New Deal Recycling: Can a Federal Writers Project Rise Again?

In this year’s on-going Congressional deliberations about infrastructure spending, one popular New Deal program will hopefully make a come-back, with new branding and a 21st century focus on clean energy.

During the Great Depression, about three million young Americans, with few job prospects in the private sector, enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They planted trees, built new roads, hiking trails and camp-grounds, fought forest fires, and learned valuable skills, while receiving a small federal government paycheck.

Modern-day advocates of a “Green New Deal” have been pushing the Biden Administration to fund socially useful work of a similar sort, via formation of a Civilian Climate Corps. In this modern-day national service program, low-income youth would be involved in “installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings, and providing water and other supplies during heat waves and storms,” according to the New York Times. 

Conservatives in Congress, echoing right-wing opponents of the original CCC, have ridiculed the not-yet-created Climate Corps as a “make work program” that would exacerbate labor shortages in private industry. California Republican Congressman Tom McClintock, whose district includes Yosemite National Park, is also sounding the alarm that the CCC might become “a taxpayer funded community organizing project” whose mission will be “to report on who is watering their lawn, whose fireplace is smoking, and who is spreading forbidden climate disinformation.”

Cultural Infrastructure

Such political attacks, and policy disagreements among Congressional Democrats over funding and direction of the Climate Corps, have not deterred another House member from trying to re-incarnate a lesser known and even more controversial New Deal program. In May, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, who represents much of western Los Angeles County, introduced legislation that would create a “21st Century Federal
Writers Project.” Lieu’s proposed $60 million federal investment in “cultural infrastructure” would lead to the re-hiring of writers, editors, fact-checkers, publishing assistants, librarians, and historians who lost work and income due to the pandemic.

Their Department of Labor-funded mission would reprise that of the original FWP, which directly employed about 6,600 unemployed writers during the 1930s

According to New Deal historian Scott Borchert, they “would fan out into our towns, cities, and countryside to observe the shape of American life.” Then, “they’d assemble, at the grass-roots level, a collective national self- portrait,” with a focus, this time, on the economic impact of COVID-19, rather than the Great Depression. “The material they gathered “would then be housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.”

Lieu’s bill is likely to be even less popular among Republicans, like Tom McClintock, than a Climate Corps seeking to distinguish itself through worthy deeds rather than federally-subsidized words. But Borchert’s new book, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) provides a powerful rebuttal to the idea that “make-work”—even for unemployed cultural workers—will always be a fringe cause or waste of tax-payer dollars.

As Borchert documents, the original FWP had offices throughout the country, and developed strong support from local Chambers of Commerce, travel associations, and commercial publishing houses. That’s because it’s crowning literary achievement—a guide book for each of the fifty states—was not only a public-private partnership, between the federal government and the many trade publishers who printed and sold these “American Guides.” The still widely read and admired Guides were a popular and practical source of information and advice about what to see and do in every part of the country. By 1941, nearly 270,000 copies had been sold, making the FWP a source of “stimulus spending” for paper manufacturers, printers, and book sellers.

The FWP’s state-based writing and editorial teams gathered mountains of material on national landmarks, regional agriculture and industry, folklore and cuisine, music, art, and leisure activities. Among the 3.5 million items that the FWP produced were “guides to cities, counties, and regions; pamphlets on hyperlocal history; recreational and educational instruction booklets; bibliographies and social-ethnic studies and individual testimonials” from farmers, workers, former slaves, and soldiers.

FWP-conducted oral histories, many of which were not published during the 1930s, have been mined by scholars of all types ever since, particularly those studying slavery in the South. And, as Borchert shows in his profiles of  FWP alumni, the project was an impressive incubator of young writing talent. Among those it employed were then impoverished and/or little-known writers like Claude McKay, Zorah Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, and John Cheever.

Wright and Algren were among those who most reflected “the New Deal in the very DNA of their later literary accomplishments.” Wright’s book, 12 Million Black Voices, which appeared two years after he left the Project, used pictures and text to compile a collective portrait of American-Americans with a focus on their “Great Migration” from the Jim Crow south to northern cities. Wright wrote his best-selling novel, Native Son, while still on the FWP pay-roll. His later autobiography, Black Boy, drew on material previously published in American Stuff, a stand-alone volume of short stories, poems, and sketches inspired by FWP field work. Wright’s contribution was called “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” which chronicled “the daily outrages and humiliations” he either suffered or witnessed, as a child or young adult, growing up in the segregated South.

A Controversial Message

Thanks to “federal writers” like these, the FWP’s “vision of nationhood” was “firmly grounded in the details of American life—a sensibility that arose from an engagement with specific places, communities, incidents, stories, and rituals.”

In the FWP’s depiction, U.S. society “was unapologetically diverse, permanently changing, shaped by economic struggles, tinged with class conflict, and welcoming of immigrants.” The American Guides, in particular, promoted the idea “that America belonged to everyone who lived there, whether they were born on its soil or arrived yesterday, whether their ancestors sailed on the Mayflower or watch that ship from shore or were carried over the ocean in chains.”

Needless to say, this was not a message well received by reactionary Democrats and Republicans in Congress. One of the former, a House Member from Texas named Martin Dies, who had turned against the New Deal, saw a nation “teeming with un-American activities.” As chair of a witch-hunting committee, Dies claimed that one third of all FWP writers were “admitted Communists” who helped turn the American Guides into “a splendid vehicle for the dissemination of class hatreds.” Like his political descendants in MAGA land today, Dies was a critic of “the great alien invasion of the United States,” which threatened the jobs of native-born workers and brought many “gangsters, murderers, and thieves” to our shores.

Borchert’s account of how the Dies Committee first smeared the FWP and then paved the way for its eventual demise, has much contemporary resonance. Phase two of what Borchert calls “the Congressional assault on the FWP” was a follow-up effort to defund it. On the defensive after mid-term election defeats in 1938, the Roosevelt Administration “made peace with the idea of a truncated WPA.” As part of its restructuring, the FWP survived but in diminished and fragmented form, under less progressive leadership. In its new form, as the WPA Writers Program, states exercised more control over editorial content. Under the Relief Act of 1940, federally-funded writers were required to sign an affidavit swearing they weren’t Communists or Nazis. When four hundred refused, they were suspended and then purged from the program, which ended in 1943.

As Borchert admits, “astronauts will likely land on Mars before the federal government again pays writers to undertake collective cultural projects, such as the American Guides.” But Congressman Ted Lieu remains undeterred in his current search for more co-sponsors of his bill to create a “21st Century Federal Writers Project,” that would, once again, provide public subsidies for socially useful research, writing, and publishing.

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at