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 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 (WPA), a New Deal program. It was one of a group of New Deal arts programs known collectively as Federal Project Number One.


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 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 Federal Writers' Project, 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.

The Federal Writers' Project was charged with employing writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologists, geologists and cartographers. Some 6,600 individuals were employed by the Federal Writers' Project. 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 Federal Writers' Project 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 Federal Writers' Project 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 Federal Writers' 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 power to sell, trade, rape, or kill the enslaved, and exact 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. ISBN 9780815604150.
  4. HBO

Further reading

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