Writers are usually unabashed about claiming authorship for their work. So it's curious that many of the alumni of one of the most significant American literary projects of the 20th century were ashamed of it: the Federal Writers' Project, a program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.
Created in 1935, in the heart of the Great Depression, the Writers' Project supported more than 6,600 writers, editors and researchers during its four years of federal financing. When the government funds expired, Congress let the program continue under state sponsorship until 1943. Although grateful for even subsistence wages in a time of economic despair, few participants deemed it a badge of honor to earn $20 to $25 a week from the government.
But the Library of Congress takes a different view. With little fanfare, it has been unpacking boxes of extraordinary Writers' Project material over the last few years from warehouses and storage facilities. After an arduous vetting process, much of it is now available to the public.
John Cheever was one of the program's unenthusiastic participants. A child of proud Massachusetts Republicans who had called the W.P.A. short for "We Poke Along," he was ashamed of working as a "junior editor" at the program's Washington office. He once described his duties as fixing "the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards." Nonetheless, Cheever's experiences at the Writers' Project provided the material for many of the best scenes in his 1957 novel, "The Wapshot Chronicle."
Cheever wasn't the only one who found inspiration at the Writers' Project. Others included Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Malcolm Cowley, Edward Dahlberg, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Kenneth Patchen, Philip Rahv, Kenneth Rexroth, Harold Rosenberg, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright and Frank Yerby.
Eudora Welty even served as photographer for the Mississippi guide. W. H. Auden called the whole project "one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state."
Additional information about the writers and the books written during this time can be found in:
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