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audioJohn Steinback’s
Grapes of Wrath

Listen to NPR's report on  the creation of one of America's literary landmarks

New Deal Network
An educational guide to the Great Depression of the 1930s

Additional Resources
Power of Prose Index

Power of Prose

The WPA

Gathering Voices in the
Great Depression
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 Neale Hurston.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Great Depression, From PBS, learn what triggered the worst economic  collapse in American history.
  • John Steinbeck, This author championed the forgotten man and achieved worldwide acclaim for his observations on the human condition.
  • Ralph Ellison, A look at the life and work of one of the great American masters.
  • Richard Wright, A novelist and short-story writer, Richard Wright was among the first African-American writers to protest white treatment of blacks.
  • Harlem Renaissance,  Learn more about  the people involved in the literary and political movement that took place between the World Wars.
  • Zora Neale Hurston, This African-American writer is best known for her books and short stories, which capture the dialect, traditions, and history of southern blacks in the early 20th century.
  • WPA Federal Writers' Project collection, Learn more about the life histories of over 300 writters from 1936 to1940.
  • Life Histories from the Federal Writers’ Project, Voices from the Thirties.
  • Historical Voices.org, This site offers an online database of spoken word collections spanning the 20th century.
  • National Gallery of the Spoken Word, The NGSW is creating an online fully-searchable digital library of spoken word collections spanning the 20th century at HistoricalVoice.org.
  • Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.
  • Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: The Modern Library, 1992.
  • Mangione, Jerre. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972.

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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.

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National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York