9. THE WRITERS’ PROJECT

The writers of America were jealous. The starving artists had been taken care of, but to their minds the starving writers had been left out in the cold. Indeed, prior to 1935, the New Deal had responded only fitfully to demands to put writers back to work, and writers’ groups, looking at jobs programs for artists, called for similar treatment.

Writers “do not intend to continue under the semi-starvation conditions meted out to them, particularly while painters of pictures…'receive adequate treatment from the government,” wrote the New York chapter secretary of the left-wing Unemployed Writers’ Association to the Civil Works Administration. Without some kind of program, he went on, writers would be forced to organize and fight. The newly formed Newspaper Guild demanded a national program for unemployed writers and reporters. The Authors Guild, the oldest professional writers’ organization in the country, proposed in February 1934 that writers be hired to compose detailed chronicles of people’s daily lives around the country. A year later, the Writers’ Union, another left-wing group, marched in New York City; one member carried a placard that read, “Children Need Books, Writers Need Jobs, We Demand Projects.” The union sent a three-man delegation to Washington early in 1935 to meet with relief officials, and to the delegates’ surprise they got a warm reception; Aubrey Williams helped them improve their proposal for a writers’ project, and Hopkins himself dropped in to wish them luck.

A few programs for writers did exist prior to the WPA. CWA and FERA had hired some writers and reporters, along with photographers, clerks, researchers, and typists. Some were assigned to explore pieces of America’s disappearing past, setting down folktales and interviewing former slaves. Most, however, had wound up in the agencies’ public information offices, where they compiled reports and statistics on relief activities to distribute to the media. When the WPA was formed, these workers were absorbed into what at first was called the Reporters’ Project and eventually became the WPA’s Information Division; the slave interviews and folklore research were continued and over time expanded, with the manuscripts to be placed in the Library of Congress. Still, all these fell far short of providing enough jobs.

There were also a handful of state programs. Although most of them involved academic research studies, Connecticut had had a better idea. There, eleven relief workers paid by the CWA and later FERA, and assisted by volunteers, had assembled the material for a state guidebook. Author and retired minister Edgar L. Heermance, who had roamed the state promoting conservation of its parks and forests, wrote the guide, and the Connecticut State Planning Board sponsored its publication. The Connecticut Guide: What to See and Where to Find It was coming off the press in Hartford late in 1935, just as the Federal Writers’ Project was beginning to focus on a similar but far larger mission.

The idea that the Writers’ Project should undertake a national series of guidebooks was a child with many parents. One of them appears to have been the poet Marianne Moore, who had urged the CWA to hire out-of-work writers to prepare guidebooks and state histories. Moore, already something of a literary celebrity, had noticed that more people were traveling by car, and she knew the value of a guidebook because she herself had traveled throughout Europe before the world war. Another parent was a FERA supervisor in Michigan, Henry S. Curtis. But the prime mover was a writer and traveler named Katherine Kellock. Kellock, like Moore, had traveled widely in Europe and had become a fan of the Baedeker country guides, which provided historical and contemporary insights as well as the directions travelers needed to get from place to place. The Baedekers, named after their German publisher, were so popular among dedicated travelers that the name had become synonymous with guidebook. If you were going on a trip, it was enough to say that along the way you would consult a Baedeker.

Kellock had written for magazines and newspapers, and contributed many biographies of prominent Americans to the Dictionary of American Biography. Her first New Deal job had been in the Resettlement Administration, an experiment in collective farming that sought—ultimately unsuccessfully—to move farmers from land gone bad from drought or overplanting and reestablish them in new communities with access to good land. When Henry Alsberg asked her to join the Writers’ Project as a field supervisor, she jumped at the chance. The pay was less, but she would have the chance to push the creation of the guides.

There was a Baedeker United States, which despite its advanced age—it was first published in 1893 and last revised back in 1909—was the model for what the project wanted to do. Jacob Baker and his aides at Federal One envisioned five regional guides that would eventually be combined into a single all-encompassing guide. (In the original conception of the project, writers would also be put to work compiling an encyclopedia of government functions in Washington and performing special studies in various professional disciplines such as economics, sociology, history, and the arts. The encyclopedia of government functions promised to be a huge collection of deadly prose on deadly subjects, and fortunately was never started, nor were the special studies, which were never precisely defined.) The concept of five regional guides and a single master guide died in favor of state guides, in part because state and local politicians were more likely to support them.

