The Great Depression is almost one century old. Today in the United States we remember this international economic collapse, and the suffering it engendered, by reading novels and essays about it, watching plays, viewing paintings—often forgetting that the U.S. government of that time encouraged and financially supported much of this art. Not only art: the Depression was one of the few times that the federal government ever stepped in to help ordinary people get on their feet.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s New Deal was a monumental undertaking guided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), whose purpose was to give out-of-work people not just relief checks, but also useful jobs building bridges, roads, parks, schools. And, motivated by the concept that cultural work can be just as useful as roads and bridges, the WPA also created programs for the arts, including the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP).1 The act of writing, many in the FWP felt, need not exist only in rarefied solitude—cultural work is itself a form of labor that creates, as Scott Borchert says, “a public cultural infrastructure.”
Scott is way less than a century old. Born in 1986, he is an upstart millennial who lives in New Jersey and has no apparent reason to know or care about the FWP. Yet, he has read most of the thousands of the Project’s publications, including its signature American Guides, a series of books—now collectors’ items—describing individual U.S. states, along with some cities and localities.2 Scott has studied the lives of people who, through the Project, became internationally known writers. And he has pored over the works of countless writers whose names we may never know, but who were equally crucial to the Project.
I used to work with Scott in New York at the Monthly Review office. I knew him as a quiet, dauntingly competent guy who cared very much about writing. I respected that. So, when his first book, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, came out, I had to read it. Then I had to talk with him. One October day, over Zoom, I started by asking Scott just who made up the FWP.3
Scott Borchert: The idea behind the Project was to hire a wide group of people from across the country and send them out into their own towns and neighborhoods to write about what they found for the American Guides Series and other publications the Project was developing. To do that, you couldn’t just get professional writers concentrated in cities like New York or Chicago; you needed a diverse array in every county in the country.
There were basically three categories of people who worked for the Project. The first was people who had published novels or poems or worked as journalists or editors, or aspired to do that work. Then you had young people who hadn’t done much of anything but were eager. Richard Wright is a good example of that; he was pretty young when he joined the Project. He won a contest for Project workers, which led to the publication of his first book, Uncle Tom’s Children. And then, when he was working in New York City, he was on this sort of secret creative writing unit that gave him the opportunity to go home and work on his own material while he was still collecting a paycheck from the government. That’s how he wrote Native Son, which made his name as a writer.
The third category was the people who were mostly white-collar workers or recent college graduates. The Project was, of course, creating jobs for people who needed them, so this group included a lot of people who didn’t fit into any other WPA work category. Consider maybe an older person who worked as a clerk somewhere in an office. They couldn’t do manual labor on a WPA work crew; they weren’t published writers or household names, but they could definitely work in a FWP office doing research or filing things. They made up the majority of people who worked for the Project.
susie day: Your book, though massively informative, speaks in this relaxed, ironic narrative voice. Did all these people you read about have something to do with that?
SB: I spent a lot of time going through the archives in Washington, reading all sorts of memos, letters, and reports that were dashed off by Project workers at their desks. They weren’t just dry reports; a kind of authentic, colloquial voice comes through in those documents, the way people send e-mails or use an office chat today. When you read literally hundreds of those over and over, you can’t help but echo them in your own writing. That was an unforeseen influence, the voices of the people who worked for the Project.
sd: Given that being a “writer” is usually afforded some cultural deference, the Project’s more expansive definition of the word feels somehow liberating.
SB: When the Project started, lots of people thought it was just a boondoggle for people to get paid; it wasn’t legitimate because they were hiring all sorts of people who weren’t “real” writers. But Henry Alsberg, the director of the Project, was staunch on this. He thought they should hire everyone who was available and could do this work; that it was important to get people who weren’t “great writers.”
Alsberg said once at a meeting of the second American Writers’ Congress that you have to think about the cathedrals of Europe. You had the designers who would create the master plan for these great works, but you also had thousands of anonymous workers who actually constructed them from the ground up. Their work was critical. He was drawing a line in the sand about this—it’s one of the essential contributions of the FWP that’s now forgotten. People today just focus on the guidebooks or the famous people who worked for it. But there was this philosophy of writing as labor that was crucial.
sd: Your book talks about the FWP as being antifascist. How did that take shape?
