In the winter of 1939, Josiah Roberts was peddling cake flavoring door to door in Burham, N.C., but he had several propositions in mind to better himself. He talked about his plans -- and described elaborate cons he himself felt too honest to pull off -- to a member of the Federal Writers' Project. Josiah Roberts' story of life as a pitchman was among thousands of first-person narratives collected during the last years of the Great Depresssion by the Federal Writers' Project. More than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations and ethnic groups told their stories. They included people as diverse as an Irish maid from Massachusetts, a Macy's sales clerk from New York City, a Chicago jazz musician, a tobacco auctioneer from North Carolina, an Oklahoma oil field roustabout, a "kootch" dancer from Vermont, a Portuguese fisherman from Cape Cod and a smuggler from the Florida Keys.
For most of those who talked to the federal writers, the Great Depression was not the unified era it appears in retrospect. It was one more hard time in lives shaped by hardship. Even when they told of their present difficulties, those interviewed seldom mentioned the Depression itself. Instead, people told stories about the everyday round of work and play, the details of survival. The life histories are a compendium of knowing advice: how to get a job at Macy's, when it's safe to wear a union button, how to outsmart a tyrannical father or a dimwitted beau. As interpreters of their own history, people told stories that they had chosen as giving meaning to their lives. The best of these stories offer insights born of years of living.
The federal writers who took down the stories were themselves victims of the Depression. The Writers Project was based on the idea that unemployed writers, like unemployed carpenters, had a right to jobs. Along with its companion federal art s projects -- music, art and theater -- the Writers' Project was part of the New Deal's national work relief program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). At its peak, the Federal Writers' Project employed 6,500 writers and other white-collar workers. The $20-a-week average salary sustained a considerable number of writers who later achieved national literary reputation, including Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, May Swenson and Richard Wright.
During the early years of the project, the federal writers turned out a series of guidebooks which remain their best-known undertaking. Federal writers went on to gather the largest body of first-person narrative -- what would now be called oral history -- ever collected in this country. These accounts were intended to be published in a series of anthologies that would form a composite portrait of America through the storytelling of people who might not otherwise have left a record. But by the late Depression the Federal Writers' Project, along with the other federal arts projects, had become a convenient target for conservative attacks on the New Deal. In the wake of criticism from the House Un-American Activities Committee, Congress decentralized and curtailed the project in 1939. The FWP came to a complete halt following America's entry into World War II. Its most innovative publication plans were abandoned, and the potential of the collection was never realized.
The vast store of unpublished Federal Writers' Project material has been gathering dust since it was deposited in the Library of Congress in 1941. Efforts at the time to process and organize the material -- more than 150,000 pages in the library's folk song archive alone -- soon foundered for lack of funds.
The papers are now housed in a small, windowless room, familiarly called "the Buzzard's Nest," at the end of a labyrinth in the Library of Congress stacks, a room whose exposed insulation and crumbling manuscript pages make dust masks recommended equipment for researchers. The collection has been without inventory or index, and undoubtedly its size and chaotic condition played a part in discouraging potential users. Past indifference to the project's unpublished manuscripts is also due to the political and cultural climate of the postwar years when, as one observer noted, "The nightmare of McCarthyism drove the memory of the Writers' Project deep into the shade." As a result, the existence of the life-history narratives had been all but forgotten for 40 years.
Now, however, there is renewed interest -- the forthcoming First Person America , from which the following selections are drawn, is the first collection derived primarily from the Writers' Project life-history narratives at the Library of Congress, and the library has begun to review and process its FWP holdings. Consequently, there now exists a rough inventory of the holdings of the Library of Congress's Buzzard's Nest.
The Federal Writers' Project cost the government $27 million -- only one-fifth of one percent of all WPA expenditures. The project's value as a relief measure and the excellent books it produced made it a bargain at the time. But it also left a hidden legacy -- the rich vein of unpublished stories -- that is only now beginning to be appreciated.
By preserving a written record of these personal stories, federal writers offered men and women the hope that their voices might be heard by an audience beyond their immediate circle of family and friends, and that their lives would touch people they had never met. The portraits that emerge from these life histories -- of people, of the times they live in -- add the resonance of memory to the formal record of written history.