The Writers Project in Perspective

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Writers Project is that most of the writers employed by the project were, before receiving WPA relief, employed in the trades. As Christine Bold mentions in her 2006 book, most participants in the Writers Project were carpenters, plumbers, etc. The fact that the Project gave working class people who did not necessarily have a college education the opportunity to participate in creating literature and chronicling American folklore is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the Project. This inclusion of working class people in chronicling American folklore certainly added authenticity to the projects; the writers were working class people creating working class literature, not bourgeois intellectuals creating bourgeois literature.

Antonio Gramsci discusses the bourgeois intellectual class in his Prison Notebooks. He notes that in the contemporary world, that is, in the capitalist world, there is an intellectual class stemming from the bourgeoisie. By maintaining a monopoly over the intellectual sphere, the bourgeoisie is able to perpetuate hegemonic power structures. Thus, Gramsci views the members of the intellectual class not as great orators or brilliant minds, but as administrators who allow for capitalist inequality. Ultimately, Gramsci’s point is that all humans, regardless of class, have intellectual capabilities, and therefore harbor the possibility of becoming intellectuals outside of the traditional bourgeois intellectual class. Gramsci terms these potential working class intellectuals “organic intellectuals” because they arise organically from their own social conditions.

In the Writers Project, the inclusion of working class men and women in the creation of literature and intellectual discussions is an example of the rise of organic intellectuals. Workers were able to write of their own experiences and of the working experiences of their peers. In many ways, because of the chronicling of working class experiences by the Writers Project, a niche of working class narratives and ethnography has grown in the intellectual community. The Project ended in 1939, however, the legacy of including the working class as a subject in literature is largely visible in the later work of many writers who got their start with the WPA Writers Project.

Ralph Ellison, a native of Oklahoma, participated in the Writers Project in New York City. His novel Invisible Man (1952) is a fictional compilation of his findings from doing interviews with African American men in Harlem for the Writers Project. In doing the interviews, Ellison was struck by how frequently he heard his interviewees mention that they felt invisible and ignored in their daily lives: a result of working class alienation as well as racism.

Richard Wright, another participant in the Writers Project, was born in Mississippi and as a young man, migrated to Chicago and then New York City. His novel Native Son (1940) tells the story of a young black man from the ghetto in Chicago who winds up murdering two women, and is found guilty of murdering neither. His novel is an attempt to showcase the extreme brutality of American racism, and that such brutality is present in everyday situations and is not confined to the Jim Crow South. Like many other ex-Writers Project authors, Wright’s writing was censured. Indeed, the sections of Native Son that dealt with the main character’s attraction to a white woman were cut out from all publications of the book until a printing in 1993. Thus, the controversial legacy of the Writers Project authors persists.

Studs Terkel, participant in the Chicago chapter of the Writers Project, is best known for his work in radio, oral histories, and his compilation of interviews done with people about their working lives: Working (1974). As an oral historian, Terkel took on the method of interviewing done by the Writers Project. The interviews in Working are the 1960s and 1970s equivalent of the working class interviews done by Writers Project workers in the 1930s. In addition, Terkel’s 1970 work Hard Times is comprised of oral histories of those who lived through the Depression, an illustration of the legacy of the style of working class interviews that were carried out in the 1930s.

Certainly, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Studs Terkel are only a handful of examples of participants of the Writers Project who then went on to have successful careers as authors. One of the main triumphs of the Writers Project was that it did not rely on a few successful authors to turn out material; instead, it was a collaborative effort. In addition, the legacy of allowing working class topics a space in literature and academia has been a lasting legacy of the FWP. There have been a few efforts in recent years, especially in light of the 2008 recession, to revive the Federal Writers Project. Proponents of reviving the program have suggested using funds from McArthur grantees and other grant recipients to pay potential Federal Writers. Others have proposed reviving the Project because of the recent decreasing readership of newspapers and thus the unemployment of many journalists. Such a suggestion is certainly understandable, however, to truly revive the Writers Project, we must include people of all professions. Ignoring the role that people in the trades played in the Project is to ignore the radical potential of a new Writers Project: to create a counter-hegemonic force by developing a space of agency for Gramsci’s so-called organic intellectuals.

Currently, there is widespread desire for a new Writers Project. Our current dilemma is how, exactly, to make it happen.

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