During the Great Depression, part of the New Deal included money for the Federal Writers’ Project, which helped writers, historians, librarians, editors, teachers, and others find work. At its height, the program employed more than 6,000 people nationwide. It helped launch the careers of writers like John Cheever, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston.
Now there’s a proposal for a 21st century Federal Writers’ Project — to fund and sustain the writers and stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. A bill in the House was recently introduced by Santa Monica Congressman Ted Lieu.
He got the idea from David Kipen, former director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts. He now teaches in the UCLA writing program and runs the Libros Schmibros lending library in Boyle Heights.
Kipen tells KCRW he drew inspiration for the project at the onset of the pandemic. He was losing friends to COVID-19, and he saw others were losing newspaper and magazine jobs. He also witnessed the deaths of nursing home residents.
“Many of them [were] dying with nobody to tell their stories. I noticed how facts were, these days, somehow in short supply and up for grabs. And I thought back to the 30s, and how divided the country was then, and all the things besetting us in the middle of the Depression.”
Kipen says America is overdue for a new history project that documents people’s pandemic lives.
How the Federal Writers’ Project worked during the Great Depression
First launched in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Federal Writers Project provided American writers the opportunity to get paid for their writing. Much of their work was compiled in the American Guide Series, which offered a snapshot of American life in different communities.
“After they hired a few thousand writers, many of them [were] incredibly promising writers. As it turned out, they realized that this wasn't just going to be ‘make work.’ The first several state guides, these WPA American guides to every state in the Union, were bestsellers and critical successes. And they said, ‘Hey, we've got a hit on our hands. Let's keep doing this.’ And it was a way of reintroducing America to itself.”
In total, Kipen says at least 10,000 people were interviewed.
“If you pick them up, they're full of history. They're full of stories. They're full of essays. ... Steinbeck called it the most comprehensive account of America ever put together and nothing since has come even close.”
The current news landscape
Kipen argues that today’s media landscape doesn’t cover the news the way it used to. That provides an opportunity for a modern-day Federal Writers’ Program, which could be multimedia.
“The current system we've got doesn't appear to be working to sustain a viable, nationwide press. Talk about news deserts, these vast swathes of America, whose only media tends to be cable news, because the local paper folded up and blew away,” Kipen says.
“You would want podcasts and you would want an online presence, all of it. … And it's a mistake of people to think that the original Writers’ Project was purely a print project. … It would be true to the spirit of the original project to embrace every medium available.”
He adds that a 21st century Federal Writers’ Project could provide financial help for aspiring writers today.
“Think of all the writers who must be out there … who ought to be getting entry-level jobs right about now. … Whether they wanted to be journalists or thought they could make do as journalists, while they wrote with their left hand on the side until their ship came in, they're out there.”