What if a single government initiative could (1) create fulfilling jobs for thousands of struggling Americans, (2) help irrigate “information deserts,” (3) create apprenticeships for recent science graduates human rights, (4) preserve the stories of the disappearance of the elderly, and (5) reassure marginalized citizens that their stories are heard and valued?
Why the hell should anyone believe that one program could ever accomplish all of this? The answer is simple:
It worked the first time.
At its peak, the Depression Era Federal Writers’ Project employed as many as 7,000 people, only a tenth of whom were professionals when the program began. He’s created inexpensive, informative, often fun, and always delicious “WPA Guides” in all 48 states, as well as 40 cities, 18 regions and territories, countless counties, and other less mappable American phenomena. After the closure of dozens of local newspapers, the FWP reported life-saving news of fires and floods. And he recorded the oral histories of 10,000 Americans, especially the stories of former slaves, creating by far the largest repository of its kind.
This relatively small New Deal program, costing 0.002% of the WPA’s total budget, also ushered in a new era in American literature, which had produced only one Nobel Prize winner in the previous 40 years, and left more than one Nobel Prize winner. won 10 over the next 80. start or restart a list of star literary careers, including those of Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, John Cheever, Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison. (The latter two have become good friends, among the countless otherwise hard-to-imagine interracial friendships started on the project.)
The Federal Writers’ Project enabled Richard Wright, barely graduating from high school, to stop ransacking hospital rooms for a living and find his calling as a writer. The FWP ended up subsidizing Wright’s concurrent work on Native son—The novel that inspired Kamala Harris to pursue a career in law.
Oh, and it helped strengthen the sense of a shared national purpose that ultimately helped win a world war. All in all, not bad for a “mess” that House Un-American Activities once called “a magnificent vehicle for the dissemination of class hatred.”
With the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore sun, and every other Tribune newspaper sold last week to a hedge fund whose modus operandi is to strip newsrooms for parts, now is a good time for FWP 2.0. Alas, all we need is a functioning democracy to re-authorize the Writers’ Project and we are home free. Fortunately, the same reasons that make a reinvented project necessary also make it, for the first time in decades, achievable. Here is how it might work.
Project offices across the country would recruit unemployed professional writers, failed humanities and journalism graduates, and gifted high school apprentices. Together, they could create audio, video, digital media and even, yes, books – whatever it takes, per the original project’s mandate, to “hold up a mirror to America.”
Part-time positions and shared overheads could also help support local journalists at risk and their news outlets. As with the original project, oversight of everything would be a small central editorial office, always vigilant against the evils of boosterism, bad grammar, and – crucially important to the statement it would make – unverified facts.
In addition to the more quantifiable benefits listed above, a reimagined writers’ project should (a) affirm the importance of writing as a viable non-STEM professional asset, (b) champion good writing and good reading in as a humanizing force, (c) motivate Americans to explore the curiosities and wonders of their own country, (d) deepen local knowledge and social cohesion, and, ultimately, (e) help reintroduce a divided nation to it- even.
Sensible allies shouldn’t be hard to find. In a recent interview with me about their increasingly influential new HBO documentary Our towns, reporters Jim and Deb Fallows echoed authors as diverse as John Steinbeck and Thomas Pynchon in declaring their love for the ideals of the original project. “There is a face of the country that most people never see, and we think it is crucial now,” Mr Fallows said, adding: “We would like to pull the plow for that.”
From a political point of view, the idea has at least two advantages. It’s patriotic, and it’s pork. Down to its serifs, a Federal Writers’ Project remains an old-fashioned, shameless, shameless patriotic example of what was once called Americanism. Think of it as internal cultural diplomacy. Never shying away from the uglier aspects of our past or present, a new FWP would first and foremost be a national valentine for open-minded and open-hearted curiosity – a sort of mental electrification project. All that, and a stack of pocket memorabilia for every last congressional district office in the country.
A member of Congress seems to know. Last week, Representative Ted Lieu from California introduced a bill called “The 21st-Century Federal Writers’ Project Act” aka House Resolution 3054. It would create 900-1,000 decent jobs for writers, editors, photographers , librarians, web developers and others. Representative Lieu believes the bill is a perfect fit for the slowly moving, peristaltic, U.S. plan for jobs through Congress. At least a hundred cosponsors agree with him so far.
FWP 2.0 may or may not meet everyone’s definition of “infrastructure”. Rather, it is the thing that a misguided technocrat once decided the word “infrastructure” was such a great improvement. The 21st Century Federal Writers’ Bill Act is a public works project– a dam that could finally help hold back the national rising tide of stupidity and despair that has lately threatened to engulf us all.