Federal Writers' Project

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was a United States federal government project created to provide jobs for out-of-work 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.


Funded under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the Federal Writers' Project 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 to 1939. In 1939 Alsberg was fired, federal funding was cut, and the Project fell under state sponsorship led by John D. Newsom. The FWP 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

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. 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.

Ancillary projects

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 above-named collection at 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."

The Illinois Writers' Project, represented 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 African American writers such as Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, and Frank Yerby (Mangione 1972). The Virginia Negro Studies Project employed 16 African American writers and culminated in the publication of The Negro in Virginia (1940). [3] Notably, it included photographs by Robert McNeill, now remembered as a groundbreaking African American photographer. The unpublished works of African American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was employed by the Florida Writers' Project, was compiled years after her death in Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers' Project.[4]


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;" ironically, the controversy helped increase book sales.

The most poisonous attacks against the FWP came from the House Committee on Un-American Activities (commonly known as HUAC) and its chair, the media-savvy Congressman Martin Dies Jr. of Texas.[5] Alsberg and Hallie Flanagan, his counterpart at the Federal Theatre Project, faced tremendous scrutiny from the committee. The Dies HUAC committee, like the McCarthy committee of the 1950s, "used inquisitorial scare tactics, innuendo, and unsupported accusations." Alsberg, Flanagan and others who were accused of supporting the communist agenda could not "examine evidence against them, could not produce their own witnesses, could not cross-examine accusers."[1] Accusations that communist activities were carried out openly, and that Soviets funded labor unions which then took control of the arts' projects, were found to be false. Future Guggenheim scholar and author Richard Wright was often under attack, with his writings pronounced as "vile." [1] Among the many charges leveled against the FWP and its members, was that Richard Wright was not born in the United States. (He was born in Mississippi.) Alsberg wrote a long court brief and provided supporting documents to refute each charge.

Support for the FWP came from Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as mainstream publishing companies such as Viking Press, Random House, and Alfred Knopf, which produced some of the books. Americans continued to purchase American Guide books throughout this period. By 1939, HUAC's tactics seemed to work, and the newly elected Congress cut $150,000 million from WPA budget while quadrupling HUAC's funding. In January 1939, 6,000 people were laid off from Federal One. By July 1939, Congress voted to eliminate the Theatre Project. Federal sponsorship for the Federal Writers' Project came to an end in 1939, although the program was permitted to continue under state sponsorship, with some federal employees, until 1943. In the last months of the FWP's existence, Henry Alsberg was fired. He continued to work past his firing date in order to meet contractual arrangements with the publishers of three upcoming American Guide books. By the time of his departure in 1939, the FWP had published 321 publications; hundreds more remained in various stages of publications. Some were published in the years leading up to 1943 under the renamed Writer's Program. Others were never completed. Over the lifetime of the FWP and the Writer's Program, it is estimated that 10,000 people were employed [6].

In the 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock, funded by the Federal Theater Project, composer Marc Blitzstein incorporated into the work the efforts to prevent its production.


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 1999 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


  1. Rubenstein DeMasi, Susan (2016). Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal's Federal Writer's Project. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. pp. 200–202. ISBN 978-1-4766-2601-7.
  2. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
  3. "Library of Virginia, About the WPA Life Histories Collection". Retrieved March 10, 2018.
  4. Bordelon, Pamela (1999). Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers' Project. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-31813-5.
  5. Mangione, Jerre (1996). The Dream and the Deal: the Federal Writers’ Project, 1935-1943. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780815604150.
  6. Rubenstein DeMasi, Susan (2016). Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal's Federal Writer's Project. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. p. 221. ISBN 978-1-4766-2601-7.

Further reading

  • 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.
  • McDonough, Gary W., ed. (1993). The Florida Negro. A Federal Writers' Project Legacy. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 0878055886.
  • 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.


Specific projects

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