SB: The Project wasn’t given an official antifascist mission when it was created, but the people who ended up working there infused it with the spirit of 1930s antifascism. Many radicals on the left joined the FWP along with antifascist liberals and people who were part of the New Deal coalition that included the Communist Party as well as Roosevelt Democrats. They shared this commitment to opposing the fascist project emerging in the United States then. They tried to give a portrait of the United States that was antithetical to what fascists would say this country should be.
sd: How was fascism manifesting in the United States?
SB: At the same time the WPA was getting off the ground, you had the emergence of U.S. groups that were supportive of Nazi Germany, or homegrown fascist groups trying to take advantage of the turmoil of the Depression to impose a new fascist politics. There’s a documentary, A Night at the Garden by Marshall Curry, about the German-American Bund’s rally in Madison Square Garden—big banners of George Washington with swastikas. It embodies the idea floating around at the time that you could have this fervent U.S. nationalism that was also explicitly fascist. It was, in some ways, a real grassroots reactionary movement happening all across the country. A lot of people on the left were definitely aware of this and saw one of their main political projects as opposing it in any way they could. That opposition worked its way into the FWP.4
The portrait of the United States that the FWP created through the guidebooks and other works was inclusive, diverse. It valued the contributions of immigrants; it tried to offer a multifaceted kind of mosaic of the country to which fascists were completely opposed. As the 1930s went on, some of the WPA administrators saw what they were doing as a type of alternative to the brutal programs imposed by fascists in Europe.
sd: How was this inclusiveness expressed in the FWP’s work?
SB: The guides were reaching toward creating this vast, collective portrait—the good, the bad, and the ugly in U.S. experience. When you look in the American Guides, there’s stuff about all sorts of violent episodes, like, in the Montana Guide, the story of Frank Little, the Industrial Workers of the World organizer who was famously lynched. One of the main things the editors working in various states told themselves is that you have to avoid boosterism. They didn’t want their books to be tourist guides; they also didn’t want your regular old patriotic mythologizing.
There’s a little mythologizing but, for the most part, the guides are surprisingly stark and irreverent when they talk about what it’s been like for many people to live in the United States. It’s not true across every single page of everything the Project did. You can see there is tension between a critical voice and one that wants to paint over the darker parts of the U.S. experience. These two perspectives are always grappling with each other.
sd: What were some of the FWP’s achievements?
SB: One thing is the inclusion of remarkable Black writers, some of whom were well known; a lot completely unknown at the time. They made really important contributions to the guidebooks and the other publications.
For instance, there’s Sterling Brown, this editor in Washington DC, who was a well-known critic and professor at Howard University. He was hired to be the Negro Affairs editor in charge of, basically, “race material.” He looked at the FWP work and scrutinized it for omissions, racist language, trying to shape it to be more inclusive, accurate, in terms of the U.S. past. Obviously, it was a really difficult task.
It wasn’t just him; Brown did have a few people working with him. But when you look at what he helped organize and the contributions he made, you can see the potential of this project toward being blunt about the racist history of the United States and the conditions of Black people living through the Depression. If you read the massive guidebook to Washington DC—one of the longest they ever created—there’s a section on Black citizens of Washington that is completely unsparing in its history of slavery and racism, and the contradictions between slavery and democracy. That was thanks to Brown.
Richard Wright and Claude McKay were two fantastic literary figures of twentieth-century U.S. literature. Both worked on the New York City guidebooks. Zora Neale Hurston worked in Florida on the Project. Ralph Ellison, years later, would say that his work for the Project in New York put him on the path to being a writer. A lot of the Black writers who worked for the FWP saw it as contributing not just to their careers, but to Black literature in the United States.
