Soul of a People is about a handful of people who were on the Federal Writer's Project in the 1930s and a glimpse of America at a turning point. This particular handful of characters went from poverty to great things later, and included John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Studs Terkel. In the 1930s they were all caught up in an effort to describe America in a series of WPA guides. Through striking images and firsthand accounts, the book reveals their experiences and the most vivid excerpts from selected guides and Harlem schoolchildren, truckers, Chicago fishmongers, Cuban cigar makers, a Florida midwife, Nebraskan meatpackers, and blind musicians.
Drawing on new discoveries from personal collections, archives, and recent biographies, a new picture has emerged in the last decade of how the participants' individual dramas intersected with the larger picture of their subjects. This book illuminates what it felt like to live that experience, how going from joblessness to reporting on their own communities affected artists with varied visions, as well as what feelings such a passage shame humiliation, anger, excitement, nostalgia, and adventure. Also revealed is how the WPA writers anticipated, and perhaps paved the way for, the political movements of the following decades, including the Civil Rights movement, the Women's Right movement, and the Native American rights movement.
David A. Taylor’s Soul of a People relates the history of the WPA Writers’ Project, a small and relatively short lived WPA effort to primarily provide work relief to white collar workers with writing skills. While the stated goal was the creation of state and city travel guides, the outcomes often expanded to reflect unique historic content, regionalized observations, oral histories, and more. As for the public- and even participants’ perceptions of this New Deal venture, commitment was mixed. Overall the Writers’ Project accounted for 1 percent of overall WPA budget.
So what value was added?
The retrospective assessment of the Writers’ Project Taylor generates highlights the significant literary contributions of its participants in later years. This “who they were back then” telling adds rich insights into what nurtured and fed the creativity of countless writers who went to dominate American literature in the second half of the century and beyond. (Including/ but not limited to / Saul Bellow. Richard Wright. John Updike. Nora Neale Hurston. Ralph Ellison. Nelson Algren. Studs Turkmen. Louis D’Amour. And others who preserved folklore and music, Lorax father and son included.)
Taylor’s contribution is a reminder of the wealth of great American lit to revisit or explore. On a macro level it elevates the significance of the arts (in this case literature) to a society, and asks what may be lost - or never created- if public support is not available.
History of Federal Writer's Project, and overview of the new deal era work relief project and more detailed discussion of several representative state projects. To accompany the documentary by the same name, to be shown on the Smithsonian Channel this September.
I was really excited about reading this book but am disappointed. I feel that there is alot of name dropping of various writers for the WPA and some tidbits of historical and societal accounts of peoples' lives. I was expecting chapters that shared with you life stories of people struggling through the depression.
I've read the first 60 pages, haven't given up yet but probably will. This could have been a great book but Taylor missed an opportunity to share the stories and give the book life.
Odd--sort of the companion to a documentary, it tells the stories behind the stories of some of the WPA state guides. Sort of. Sometimes it just kind of retails some anecdotes and stops, as in California. Sometimes it's thematic. Sometimes not. Sometimes, as in Louisiana, where it details a pattern of censorship and surveillance, or Florida, where it discusses workers kept on plantations in near-medieval slavery, it's powerful and distressing. He finds an early Jim Thompson piece about the death of a hobo and makes a good case for its influence on Thompson's later work. (Maybe the most interesting part are the glimpses of plains-state literary culture. Being a writer with ambitions in Omaha in 1935 cannot have been fun.) But it's not really a cohesive guide to the project, to the ways it was produced (there are occasional quasi-populist references to how Washington interfered that don't add up to much), or to how it worked as a whole. Still, since I will read more or less anything about the 30s, I lapped it up anyway.
The subject matter - the Federal Writers' Project, a key part of the most ambitious and audacious social history and arts project ever undertaken - really carries this book, but is undermined by the ordinary prose and questionable structure. Particularly disappointing is the account of the project's demise, which is presented almost in brief and without any of the grand importance and drama attributed to the project during its tenure and its subsequent impact on writing and society.
In the 1930s, the WPA employed over 6k writers to document life stories and develop State Guides for every state. Thousands of these stories and many state guides are available online. Fascinating stuff. This book provides a decent overview, mostly from the writer's point of view. Wish it had gone deeper into the FWP history or deeper into the stories but skimmed to surface of both focusing on some of the more prominent writers from the project.
Interesting book. During the Great Depression, the govt set up the WPA Writer's Project to create jobs and create guidebooks. This book discusses the writers who took on these job. This book is useful for offering suggestions on what to read. It is kind of a guide to the guides--very disjointed and sporadic. Good reference for further reading.