Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of essays with international concerns. Today’s essay, “Pencil Leaners,” by Jeff Sparrow, was originally published by the SRB on April 17, 2020.
Between 1935 and 1939, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)—an initiative funded by the Works Project Administration under the New Deal—provided employment for some 6,000 jobless writers [in the United States]. Today, as stunned authors in Australia and around the world come to terms with the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, that experiment deserves reconsideration. As the ABC recently noted, Australian writers—who earn, on average, less than $13,000 directly from their work each year—will be affected on multiple levels: by the cancellation of festivals, talks, and other paying gigs; by the closure of bookshops; by redundancies and cuts in publishing houses; and by job losses in the related industries (from academia to hospitality) through which they supplement their incomes.
It was the American New Deal more than anything else that legitimated the kind of stimulus packages again being discussed in Australia not just for the arts but across the economy. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the crisis of the Great Depression forced him, despite his own fiscal conservatism, to rush through various rescue measures of a now-familiar nature. The US government guaranteed bank loans to prevent further financial collapses; it encouraged industrial cartels to control prices and production levels; it purchased unsold crops from farmers; and through the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and, eventually, the Works Progress Administration it sought to create jobs.
Recent calls for postpandemic bailouts for artists in general or writers implicitly evoke that legacy. Ben Eltham, one of Australia’s best arts writers, has spelled out one version of such a package in The Conversation, while the WA arts newsletter Semaphore has run an open letter calling for, among other things, more funding to the Australia Council.
Obviously, the publishing scene today—dominated by vast multinationals, for whom books are merely part of a broader engagement with the “entertainment industry”—differs greatly from the more small-scale milieu of the 1930s. Even so, it’s still worth noting how contemporary thinking about funding literature differs from the Federal Writers’ Project in several important ways.
Most importantly, the job schemes of the 1930s as a whole, including the Writers’ Project—emerged from intense class struggles in a way that today’s plans do not.
In her history of the Works Progress Administration, Nancy E. Rose writes:
Starting in early 1930, unemployed councils, organized by the Communist Party, began to lead hunger marches to demand more relief. On March 6, 1932, which was proclaimed International Unemployment Day, hunger marches took place throughout the country. … In general, cities with strong Unemployed Councils provided better relief.
Agitation by the unemployed coincided with intensified industrial disputation. By 1934, some 1.5 million workers were on strike and FDR went to the polls the following year in the midst of a massive wave of industrial action, in which the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations played an important role. Those titanic clashes paved the way for the Second New Deal, under which the most significant reforms (including the WPA) were implemented.
Crucially, writers themselves fought, through explicitly political groups like the Writers’ Union and [before that] the Unemployed Writers’ Association, for the program from which they benefited. In 1934, the UWA’s secretary Robert Whitcomb explained:
The unemployed writers of New York City do not intend to continue under the semi-starvation conditions meted out to them. If the government does not intend to formulate some policy regarding the class of intellectual known as a writer … then the writer must organize and conduct a fight to better his condition.
The following year, with something like a quarter of the entire publishing industry out of work, the two organizations launched a widely publicized picket of the New York Port Authority, in which their members carried signs reading: “Children Need Books. Writers Need Bread. We Demand Projects.”
Second, the Federal Writers’ Project addressed writers as workers. Today, writers learn to adopt an entrepreneurial mentality, an attitude reinforced by a creative-writing infrastructure that intersperses tips on “craft” with guidance as to the best promotional methods for building an individual career.
The authors employed by the FWP included many who went on to conventional success, people like Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Malcolm Cowley, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Kenneth Patchen, Philip Rahv, Kenneth Rexroth, Harold Rosenberg, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, Frank Yerby, and others. As David A. Taylor notes in Soul of a People, his history of the FWP, “four of the first ten winners of the National Book Award in fiction and one in poetry came from this emergency relief project.”
Nevertheless, after some debate, the planners of the FWP decided that, as Jerre Mangione writes, the program would not be available merely to those with an established career. Instead, “any kind of writer who was on relief, would be eligible to work on the Writers’ Project—fiction writers, copywriters, poets, newspapermen, publicity writers, technical writers, and so on.” Henry G. Alsberg, the project’s national director, went further, explaining that the project would accept “near writers,” “occasional writers,” and even “young college men and women who want to write, probably can write, but lack the opportunity.”
What would it mean to make literature meaningful to ordinary people suffering through an unprecedented catastrophe?
Thus, even though the program did actively recruit some literary stars, the author Anzia Yezierska, who’d previously worked in Hollywood, experienced enlisting in the New York FWP as a kind of proletarianization. “There was,” she wrote later, “a hectic camaraderie among us, though we were as ill-assorted as a crowd on a subway express, spinster poetesses, pulp specialists, youngsters … veteran newspapermen, art-for-art’s-sake literati, clerks and typists … people of all ages, all nationalities, all degrees of education, tossed together in a strange fellowship of necessity.”
