The FTP was not alone in provoking the attentions of the right. The Federal Writers’ Project also helped cement the notion among conservatives that the arts projects were overly influenced by Communists and leftists of all stripes. Whatever truth there was to this, it was not initially the case.
After Vardis Fisher won his race in January 1937 to make Idaho’s the first state guide of the American Guide series to be published, the Writers’ Project went on to produce a series of state and city guides that met with great acclaim. The Washington, D.C., guide, which project director Henry Alsberg had hoped would precede Idaho’s, appeared that April. It was bound in black cloth, was 1,141 pages long, and weighed five and a half pounds. Jokes about its size were irresistible. Hefting it, Hopkins observed that it would make an excellent doorstop. Roosevelt, not to be outdone, asked, “Where is the steamer trunk that goes with it?”
Yet despite its intimidating bulk, Washington: City and Capital got reviews that echoed the praise for the Idaho guide. The lengthy gestation period now seemed to be worthwhile; reviewers such as the New York Times’ R. L. Duffus wrote that the guides, “taken together, will enable us for the first time to hold the mirror up to all America.”
New England was the next to weigh in, not initially with the state guides but with a piece that fell into the project’s lap by accident. The Cape Cod Pilot was an idiosyncratic, anecdote-filled introduction to Cape Cod that writer Josef Berger had contracted with a local bookseller, Paul Smith, to produce long before he joined the Writers’ Project. Smith’s intention was to publish it under a new imprint, the Modern Pilgrim Press. Once the Writers’ Project hired Berger, he worked four days a week researching and writing content for the project’s Massachusetts guide, but spent his remaining time on his own book, which went to the printer in the spring of 1937. Soon afterward, two project administrators dropped in on Berger while he was reviewing his galley proofs, started reading, and then insisted on publishing The Cape Cod Pilot under the aegis of the Writers’ Project. After an initial protest, Berger agreed, with the stipulation that it would carry his own byline—the pseudonym Jeremiah Digges—and that he, not the government, would earn the royalties. The book appeared that June, met with universal praise, and immediately sold out its first two editions of 5,000 copies each.
Four of the New England state guides—Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut—appeared that summer and fall. The Massachusetts guide was the first of these, rolling off the press in August, but rather than garnering the praise and sales momentum that the earlier guides had generated, Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People generated a storm of controversy. Once again, the enemies of the New Deal in general and the arts programs in particular found ammunition for attack.
Alsberg had inadvertently added to this storm. He had persuaded Ellen Woodward to journey to Boston for a public ceremony announcing the guide’s publication. Handing Massachusetts governor Charles F. Hurley a leather-bound copy, Woodward praised the federal government’s “helping hand to the development of our cultural resources.” Hurley echoed the comments he had made in the introduction, in which he wrote that he was “happy that this valuable work is being made available to the citizens of Massachusetts and the nation.”
But this mutual happiness was short-lived, for the next day the Boston Traveler published an incendiary story that counted the number of lines the book had given to the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case. This case of two Italian American anarchists charged with bank robbery and murder had transfixed the nation during the Red Scare of the 1920s. Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti were eventually convicted and executed in the Massachusetts electric chair, but in the seven years between the crime with which they were charged and their execution in August 1927, their case had become a touchstone for political divisions in America. One side held them to be “un-American,” and therefore guilty, primarily because they were radicals who had been involved in labor strikes and other forms of agitation. Progressives and liberals defended them, saying their trial had been flawed and prejudicial, and arguing that they were convicted less on the evidence than on their radicalism. Though all this was history by the time the Massachusetts guide appeared ten years later, the memories and divisions remained. When the Traveler wrote that the guide had devoted thirty-one lines to the Sacco-Vanzetti case but only fourteen to describe the Boston Tea Party and five for the Boston Massacre, the anti–New Deal press seized the opening and all hell broke loose.