Also, the Project collected—remarkably—personal testimonies from individuals across the country, all sorts of people from all walks of life. Today we call them oral histories, but this was before oral history was standardized as an academic discipline. Some of the testimonies went into the guidebooks or other publications, like the book These Are Our Lives, which the Project published in 1939.5
Some of it was filed in the Library of Congress and other places, where you can access it now. Some of it has been rediscovered by scholars and published in new volumes. To this day, they’re still coming out. But the most famous of these are the narratives of formerly enslaved people.6 They are online today, probably one of the most well-known artifacts of the FWP.
sd: Where do you think the Project fell short?
SB: The FWP happened all across the country but when you look at the labor pool it was drawing on, it had stark limitations. Yes, there were remarkable Black writers in the Project, but the number of Black workers in general was always very small.
You absolutely have a lot of guidebook material that we would today consider racist. Part of Sterling Brown’s job was to combat this stuff, and he wasn’t always successful. One of the most telling examples I can think of is how, in some of the Southern guidebooks, the Civil War is described. There’s actually a letter from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who wrote to the director of the Florida Project and essentially said, “You have to use ‘the War between the States,’ or we’ll make trouble for you.” And Henry Alsberg caved. There’s also some “lost-cause” mythology in the Southern guidebooks. There’s egregiously racist or offensive language in some of these books. The way Black people are portrayed tends to focus on sharecroppers, and there isn’t a lot of attention paid to prominent Black people or Black achievements.
The American Guides talk about the labor movement, but in traditional terms of factory workers, male workers. They barely talk about women as workers or working in domestic settings, even though there were many women who worked for the Project at the highest levels. That, I think we can say, is a pretty big omission.
Same goes for the way the Guides deal with Indigenous peoples. There are sections on Native history, but they’re usually bundled with sections on archaeology—the typical way of portraying Indigenous peoples as prehistorical. Like, Native Americans once lived here and left archaeological objects behind; real history started with European colonizers. Sometimes you can find references to Indigenous people living on reservations, contributing to the arts in different ways, working on New Deal projects or WPA crews. Occasionally, the FWP made efforts to find people who were themselves Native American, who would go back to their community and write about what they found.
sd: You structure your book around some of the individuals you found interesting. Do you have a favorite?
SB: Henry Alsberg seems like a fascinating guy. Genial, friendly, full of great stories and just interested in everything. The kind of person you could sit down and talk with all night. By the time he got to the Project, he was in his 50s. He had been a journalist, an overseas aid worker, a translator of plays, and producer and director in New York’s downtown theater scene. He was in Russia right after the Russian Revolution and met V. I. Lenin. He was also good friends with Emma Goldman and ended up being more sympathetic to Goldman’s and other anarchists’ perspectives of Soviet Russia. That caused him problems with people on the left, but he always threw himself into political and cultural debates.
He seemed to have had a real intellectual curiosity that motivated him more than anything else, which is what made him a great Project director. Instead of what might have been a boring, white-collar, work-relief program where people wrote government reports, he saw the FWP as doing all kinds of things that people did not expect, a real literary project.
sd: I loved the way you portrayed Alsberg in terms of his career as a kind of lost soul. He wasn’t looking for this job, but it seemed to make sense of his life.
SB: Part of this was his personal story. Alsberg was almost certainly a closeted gay man. This was the 1930s, so he left behind almost nothing in the historical record that tells us anything about his personal life or relationships. He kept it all very secret for obvious reasons. I think he, as a government official, was afraid of being persecuted.
sd: The whole “commie fag” thing?
SB: Exactly. I don’t get into this much in the book; I feel that’s the kind of research you have to earn by really looking into someone’s life, which is what Susan Rubenstein DeMasi, Alsberg’s biographer, does in her work.7 But you can see he had this lonely streak that comes through in some of his writing. There were times in the Depression when it wasn’t just the economic collapse that concerned him; he just felt he had no one who cared about him, he was aimless in life. But I think, in the end, he found something that made him quite proud.
sd: I’m guessing that, in the FWP records, there’s absolutely nothing about queers?