Not everyone approved of this camaraderie—W. H. Auden dismissed it as “absurd”; one of the project’s own directors complained that “all the misfits and maniacs on relief have been dumped here”—but the fellowship Yezierska described facilitated a particular understanding of the writer’s role. In a lecture at a WPA event, Jim Thompson—author of hardboiled classics like The Grifters and the Killer Inside Me—insisted that he and his fellows were really workers, a claim that, if not always true, invited an identification with the population as a whole: a sense that writers deserved support because they were like other people, not because they were special or better.
Third, where contemporary literary funding schemes tend to support individual outputs, the FWP funded collective projects. In response to conservatives skeptical of a program they labeled “We Poke Along” (or, more crudely, “Whistle, Piss, and Argue”), FDR justified the WPA through the services it performed as much as through the roles it created. WPA employees built or repaired roads, public buildings (especially schools), public utility plants, parks, swimming pools, stadiums, and similar facilities, with a good deal of America’s current infrastructure dating back to those days.
The FWP faced especial hostility and ridicule, with one editorialist complaining that it meant that literary “pencil leaners” would join the “shovel leaners” of the WPA. Again, the authorities stressed the project’s utility, with its remit described in an official announcement as the
employment of writers, editors, historians, research workers, art critics, architects, archaeologists, map draftsmen, geologists, and other professional workers for the preparation of an American Guide and the accumulation of new research material on matters of local, historical, art and scientific interest in the United States; preparation of a complete encyclopedia of government functions and periodical publications in Washington; and the preparation of a limited number of special studies in the arts, history, economics, sociology, etc., by qualified writers on relief.
It duly enlisted its staff to labor on perhaps a thousand volumes, including 50 state and territorial guides, 30 city guides and 20 regional guides. David Taylor describes these texts, composed by a dazzling group of writers, as “a multifaceted look at America by Americans, assembled during one of the greatest crises in the country.”
Many writers resented their tasks (at one point, Yezeriska was sent to catalog the trees in Central Park); many worked on their own manuscripts on the side. But the collectivity of its main projects made the FWP very different to grants programs today, most of which encourage writers to pursue their own interests in isolation from (and, implicitly, in competition with) others.
Fourth, as a result of points two and three, the FWP developed a more-or-less coherent argument about the meaning and value of writing in a social crisis. The FWP’s guidebooks, for instance, both arose from and encouraged a sense of a need to chronicle the era, with writers documenting not just the doings of Great Men but providing a glimpse of the lives of those who traditionally might pass unrecorded, in what Sara Rutkowski calls a “quest for national self-discovery.”
On that basis, the FWP also published oral histories, sending out its writers to interview ordinary people: a professional boxer preparing for his big fight; a newsboy expounding on the code of the streets; a circus performer discussing work with wild animals; and so on.
In books like Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales, Bibliography of Chicago Negroes, and Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, FWP employees collected the folklore that Zora Neale Hurston described as “the boiled-down juice of human living.” They interviewed people who had been enslaved, generating an astonishing assemblage of reminiscences. It’s thanks to the FWP that we have a small number of audio clips in which we can hear the actual voices of the survivors of slavery explaining what was done to them.
Alfred Kazin described how, in the late 1930s:
Whole divisions of writers now fell upon the face of America with a devotion that was baffled rather than shrill, and an insistence to know and to love what it knew that seemed unprecedented. Never before did a nation seem so hungry for news of itself.
The perspective owed a great deal to the particular version of leftism influencing many FWP writers. In his book on the Popular Front, Michael Denning identifies a continuity between the “proletarian writing” advocated by people like Mike Gold in the early years of the John Reed Clubs and the documentary ambitions of the WPA. “In many ways,” he argues, “the research and interviews conducted for the Writers’ Project were not unlike the worker-correspondents Gold had called for, not unlike the Reed clubs’ call to writers to study a particular industry. As a result, the writings of the plebeian writers who worked on the projects—Algren, Ellison, Himes, Tomasi, Sinclair, Conroy—embodied a dialectic between fiction invention, autobiographical reflection, and urban fieldwork.”
At the same time, the sensibility associated with the FWP also reflected the distinctive orientation of Popular Frontism: in particular, the Communist Party’s retreat from internationalism to an embrace of the supposedly progressive patriotism of the liberal bourgeoisie. The project thus blended leftist traditions with the multicultural nationalism exemplified by Eleanor Roosevelt, who famously extolled American diversity as an antidote to the homogeneity championed by fascists at home and abroad. Backers of the FWP argued that it deserved support because it told the national story, with, as Kazin later put it, its writers presenting the public with “an inheritance to rejoice in and to find strength in.”
A weak version of this claim still provides the default mode for contemporary Australian arguments as to why the arts deserve support. “We have unique, inspiring stories waiting to be told,” explains the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance on the page for its “Make it Australian” campaign. “We want to celebrate the diversity that exists in this country and see that diversity on our screens.”
But that identification of writing and the arts with a “progressive” nationalism based on diversity represents one of the least convincing ideas associated with New Deal liberalism. Because nationalism defines a “national community,” it necessarily relies on exclusion. Even in its liberal form, it implies a category of “foreigners,” inevitably identifiable within borders as well as outside them. As a result, despite a rhetorical commitment to diversity, “progressive patriotism” invariably fails to challenge, in any deep way, racism and other forms of oppression.