Alsberg, at the head of the new Writers’ Project, understood the necessity of political support. At the same time he commanded the respect of professional writers because of his personal history of work for social justice, inventive mind, vast fund of knowledge about a variety of subjects, and excellent literary taste. He had a deep belief in those who pursued the writing life, and understood that they could be fractious, self-interested, and frequently radical. His friends found him lacking in administrative skills, and he did tend to prefer amusing dilettantes to people who worked hard but were boring, but he managed to exude authority, thanks in part to a deep-toned voice that a colleague likened to that of an Old Testament prophet.

Now fifty-seven, Alsberg had been raised in a prosperous family, graduated from Columbia’s law school at twenty, and practiced law for three years before entering Harvard to study literature. He found this dull and took up journalism. He wrote editorials for the New York Evening Post,spent five years as secretary to America’s ambassador to Turkey, and then became a roving foreign correspondent for the Nation, the New York World, and the London Daily Herald. He had traveled to Russia several times in the wake of the revolution. Famine and violence were widespread there, and these conditions prompted Alsberg to join the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, dedicated to funneling aid to Jews and Jewish communities overseas, as a director.

Returning to Russia in his new role, but now traveling incognito and carrying $10,000 in cash to give to Jews in need, Alsberg lived in the underbelly of the ferment, shuttling from one contact to the next, sleeping in haystacks and riding in boxcars. He spent seven months traveling before the police in Moscow decided to bring him back there for questioning. The policeman who tracked him down so enjoyed the liquor Alsberg offered him on their long and frequently interrupted train journey that Alsberg had to carry him into the man’s Moscow police station on his return. He heaved the sodden agent onto a desk and said, “Here is the man you sent out to find me.” By then his sympathy for the aims of the revolution had faded, replaced by opposition to Lenin’s Bolshevik government and its brutal persecution of opponents and stifling of civil liberties. But he kept these feelings to himself until he was back in the United States; then, starting in 1923, he worked to expose the regime’s excesses.

During the rest of the decade Alsberg distanced himself from former friends and classmates who were enjoying the fruits of the financial boom, and plunged into the arts. He showed his literary versatility by adapting S. Ansky’s famous Yiddish play The Dybbuk for off-Broadway, where it ran for two years and went on to Broadway, Chicago, and London. Drawn deeper into the theatrical world, he became a director of the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, adapting other plays until the small experimental theater went dark in the depression. He joined Jacob Baker’s staff at FERA in 1934 and edited two agency magazines before being chosen to head the Writers’ Project when it was created.

During the first months, disorder reigned. Alsberg’s limitations as an executive contributed, but were less to blame than an array of other factors. Strong state directors were vital to organizing the flow of information that would go into the guides, but these were hard and in some cases impossible to find. Even the good ones faced a deluge of bureaucratic regulations from Washington that overwhelmed their real work, as did a thick set of production guidelines that, like the artists’ time clock, proved unworkable. One early rule demanded that project writers produce 1,500 words a week to earn their paychecks, although few writers other than experienced journalists were competent to produce on demand.

Furthermore, ideological arguments raged in most of the big-city project offices where writers tended to be concentrated. Many of them were love-struck by various forms of left-wing thinking, from anti-fascism and socialism to the Communist Party and beyond. “The Communists moved in on the projects very quickly,” Jacob Baker said later of the early days of Federal One. They were quick to organize and prone to strike—and most of all, they were dizzily attached to their pet interpretations of radical ideology.