SB: Probably nothing at all in the published material. There might be something in the narrative testimonials that would look at the reality of gay life in the 1930s. But there were lots of testimonials from sex workers. Nelson Algren—one of the writers I focus on in my book—contributed one that you can read online in the Library of Congress. He ended up using some of it in his later fiction.8 So there well might be something in the archives, but I haven’t seen it myself.
sd: Last summer, you wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about legislation recently introduced in the House, calling for a new Federal Writers’ Project.9 What’s the status of that?
SB: When I was working on my book, the FWP was pretty much a historical curiosity. But the severity of the pandemic inspired a number of people to agitate for a revived Writers’ Project and, in spring 2021, Representatives Ted Lieu and Teresa Leger Fernández introduced HR 3054 that would create a twenty-first-century version.10 This new Project would be quite different from the original, more modest in scope. But that it was considered at all was remarkable. By the end of the year, HR 3054 attracted sixteen additional cosponsors and the support of the Authors Guild, National Writers Union, PEN America, among other such organizations. So it’s not exactly a fringe cause.
sd: What about the National Endowment for the Arts? How do you think it differs from the FWP?
SB: It’s completely different. The idea behind the National Endowment is to have people competing for grants. You set people against each other. You say, “Whichever individual artist or writer is good enough will get the grants.” That model has dominated arts funding in the United States.
Artists apply and grants are awarded for artistic excellence. Then they go off and do their own thing—and what relation that thing has to the rest of society is secondary. This could be a good way to deal with certain art forms, like, if you’re writing a novel, you don’t necessarily need a committee of people to work on it with you. But if you’re working on different kinds of cultural projects that might be considered a type of public infrastructure, then the FWP is a much better model.
Today, the FWP and other New Deal cultural projects are seen as too leftist, too collectivist—throwbacks that the political class would never consider doing again. That’s why the new FWP legislation is actually more along the lines of the National Endowment for the Arts than the original FWP. It wouldn’t be a federal agency hiring people; it would use the Department of Labor to disperse grants to literary organizations, unions, guilds, media centers. That’s different than the original FWP, which was designed foremost to give people jobs and hire them directly.
sd: Your book describes how the FWP was actually ridiculed by much of Congress. For instance, there was once a bill to make the FWP permanent, but it didn’t pass because of opposition like that of Dewey Short, a Representative from Missouri, who got huge laughs—to quote your book—“as he began prancing like a ballet dancer” across the floor of Congress to mock the idea of “subsidized art.”11 Where do you think this contempt for artistic expression comes from?
SB: It’s easier for people to dismiss cultural projects, compared to public works like creating roads or building dams or airports. Look at the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, sending men—exclusively men on work crews—to build trails in the forest and do environmental work. That was harder to criticize than the FWP or Federal Theatre Project. But the basis for opposition is the same. It’s not just because they don’t take art seriously or think it’s frou-frou or whatever. It’s a reactionary stance about how the state was redistributing power. By creating a cultural project that was collective and gave people jobs, the FWP said that people who did this work, writing guidebooks or editing documents in offices, weren’t really different from workers who were building bridges or clearing trails.
This is what radicals in the 1930s totally knew. They would talk about how there were two categories: muscle workers and brain workers—which has its problems—but when you drill down and look at these cultural projects, the thing that’s so threatening about them is that all these workers have the same interests. And if you can create a project for writers and cultural workers, you can do the same for workers in any sector of the economy.
sd: Conversely, many artists criticize the U.S. government for its military, its racism, for being probably the largest destroyer of the planet. Why should you want your work funded by this government?
SB: It’s almost beside the point what people think about government policies. The question is, “Is this cultural work being funded at all?” And if it’s not, then what entity can create the basis for this work?
In the 1930s, even publishing houses recognized that they would never be able to put together these guidebooks the way the FWP did; it would require too many resources, too many people. The federal government was the one body that could provide the basis for this. Lots of people who worked for the FWP were extremely critical of the government from the left. You had people in the Communist Party who thought the New Deal was U.S. fascism-lite; they opposed it completely. Then, when the Party entered the Popular Front, they rallied around the Roosevelt administration. It wasn’t that they saw the government as this beneficent agency handing out jobs. It was more, “These workers deserve these jobs.” The Project wasn’t only created from the top down; it was also created by people protesting in the streets, lobbying Congress. Writers in particular were organizing.
