Federal Writers' Project

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Produced by the Federal Writers' Project, the American Guide Series of books presented American history, geography and culture, and stimulated travel to bolster the economy during the Great Depression

The Federal Writers' Project was a United States federal government project to fund written work and support writers during the Great Depression. It was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal program. It was one of a group of New Deal arts programs known collectively as Federal Project Number One.


Poster for the Illinois Writers Project radio series Moments with Genius, presented by the Museum of Science and Industry (c. 1939)

Funded under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was established July 27, 1935, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Henry Alsberg, a journalist, playwright, theatrical producer, and human rights activist, directed the program from 1935-1939. (Later, after federal funding was cut and Alsberg fired, the Project fell under state sponsorship and was led by John D. Newsmen before it ended completely in 1943.)[1] The FWP produced thousands of publications over its existence including state guides, city guides, local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children's books, and other works. In addition to writers, the Project provided jobs to unemployed librarians, clerks, researchers, editors, historians, and others. It's been estimated that over ten-thousand people found employment in the FWP.[1] The Federal Writers’ Project set out not only to provide work relief for unemployed writers, but to create a unique “self-portrait of America” through publication of guidebooks.

American Guide Series and Other Publications[edit]

The American Guide series, the most well-known of the FWP's publications, consisted of guides to the then 48 states, as well as the Alaska Territory, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. The books were written and compiled by writers from individual states and territories, and edited by Alsberg and his staff in Washington, D.C. The format was generally uniform, and each guide included detailed histories of the state or territory, with descriptions of every city and town, automobile travel routes, photographs, maps, and chapters on natural resources, culture, and geography. The inclusion of essays about the various cultures of people living in the states, including immigrants and African Americans, was unprecedented for its time. City books, such as The New York City Guide, were also published as part of the series. Some full-length books are available online at the Internet Archive. The FWP also published another series, Life In America, as well as numerous individual titles. Many FWP books were bestsellers. Others, like Cape Cod Pilot, written by author Josef Berger using the pseudonym Jeremiah Digges, received critical acclaim.

In each state a Writers' Project non-relief staff of editors was formed, along with a much larger group of field workers drawn from local unemployment rolls. The people hired came from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from former newspaper workers to white-collar and blue-collar workers without writing or editing experience.

George Dillard's oral history was recorded for the Slave Narrative Collection by the Federal Writers' Project (1936)

Ancillary Projects[edit]

Notable projects of the Federal Writers' Project included the Slave Narrative Collection, a set of interviews that culminated in over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.[2] Many of these narratives are available online from the Library of Congress website. Folklorist Benjamin A. Botkin was instrumental in insuring the survival of these manuscripts. Among the researchers and authors who have used this collection are Colson Whitehead for his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad.

Other programs that emerged from Alsberg's desire to create an inclusive "self-portrait of America" were the Life History and Folklore Projects. These consisted of first-person narratives and interviews (collected and conducted by FWP workers) which represented people of various ethnicites, regions and occupations. According to the Library Congress website, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1940, the documents "chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, grueling factory work, and the immigrant experience. Writers hired by this Depression-era work project included Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, May Swenson, and many others."

Thousands worked on the project, including several well-known authors. Very few African Americans worked for the state projects, with the notable exception of the Illinois Writers' Project. One of the few racially integrated Project sites, the Chicago project employed Arna Bontemps, an established voice of the Harlem Renaissance, and helped to launch the literary careers of Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, and Frank Yerby (Mangione 1972).


For most of its lifetime, the Federal Writers' Project faced a barrage of criticism from conservatives. When Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People, was published, it was lauded by government officials, including Governor Charles Hurley. But the day after its publication, "conservatives attacked the book over its essays on the 1912 Lawrence textile strike and other labor issues. Even more sacrilegious to these critics was the coverage of the Sacco and Vanzetti affair."[1] Scholars called the questionable passages "fair accounts," and, ironically, the controversy helped increase book sales. The most poisonous attacks came from the House Un-American Activities Committee and its chair, the media-savvy Congressman Martin Dies Jr. of Texas.[3] Federal sponsorship for the Federal Writers' Project came to an end in 1939, though the program was permitted to continue under state sponsorship until 1943.


A National Endowment for the Humanities-funded documentary about the Federal Writers' Project, entitled Soul of a People: Writing America's Story premiered on the Smithsonian Channel in September 2009. The film includes interviews with notable American authors Studs Terkel, Stetson Kennedy, and popular American historian Douglas Brinkley. The companion book was published by Wiley & Sons as Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America.

The Slave Narratives are represented by the HBO documentary, Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives. This program features well-known actors such as Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson performing dramatic readings of the transcripts.

The film Cradle Will Rock, by Tim Robbins, while depicting the events of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), dramatizes the attacks against Federal One (via the House Committee on Un-American Activities) which helped shutter both the FTP and the FWP.

Notable participants[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Rubenstein DeMasi, Susan (2016). Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal's Federal Writer's Project. McFarland and Co. 
  2. ^ Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
  3. ^ Mangione, Jerre (1996). The Dream and the Deal: the Federal Writers’ Project, 1935-1943. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780815604150. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Banks, Ann, ed., First-Person America, W.W. Norton, 1991, an anthology of oral history interviews collected by the Federal Writers Project.
  • Blakey, George T. Creating a Hoosier Self-Portrait: The Federal Writers' Project in Indiana, 1935-1942 Indiana University Press, 2005.
  • Brewer, Jeutonne P., The Federal Writers' Project: a bibliography, Metuchen, NH: Scarecrow Press, 1994.
  • Fleischhauer, Carl, and Beverly W. Brannan, eds., Documenting America, 1935-1943, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project (2003)
  • Kelly, Andrew. Kentucky by Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 2015. ISBN 978-0-8131-5567-8
  • Kurlansky, Mark, The Food of a Younger Land, Penguin, NY, 2009.
  • Mangione, Jerre, The Dream and the Deal: the Federal Writers' Project, 1935–1943, Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
  • Meltzer, Milton, Violins & shovels: the WPA arts projects, New York: Delacorte Press, 1976.
  • Penkower, Monty Noam, The Federal Writers' Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1976.
  • Rubenstein DeMasi, Susan. Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers' Project, McFarland & Co., 2016.
  • Taylor, David A., Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America, Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley & Sons, 2009.

External links[edit]


Specific projects[edit]