At the California project headquarters in San Francisco, a noisy minority of Communists styled themselves as followers of Josef Stalin. The devotees of Leon Trotsky were fewer in number, but more vocal. The Trotskyites disdained the Stalinists and claimed they were purer disciples of the Marxist-Leninist ideal that the Soviet Union under Stalin had perverted since Lenin’s death in 1924. These differences were too subtle for outsiders to decipher, but the two factions managed to harangue each other—and their fellow workers—into states of fury and frustration. The same factions battled in New York, where in the fall of 1935 this war of ideological epithets and dueling pamphlets virtually paralyzed the project. The poet Harry Roskolenko, a Trotskyite, called the New York project “more of a Leftist five-ring circus than a fertile field for thought about research and writing.” In Chicago, on the other hand, although the Illinois project had its share of leftists, most of them needed their jobs too badly to disrupt the flow of work. In Boston, the novelist and poet Conrad Aiken, who took a relief job on the Massachusetts project, quit after five months of coping with Marxist editors who objected that his work stressed American individualism rather than collective achievement.

WPA rules barred firing workers for their political affiliations. But they could be and were fired for not working, in which case those discharged were always quick to charge that it was their politics, not their idleness, that was to blame. All supervisors could do was to try to stay above the fray, though in some cases they joined in willingly. The left-wing poet and newspaperman Orrick Johns got his job as the second director of the New York project by convincing administrators that it took a radical to oversee radicals, but even he couldn’t bring about a productive peace between the factions.

Politics was only one of the problems. Alcohol was another favorite indulgence of professional writers. Eleanor Roosevelt, lobbying for a project job for a family friend with a drinking problem, suggested to Alsberg in a phone call that he not be given too much responsibility since he liked to “go off on a spree every now and then.” Alsberg told the first lady that if the project rejected “writers given to drink, we would probably not have a Writers’ Project.”

By the time he had them all in place, Alsberg’s state directors were a decidedly mixed group. More than half were journalists or novelists, then—in order—came academics teaching college history and English, amateur poets and writers, and people who had worked in education, medicine, and publishing. Fourteen were women. The administrative structure made their jobs no easier. Like all of the Federal One state directors, the state chiefs of the Writers’ Project answered to Washington and were supposed to be able to hire and set priorities free of local interference. But some state WPA administrators, who controlled every other aspect of the WPA’s work in their states, resented this parallel structure. And because they had the power to influence job quotas or to demand extra workers for other non-arts projects, they could strip the arts projects of employees or force them to take bad ones. And inevitably, politicians interfered; in Missouri the Kansas City political machine of Tom Pendergast—Harry Truman’s early patron—insisted on placing in the director’s post a society woman who so enraged the other workers that Alsberg had to shut the project down for several months. And in Nebraska, Senator George Norris dictated the hiring of a wildly incompetent director whose paranoid accusations were so disruptive that Alsberg finally had to move her, complete with secretary and salary, out of the Omaha office into her own home so that the project could proceed.

The competent state directors faced the same question Alsberg did: who was a writer and who wasn’t? Most of the 6,500 people hired by the project did not write professionally. Many were college students or graduates, meaning they had at least basic research and composition skills, but others were people who at best could be said to have the ability to read and write and who were shunted into the project because there was no other place for them. Moreover, those who could write—and the project boasted some excellent writers, from Aiken in Massachusetts to John Cheever and James Baldwin in New York, poet Kenneth Rexroth in California, and Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, and Frank Yerby in Chicago—didn’t always think that guidebooks were worthy of their time, and agitated to work on their own writing.

Alsberg had originally set a deadline of May 1, 1936, for state directors to have their guide copy cleared by Washington. The date came and went. Though the guides were not the project’s only task—writers were also assembling local histories and folktale compilations, and some were even working on fiction—they were far and away its most visible product, and not a single guide was even close to publication.

From the outside, the Writers’ Project appeared to be dawdling. The Federal Theatre Project was producing plays in cities, taking road shows into remote areas, and winning raves from some of the same papers whose editorial pages dripped with scorn for the New Deal; the Music Project was jazzing up listeners with dance bands and enlightening them with symphony and chamber concerts; and the Art Project’s glowing murals were attracting attention in schools, hospitals, and other public places. Of the four arts under Federal One, these three did have much shorter production cycles. But even allowing for the glacial pace of book publishing, to which the tasks of research, writing, copyediting, and printing all contributed, the fact was that in many offices no real work was being done. Even when it was, the anti–New Deal press cared little for the nuances. That the Writers’ Project had nothing to show for its first months, for whatever reasons, was enough to prompt attacks.

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