It’s a different question today, when people are demanding a new FWP. This wasn’t dreamed up by people in Congress; it’s something writers and writers’ organizations have been demanding because the COVID pandemic has created such a strain on writers. Going beyond that, I think people see the need for some kind of long-standing work program. There isn’t enough high-paying, stable, secure work for people in the United States. The only entity that can deliver this in any reasonable way is the federal government. This doesn’t mean endorsing everything the government does, but, for people demanding these things, it means this is the terrain of the struggle.
sd: You worked for Monthly Review Press for six years. How did that influence you in writing your book?
SB: I always liked looking at Monthly Review magazine over the years, at the two kinds of traditions in Monthly Review’s body of work. One is the theoretical writing that gives you an education about how capitalism works, but can take effort to get into. Then there’s the tradition Monthly Review is famous for, which is writing that is forceful and lucid about how capitalism is experienced by workers. Leo Huberman wrote some of that in the beginning; Michael Yates today is doing similar writing. That voice—clear, forceful, almost plain speaking—is the way to make your case. I guess I wanted to write in a way that would be accessible and engaging for people who don’t read a lot of history.
Another thing that influenced me was Paul Sweezy’s saying: “See the present as history,” which became a kind of mantra for Monthly Review.12 My book doesn’t deal with the present much, but it does make the case that everything happening now is part of the same moment that extends back to the 1930s and before. Things like the Project that were happening in the ’30s are relevant today for the same reason.
F. O. Matthiessen, Sweezy’s close friend from Harvard, also comes up in my book.13 He had some money from an inheritance lying around that he gave to Sweezy, who used it to found Monthly Review. Matthiessen contributed to the magazine a few times. He was gay and died tragically, killing himself when he was under pressure from Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare.14 He was an important figure in my story, because his American Renaissance was one of these emblematic books from the early decades of the twentieth century, saying that U.S. culture and literature was a subject worthy of significant study and deep engagement. Of course, the FWP was part of that same trend.
sd: What’s the main thing you want us to remember about your book?
SB: The FWP was important because it gestured toward this philosophy of writing and artistic creation as forms of labor. And it sent workers out into communities. It said to people: “I want to hear your stories. Tell me what your life is like; I’ll take it all down.” And someone, somewhere, might read it.
This was huge—an important form of recognition for people who told their stories—it had never happened before. There’s a lot of dignity that came with being able to say, “This is where I fit into the whole picture of the United States.” That was the hidden meaning the Project left behind.
- ↩ “Federal Writers’ Project,” Library of Congress, accessed January 24, 2022.
- ↩ “American Guide Series: The WPA Federal Writers’ Project,” Rowan University, accessed January 24, 2022.
- ↩ Scott Borchert, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).
- ↩ Marshall Curry, A Night at the Garden (New York: Marshall Curry Productions, 2017).
- ↩ Federal Writers’ Project, These Are Our Lives (Washington DC: Federal Writers’ Project, 1939). It was reprinted by other presses, including, most recently, University of North Carolina Press in 2011.
- ↩ “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938,” Library of Congress, accessed January 24, 2022.
- ↩ Susan Rubenstein DeMasi, Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016).
- ↩ Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1956).
- ↩ Scott Borchert, “A New Deal for Writers in America,” New York Times, July 6, 2021.
- ↩ 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, H.R. 3054, 117th Cong. (2021–22).
- ↩ Borchert, Republic of Detours, 292.
- ↩ Paul Sweezy, Present as History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1953); Bernard D’Mello and Subhas Aikat, “Monthly Review School and ‘The Present as History’: An Introduction,” Monthly Review Essays, September 13, 2021.
- ↩ See the commemorative issue on F. O. Matthiessen: Monthly Review 2, no. 6 (October 1950).
- ↩ Leo Marx, “Double Consciousness and the Cultural Politics of F. O. Mathiessen,” Monthly Review 34, no. 9 (February 1983): 34–56.