Grapes of Wrath
Listen to NPR's report on the creation of one of America's literary landmarks
An educational guide to the Great Depression of the 1930s
Gathering Voices in the
American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways. Christa Smith Anderson explains that during the Great Depression, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Writers' Project nurtured talent and collected voices coast to coast.
During the Great Depression, the federal government paid writers to record histories, folklore and voices across America. Although many of the writers were ambivalent, the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration employed several of America’s notable 20th century writers. Their product was comprehensive and impressive, yet today many of the 48 volumes of W.P.A. guides are rare, as predicted by John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. Steinbeck is one of many to pay homage to the sheer breadth of the collection and the writers who produced it. It is, he wrote, “the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together … compiled… by the best writers in America.”
The Library of Congress maintains 2900 documents from the Federal Writers’ Project and the Folklore Project of the W.P.A. Much of that material had until recently fallen into relative obscurity, first after drawing fire from the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late 1930s, then through McCarthy-ism after World War II.
Ellison relished the opportunity to hear Americans talk
It’s difficult to gauge exactly how the W.P.A. experience affected its writers’ own literary works. Sometimes, the link was direct: A Harlem interviewee told Ralph Ellison, “I’m in New York, but New York ain’t in me.” The line is immortalized in Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. Of this classic American novel, a close friend of Ellison told The New York Times that it would not have been written if it weren’t for Ellison’s work with the W.P.A. Ellison seemed to relish the opportunity to hear Americans talk. Of his work with the W.P.A., Ellison said, “I would tell some stories to get people going and then I’d sit back and try to get it down as accurately as I could.”
Ellison wrote about the importance of language
Ellison wrote about the importance of language in creating the narrator of Invisible Man: “I would have to… give him a consciousness in which serious philosophical questions could be raised, provide him with a range of diction that could play upon the richness of our readily shared vernacular speech and construct a plot that would bring him in contact with a variety of American types as they operated on various levels of society.”
Richard Wright, whose Native Son also claims a place among groundbreaking works of American and African-American literature, also worked with the W.P.A. As in many of Wright’s works, the politically charged Native Son exposes the racism that Wright found all around him while growing up in Mississippi. In calling for African-American writers to combat racism with a collective “nationalist spirit,” Wright suggested that his fellow writers look to folklore. In folklore, he wrote, “are those vital beginnings of a recognition of value on life as it is lived, a recognition that marks the emergence of a new culture in the shell of the old. And at the moment this process starts, at the moment when a people begin to realize a meaning in their suffering, the civilization that engenders that suffering is doomed.”
But even as Wright acknowledged the value of folklore, he criticized
many African-American artists who made use of it without including
explicit political indictments of racial oppression in their work.
Wright declared the Harlem Renaissance
to be “worthy of ‘French
poodles who do clever tricks.’” His sharpest criticism, perhaps, was
aimed at a Harlem Renaissance writer who is also among the best known
and most prolific W.P.A. contributors: Zora
Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.
William and Flora Hewlett
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