanagan, his choice to head the theater program.
The two had been classmates at Grinnell. Flanagan had gone on to head the well-regarded experimental theater program at Vassar College. On leave in 1934, she had traveled in Europe and Africa studying what theaters were offering; previously, she had investigated theatrical fare in Scandinavia and Russia. But she was back at Vassar when Hopkins invited her to Washington to talk about unemployment in her branch of the arts. “I don’t know why I still hang on to the idea that unemployed actors get just as hungry as anybody else,” he told her when she reached his spartan office.
The two of them left Washington on July 25 on the Capitol Limited, bound for Iowa City and the National Theater Conference at the University of Iowa. The train rolled through small towns, the slums on the outskirts of Chicago, and sprawling midwestern plains and farmlands, and the America revealed through the train’s windows must have inspired Hopkins. As Flanagan related later in her memoir, Arena, he talked “about engineering, about the building of airports, about the cities and the countryside through which we were passing; but no matter what we started to talk about, it ended up with what was at that time the core and center of his thinking—the relationship of government to the individual. Hadn’t our government always acknowledged direct responsibility to the people? Hadn’t it given away the national domain in free land to veterans and other settlers? Hadn’t it given away vast lands to railroad companies to help them build their systems? Hadn’t the government spent fortunes on internal improvements, subsidizing the building of roads and canals, waterways, and harbors? Hadn’t the government subsidized infant industries by a protective tariff? Hadn’t the government also given away other intangible parts of the public domain, such as franchises to public utilities, the power to issue currency and create credit to banks, patent rights to inventors? In all of these ways, government enlarged industries, put men to work and increased buying power.”
Hopkins argued that the new work program “would accomplish these same ends by giving of the nation’s resources in wages to the unemployed, in return for which they would help build and improve America,” Flanagan wrote.
When they were passing gray Chicago tenements that seemed to wither in the blinding sunlight, Hopkins asked Flanagan a question he had answered satisfactorily for himself. “Can you spend money?” he demanded.
She said she could. “It’s not easy,” he warned her. “You can’t care very much what people are going to say because when you’re handling other people’s money whatever you do is always wrong. If you try to hold down wages, you’ll be accused of union-busting and grinding down the poor; if you pay a decent wage, you’ll be competing with private industry and pampering a lot of no-accounts; if you scrimp on production costs, they’ll say your shows are lousy; and if you spend enough to get a good show on, they’ll say you’re wasting the taxpayers’ money. Don’t forget that whatever happens, you’ll be wrong.”
He continued to hold forth as the train moved west. His words to Flanagan were a New Dealer’s reverie of possibilities. “What’s a government for,” he asked, if not for providing jobs when the private sector failed? “These people can be useful; they can do jobs no one else can afford to do. Why, we’ve got enough work to do right here in America…'to lay out a program for twenty years and to employ every unemployed person in this country to carry it out.” He talked of building houses, parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers, of providing medical care, supplying children with fresh milk, and undertaking a host of other actions that would improve both people’s lives and the nation’s stock of airports, roads, and buildings. As for the arts, they could educate and delight vast new audiences, and “were not happy people at work the greatest bulwark of democracy?”
When they reached Iowa City, Hopkins laid out his vision anew, this time before an audience of farmers in a huge, sweltering auditorium on the campus of the University of Iowa. They had come together in the July heat from all across the state, and they brought with them sizable doses of healthy midwestern skepticism. Hopkins took the stage wearing a suit that was rumpled from travel and the weather, and introduced himself as a harness-maker’s son back in his home state. He recounted the social devastation in the first years of the depression, when private charities and local governments were dribbling out pittances and grocery chits to families without work. Then he spoke of the benefits of work, spinning glittering pictures of what the WPA could build. He had just topped off his speech triumphantly when a voice from the audience called, “Who’s going to pay for all that?”
It was an invitation to waffle, but for Hopkins, waffling was never an option. He surveyed the audience, tossed his jacket on a chair, took off his tie, and rolled up his sleeves. Then he leaned on the podium, gripped its sides, and said, “You are.” He paused to let this sink in. “And who better?” he continued. “Who can better afford to pay for it? Look at this great university. Look at these fields, these forests and rivers. This is America, the richest country in the world. We can afford to pay for anything we want. And we want a decent life for all the people in this country. And we are going to pay for it.”
Flanagan didn’t record how the audience reacted. But the National Theater Conference gave him an overwhelming reception shortly afterward, when he announced the government would sponsor a national theater and other arts projects under the WPA. Hopkins’s hopes for the theater were as pure as his hopes for work relief. Censorship, he said, would not be a problem: “What we want is a free, adult, uncensored theater.”
Federal Project Number One, the entity overseeing the four arts projects, was announced in Washington on August 2. The name was grandiose-sounding but accurate; it was the first federally sponsored project under the WPA. Informally shortened to Federal One, before long it had painters and sculptors, musicians and composers, actors and stagehands, and playwrights and writers all around the country applauding their good fortune and, for those who were politically inclined, the opportunity to speak their minds.