To put it another way, the acceptance by leftist writers of the New Deal as a project of liberal nationalism meant a marked retreat from some of the positions staked out by the Communist Party in the 1920s, as radicals committed to the Popular Front embraced all manner of compromises so as to keep the national community together. After all, as Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers point out, FDR’s administration ultimately depended not “on the millions of farmers, blacks, and poor that have preoccupied liberal commentators, nor even the masses of employed or striking workers who pressured the government from below (and later helped implement some of the New Deal’s achievements) but something else—a new power bloc of capital-intensive industries, investment banks and internationally oriented commercial banks … [that] provided the needed business support for the two broad policy commitments—liberalism at home, internationalism abroad—centrally identified with the New Deal.” To hold together that coalition, Roosevelt was quite prepared to, for instance, accept the National Recovery Administration legislating racial discrimination in jobs and wages.
The FWP might have funded studies of African Americans’ life and it might have published Richard Wright’s important essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” But the WPA still allocated work on segregated and gendered lines (nearly three quarters of those it employed were white men), and the FWP still refused to give African American writers [jobs] on its surveys, because “whites [did] not like to be interviewed by Negroes.” Then, at the end of the Second World War, the business interests that had backed the New Deal decisively turned against it, with a new elite consensus shaped by the Red Scare and the Cold War.
The collective ventures of the FWP force us to think about how writing might be reinvented in the context of economic crisis.
In the Australian context, the rhetoric about “telling our own stories” recalls the multicultural turn initiated by the Hawke administration in the 1980s. During the Accord—a collaboration between unions and business not unlike the Popular Front—the government developed a “progressive,” multiracial nationalism to accompany its promotion of free trade and the other elements of what we’d now call neoliberalism. As I have argued elsewhere, while the Hawke/Keating version of multiculturalism succeeded (to some extent, at least) in encouraging a certain diversity among the intelligentsia, Labor’s economic reforms proved devastating to working-class people—and, in particular, to working-class people from oppressed groups. Accordingly, when John Howard rejected Labor’s version of nationalism, the official representatives of multiculturalism struggled to mobilize their constituencies in defense of a doctrine that barely registered for many working people.
Today, the moment of liberal nationalism has well and truly passed. In 2020, with both political parties striving for electoral success through border security, no particular imperative exists for the official promotion of “patriotic diversity,” and so calls for governments to back literature so as to bolster a progressive “national identity” will have little purchase.
To put it another way, we’re most unlikely to experience, any time soon, another Popular Front—and, if we did, it would not privilege literature in the same way. The dire circumstances facing writers today will not be alleviated by pledges to work for the state. Instead, they rather require a campaign against it.
If the Federal Writers’ Project offers any model for the future, it’s neither a simple nor a straightforward one. Nevertheless, its history encourages certain conclusions.
In her memoir, Yezeriska writes of first hearing the news that the WPA would provide for writers while attending a meeting of the Unemployed Artists’ Union. “The old timers had been planning for this for months,” she recalls. “Petitions, demonstrations, picket lines, mass delegations, leaflets to the unemployed to join the fight for jobs. At last it had come.”
The need for similar planning—and a similar fight—remains as urgent now as then. The Morrison government more or less openly views artists as bleeding hearts and degenerates. From its perspective, the collapse of literary culture represents one of the better outcomes from the current crisis. The Liberals might find the cash to bail out certain modes of high culture but they will not be persuaded by either moral pleas or earnest policy proposals to rescue writers they despise. If we don’t mobilize, we’ll be left behind—but that doesn’t mean we can or should simply demand the restoration of the status quo.
We are experiencing a transformation of Australian society, one that will reshape, in ways that we don’t yet grasp, what it means to write and to read. The closures of book stores, the defunding of journals and the redundancies in publishing houses are merely the first manifestations of a process that has a long way to run.
Whatever happens, the future won’t be like the past.
That’s why the FWP deserves consideration: it offers one example of a different model for writers and for books. The examples of that time can’t be taken as blueprints, not least because of their association with a Popular Front that doesn’t exist. No one would suggest that Australia’s writers throw themselves into writing guidebooks, for instance.
Even so, the collective ventures of the FWP do, at least, force us to think about how writing might be reinvented in the context of economic crisis. What would it mean to make literature meaningful to ordinary people suffering through an unprecedented catastrophe? How might writers express solidarity with the rest of the population? What styles of writing would suit such a time? Which production models might work—and which would be rendered irrelevant? In the past few weeks, Australian society has changed irrevocably. To survive, writers must change too.
The Great Depression only ended with the Second World War. In the early years of that conflict, the writer Victor Serge took stock of those around them. “[The] intelligentsia is being torn up and crushed by the hurricane,” he wrote; “it will only be able to rediscover its purpose in life by understanding the hurricane and flinging itself into it heart and soul.” Something similar could be said now.