The American Guide Series: American Culture Defined: The Federal Writers’ Project
The Federal Writers’ Project
The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was a subdivision of Federal Project Number One under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The FWP put 6,686 academically skilled workers to work for the United States government. Directed by Henry G. Alsberg from 1935 to 1939, the program would go on to produce over 1,700 publications covering a vast variety of topics such as local and oral histories, health pamphlets, folklore collections, and more. In 1939, the FWP lost its federal funding and underwent a change in name and leadership, becoming the Federal Writers’ Program directed by John D. Newsom. From 1939 to 1943, when the federal government deemed the WPA unnecessary, the Federal Writers’ Program operated on state funding. During its 7½ year run, the FWP cost $25,685,756—20 percent of the total funding allotted to the WPA.
The FWP had two main goals: to provide useful work for highly educated workers and to contribute notable literary works to American culture on behalf of the United States government. This literature was meant to focus on the nation’s historical and cultural presence to that point. Through this program, writers and other artists would be able to use their skills and promote the development of American culture and history productively. It also had the added benefit of keeping revolutionary-minded writers too busy to incite radical dissent.
FWP employees were expected to work a minimum of 30 hours a week and had the potential to earn $80–$100 a month. This was more than some New Deal workers and created resentment between program participants. What’s more, the FWP hired employees on a relief basis but with the added consideration of literary proficiency as well. This furthered contention between the FWP employees and those of other New Deal programs. While the Federal Arts Program and the Federal Theatre Program were both well received by the public, the FWP garnered more criticism than praise. Most of the New Deal work relief programs had visible results to show the public with each day’s work. Many Americans took in the research done by members of the FWP and considered it mere “boondoggling,” a waste of time and taxpayers’ money.
Resentment toward FWP employees reached the point where researchers were met with open hostility when introducing themselves as members of the program. Criticism did not originate with just the public. Many artists identified the Federal Arts Programs as an attempt to pacify revolutionary-minded artists. Those who bought into the movement were considered by some groups to be sellouts, compromising their beliefs and talents to secure the government for a paycheck. However, the FWP was not entirely without support. Some members of the artistic community considered the Federal Arts Programs as the salvation of an entire generation’s artists, concerned that a lack of money for patronage elsewhere would cripple the advancement of artistic culture in the United States.