From the Federal Writers’ Project: Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was a New Deal program–part of the Works Progress Administration–that was designed to put unemployed writers to work. Through its American Guide Series, in particular, the project contributed significantly to Americans' understanding of themselves and the cultural and historical diversity they embodied. These guidebooks, covering the forty-eight states along with the major US regions, territories, cities, and other areas and topics, became a lasting legacy of the New Deal. One reason for launching the Guide Series was that the last useful guidebook to the United States was a 1909 Baedeker edition, addressed mainly to English travelers. The FWP's director, Henry Alsberg, stated that the Guide Series would give readers “information about the nation never before gathered together,” allowing them to see “what is really happening to the American people” (qtd. in Mangione 48). The example offered here, an excerpt from Cape Cod Pilot, illustrates the kind of work that was being done inside the FWP.

Summary Overview

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was a New Deal program–part of the Works Progress Administration–that was designed to put unemployed writers to work. Through its American Guide Series, in particular, the project contributed significantly to Americans' understanding of themselves and the cultural and historical diversity they embodied. These guidebooks, covering the forty-eight states along with the major US regions, territories, cities, and other areas and topics, became a lasting legacy of the New Deal. One reason for launching the Guide Series was that the last useful guidebook to the United States was a 1909 Baedeker edition, addressed mainly to English travelers. The FWP's director, Henry Alsberg, stated that the Guide Series would give readers “information about the nation never before gathered together,” allowing them to see “what is really happening to the American people” (qtd. in Mangione 48). The example offered here, an excerpt from Cape Cod Pilot, illustrates the kind of work that was being done inside the FWP.

Defining Moment

During the Great Depression nearly a third of the nation's workforce was unemployed or underemployed, and millions became homeless and hungry. Long lines formed in places where charities and relief organizations were giving out food, and shantytowns developed in public areas where struggling families and individuals strove to survive. Inside the homes of working families everywhere money was tight and food and other goods were not always plentiful.

Under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), in 1935 the Roosevelt administration undertook to put 40,000 unemployed artists and writers to work in the Federal Arts Project. There were four separate divisions, one for visual artists, one for theater professionals, one for musicians, and one for writers. The visual arts featured mostly painters and sculptors. Many of the famed 1930s documentary photographers–Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein–worked separately under the Farm Security Administration (the idea being that photographers functioned primarily as capturers of images, not creators of them). Another group of visual artists, mainly muralists, worked under an allied program called the Public Works of Art Project. This program was responsible for most of the great murals that adorn US post offices and other government buildings across the nation. All of the various arts programs together were known as Federal One. The artists of Federal One produced posters, traveling art exhibitions, public art (and art restoration projects), community art demonstrations and workshops, concerts, recordings, plays, dance productions, photographs, and written works.

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) involved a number of programs, but it is best known as the home of the American Guide Series, a collection of 400 guidebooks to states, regions, cities, towns, and villages across the United States. The FWP employed nonfiction writers, primarily, but also had on its roles selected fiction writers and poets as well as editors and technical writers. Besides the American Guide Series, FWP produced collections of folklore, autobiographical narratives by ex-slaves, and a number of histories, topical surveys, and reports on activity within the WPA. At its peak, in the spring of 1936, the writers' project employed nearly 6,700 men and women. Some of these writers were soon to become big names in the field: John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and many more.

The guides encouraged Americans to take trips in automobiles, buses, and trains to see the country in which they lived. So popular did the guides become, in fact, and so well written were they, that they were reprinted often and later became collector's items. Even so, the project came under attack by critics who considered it either a waste of time and money or a left-leaning arm of the New Deal propaganda machine.

Chief among the program's critics was Texas Congressman Martin Dies, head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Dies felt that the writers project (as well as the theater project) was infused with Communists or Communist-sympathizers, although the charge was mostly fabricated and aimed at bringing attention to Dies and his committee. The operation of HUAC was, in some ways, a test rehearsal for the more notorious persecutions that took place a decade later in the Senate under Joseph McCarthy. The evidence used against those accused of disloyalty was very flimsy and often presented by individuals who had been pressured to testify in order to save their own skins or who had personal or political axes to grind.

Among the FWP's chief supporters, on the other hand, was a group of forty-four US publishers. They maintained that the guides were free of any “Red” propaganda and, moreover, represented “a genuine, valuable and objective contribution to the understanding of American life” (qtd. in Mangione 15). The group also praised the series for operating efficiently and without financial waste. These same publishers, it should be noted, had a stake in the venture because the guides, though written under government auspices, were printed and marketed by independent presses. The arrangement was made in order to keep the government from competing with private industry, a concern that many New Dealers had already learned about through court actions against federal agencies, which were seen to be overstepping their bounds. Cape Cod Pilot came out amid these ongoing debates.

