Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story

“With the leveling force of an earthquake, the stock market crash of 1929 hit us all,” Anzia Yezierska writes. “Bankers, industrialists, ditch diggers, and authors were tossed together into the same abyss.”

Yezierska – dubbed “the sweatshop Cinderella” for her sentimental and romantic stories about the struggles of Jewish immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side – was one of thousands of outstanding American novelists, poets, folklorists, and unemployed newspaper reporters who contributed to the Federal Writers Program between 1935-39, one of four arts programs created during the Great Depression under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of newly elected U.S. President Franklin D, Roosevelt.

Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story, a two-part feature documentary premiering on the Smithsonian Channel on Labor Day weekend (appropriately), is a riveting attempt at recreating the trouble-plagued history of the government-funded arts program through the words of those who were there, including noted oral historian Studs Turkel (in one of his last interviews before passing away in October 2008) and Stetson Kennedy. Historian Douglas Brinkley, novelist David Bradley, and African-American literature scholar Maryemma Graham are onboard to lend a contemporary perspective in this outstanding production.

Aside from putting food on the table of unemployed scribes, the main goal of the Federal Writer’s Project, crystallized by project director Henry Alsberg, was to research and create a series of state travel guides to serve the nation’s growing car culture. The 48-state guides produced over five years became America’s first oral history or, in the words of director Alsberg, “a genuine, valuable and objective contribution to the understanding of American life”.

“The complete set (of the W.P.A. guides) comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together and nothing since has even approached it,” John Steinbeck wrote in his 1962 American travelogue, Travels with Charley. “It was compiled during the depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating.”

The “best writers in America” who contributed to the W.P.A. guides included Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jim Thompson (The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me). In this passage from The Drilling Contractor, a W.P.A. life history relating to Thompson’s father and Oklahoma oil rigs, one can easily discern the early beginnings of the lean and sparse prose that would earn the hardboiled novelist and short story writer the nickname “Dimestore Dostoevsky”:

A hundred miles south of Oklahoma City, you could drive along at night and see a dozen little rigs running, the white signs on the walking beams winking under the lights as they bobbed up and down … the boilers hissing and breathing, sending up broad veils of steam; the pounding of the tools that made the whole earth shake; men shouting.

But the earth-shaking work of the Federal Writers Program (which, at its peak, employed over 6,600 people in all 48 states and produced 200 guides and 4,000 life history interviews) would be short-lived, undone by director Henry Alsberg, who lacked serious managerial skills to control the massive project, and by Martin Dies, a Democratic U.S. House of Representatives politician from Texas.

Dies initially supported President Roosevelt’s New Deal plan to pull America out of its greatest economic funk in history, but he turned against the project in 1937 and began a Congressional crusade to ferret out communists and Nazi sympathizers in the fabric of the American landscape. It was Dies who created the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, not Senator Joseph McCarthy, as popular history would have it, and the Federal Writers Project – a hotbed of subversives, Dies fervently believed – became the object of his laser-beam demagogue focus.

“These books were detested by Mr. Roosevelt’s opposition,” notes Steinbeck. “If the W.P.A. workers leaned on their shovels, the writers leaned on their pens. The result was that in some states the plates were broken up after a few copies were printed, and that is a shame because they were reservoirs of organized, documented, and well-written information, geological, historical, and economic.”

The battle between the ineffective Alsberg and the Roosevelt oppositionists and communist witch hunters is well-detailed in this Spark Media production for Smithsonian Networks, sumptuously produced and directed by Andrea Kalin and based on the book, Soul of a People, by David A. Taylor (who co-authored the script). The film is narrated by award-winning actress Patricia Clarkson. The writings of several prominent authors are sprinkled throughout the documentary, including Zora Neale Hurston, who had already made her name as a writer in the Harlem Literary Renaissance, the aforementioned Anzia Yezierska and Jim Thompson, as well as excerpts from Cheever, Ellison, and Wright and the little-known but fascinating Idaho writer Vardis Fisher, an iconoclast who frequently butted heads with the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C., a conflict that is amusingly played out in the film.

“Let’s face it, there is something called official history,” Ralph Ellison wrote. “But you couldn’t find the truth about my background in that history. And one of the things that the WPA did is to allow that intermixture between the formal and the folk. The real experience of people as they feel it … We are a country which improvises. We are creating American history.”

RATING 8 / 10