“Sacco Vanzetti Permeate New WPA Guide,” read the Traveler’s headline. Others picked up the theme, and before long, an editorial lynch mob was in full cry, demanding that the books be seized and burned. Further readings revealed more “evidence” of the apparent radicalism of the Writers’ Project: passages that were deemed pro-labor and anti-establishment. Several Massachusetts mayors banned the book from their cities, and Governor Hurley now demanded that the writers responsible be fired.
Hopkins, who had other matters on his mind that August, when his wife, Barbara, was dying and he feared that he too had cancer, treated the outcry as an annoyance. Asked about it at a news conference, he said, “Lots of people might object to lots of things, but if we turn handsprings every time somebody objects, we could spend all day doing it.” He said he doubted he would delete the Sacco and Vanzetti section as requested. “Hopkins Jeers Book’s Critics,” went the headline in the Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor soberly pronounced the matter a “melodramatic comic-tragedy.”
Dora Thea Hettwer, Alsberg’s secretary, suggested several changes in her red-penciled copy of the Massachusetts guide. One would have changed the reference to the “notorious” Sacco and Vanzetti trial to the “celebrated” trial, and another proposed eliminating references to the lack of indoor plumbing in Boston tenements, but most of her suggestions simply softened mentions of episodes in the state’s labor history. Few of these changes made it into print, however, and the guide sold out its 10,000-copy first edition and two editions more.
Still, the damage was real. The uproar over the Massachusetts guide drew attention to the struggles of the New York Writers’ Project office to retake its own project from its collection of opinionated, vocal radicals. Most of them were Stalinists and Trotskyites, and each group disdained the commitment of the other to class struggle. As a result, they warred incessantly, haranguing each other with pamphlets and invective. Each time a new manager tried to bring them into line, they found reasons to protest his politics. Indeed, they spent all their time objecting and none producing copy.
This esoteric foolishness was highlighted by other hijinks that told the public the project was not only radical, but also undisciplined and prey to the more common vices. Orrick Johns, the poet and former newspaper reporter who was hired to head the New York project after arguing that it took a radical to manage one, made the news in the fall of 1936 when a jealous husband caught Johns with his wife, beat him, doused his wooden leg with brandy, and set it on fire.
Johns recuperated and returned to work, but he was never able to bring peace among the warring factions, and he soon joined the ranks of those dismissed for ineffectiveness. The office’s main project, the New York City guide, was nowhere near completion. It would not appear until 1939. The New York State guide was even more hopelessly behind. It was being compiled by the state project office operating out of Albany, which was a dumping ground for political hacks who couldn’t write. Still, the guides that did appear continued to generate good press. So did the fiction and creative writing published in book form under the title American Stuff by the handful of serious writers in the New York project who worked on their own and reported to the office once a week with the tacit approval of Alsberg. Among these were Maxwell Bodenheim, Claude McKay, Harry Roskolenko, and Richard Wright, who had moved from Chicago. Eda Lou Walton, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” about growing up black in Mississippi, was a piece “that hit me squarely between the eyes,” and that the collection was evidence “that our WPA writers know their craft and know present-day America.” But the attempt to turn American Stuff into a New York–based magazine with contributions from WPA writers nationwide fell prey to the same internal divisions that were slowing progress on the New York State and New York City guides. The Stalinists and Trotskyites advanced their own versions of what the magazine should include and what the writing should reflect, and each side took issue with editorial appointments, with the result that the magazine itself was an undistinguished and only occasionally interesting miscellany.
The real result of all of the creative fury, the ideological haggling, and the sideshow distractions that were erupting in the theater and writers’ projects was to help arm conservatives against the projects. The view advanced that they were riddled with Communists, that they embraced every left-wing and labor cause, and that even if they sinned in no other way at all, they were at the very least propaganda wings of the New Deal. Vulnerable on so many fronts, they were increasingly subject to attack. By the summer of 1938, when the Dies Committee was ready to begin its hearings, the guns were aimed and ready to be fired.