Author Biography

Jeremiah Digges, author of Cape Cod Pilot, is the penname of Joseph Berger. Berger was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1903 and graduated in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1924. He lived in New York City and worked as a reporter and juvenile book author until 1934, when he relocated with his wife and daughter to Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod. Struggling as a writer, he befriended the local Portuguese fishermen who occasionally supplied him with free fish. Initially, he and two other experienced writers were turned down for the Federal Writers' Project, but the situation was soon corrected and Berger was contracted to write parts of the Massachusetts state guidebook, along with a work on Cape Cod. Although he continued to publish through most of the 1940s, Berger served as a government speechwriter in Washington, DC. From there, he became chief speechwriter of the March of Dimes. Berger died in 1971. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, once-secret records revealed that Berger had been approached by the KGB to serve as an agent after 1945, but apparently, the offer was rejected.

Document Analysis

It should be noted, first, that each state guide in the series followed a standard format and included information on the state's history, government, natural resources, industry and commerce, and principal cities and towns. Also included were selected tours through the state, accompanied by photographs. Facts and figures covering such topics as architecture, agriculture, education, arts and entertainment, recreation, and transportation were also presented. In most cases, the various components of a guidebook were prepared by different writers, the whole representing a team effort. There were exceptions, however, for non-state guides–as in this instance.

Cape Cod Pilot, that is, diverges from the form used in other books in the American Guide Series in that it attempts to present its subject in terms of personal experience. The writer and editors felt that the folklore and yarns that constitute the bulk of the book would be enhanced by use of the personal pronoun. As a member of the Federal Writers' Project, Berger/Digges is credited with the major writing, rewriting, and editing of the book. The book is also said to be the result of a team effort insofar as it came out as part of the series and benefited from nominal guidance and oversight provided by the central office in Washington, DC.

The author notes in the book's Preface (not shown here) that his intent is to obtain first-hand information and reminiscences of early days on the Cape from the men and women who lived there–particularly, “the skippers and crews of many vessels, trap-fishermen, surfmen, draggers and seiners.” We see some examples of these “tales” and “yarns” here. We see, too, the author attempting to bring out the individuality of the persons he is interacting with while also striving for brevity. Thus, there is a kind of tension between the portraits of individuals and the illustrations of local “types.”

There is an effort, too, to bring out what is unique about the place itself, without resorting to hyperbole or cliché. Project editors in Washington often complained about what they considered exaggeration or boosterism by writers as they tried to make each town or city different from the next one. Expressions such as “a quaint place,” “the hardy settlers,” “the famous so-and-so,” “the brave warrior,” and so on were common in the manuscripts supplied by the writers. In Cape Cod Pilot, the author avoids the most obvious clichés, partly by drawing on local expressions–many of them nautical in nature. In this way, he satisfies the requirements of the writing assignment and brings “local color” to the account.

Essential Themes

Cape Cod Pilot was well received by reviewers, Time magazine calling it “the boldest and best of the American Guide Series.” It was also popular among readers, who bought out the first two printings (5,000 copies) almost immediately. This book and a few others that featured a single author or focused on interesting or unusual subjects brought greater attention to the FWP and may have helped assuage critics regarding the worth of the project. Many could now see that the FWP was providing a useful service to the country, allowing Americans to “discover” the nation and gain a better understanding of it and their place within it. The book also served Berger well personally, earning him a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and allowing him to write and publish on a healthy stipend for one year. (On the other hand, the Massachusetts state guide he contributed to ignited passions after an unfriendly reviewer noticed that more lines were given over to the recent Sacco-Vanzetti case than to the Boston Tea Party.)

One theme that comes through strongly in Cape Cod Pilot is that of “local color,” depicted largely through the use of dialect speech and nautical expressions (colloquialisms). Although each guidebook sought to tell the story of a particular state or locality, there was also a tendency to gloss over social differences and political conflict in order to make a place appear safe and attractive for travelers. The editors in Washington, especially, worked to present a vision of the nation as one of progress and harmony. It seems that Berger's work generally reflected this outlook.

Despite the success of the WPA writers' project overall, Congress, in the face of ongoing political opposition and fiscal troubles, reduced the scope of the program in 1939 and urged individual states to continue it if they wished. By the time the program was closed completely in early 1943, it had employed nearly 10,000 writers and cost the government under $27 million–only a tiny fraction (less than one-quarter of 1 percent) of total WPA expenditures.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bold, Christine. The WPA Guides: Mapping America. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi P, 1999. Print.
  • Flynne, Kathryn A., with Richard Polese. The New Deal: A 75th Anniversary Celebration. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, Pub., 2008. Print.
  • Mangione, Jerre. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935–1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972. Print.
  • Taylor, David A. Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. Print.
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