Soul of a People: Writing America's Story
In the grip of the Great Depression, WPA writers searched for America and discovered the Soul of a People. This show explores one of the most controversial public assistance programs of its time and shows nothing less than the creation of America's first ever self-portrait.
The Beginning of the WPA
Nearly 8 million Americans were employed through the WPA. After years of being on relief, citizens now had the opportunity to pull themselves out of the mire of the Great Depression.
Born in Oklahoma City, Ralph Ellison traveled to Harlem during the Great Depression, when he no longer had the money to pay tuition for music studies at the Tuskegee Institute. After spending his first nights on a park bench, Ellison met Richard Wright, who took the young man under his wing and got him a job on the Writers' Project, conducting interviews. It was during his years on the Project that he typed the words, "I am an Invisible Man," which begin his masterpiece, Invisible Man. Unlike other writers who viewed their time on the WPA with shame, Ellison was always open about what the Writers' Project had done for him. He continued writing and teaching until his death in 1994. His second novel remained unfinished at his death and was published as Juneteenth in 1999.
Known as "The Cinderella of the Tenements," Anzia Yezierska's stories of immigrant life in New York's Lower East Side made her a popular novelist and screenwriter in the 1920s, where her films included Hungry Hearts and Salom'e of the Tenements. After the stock market crash of 1929, however, publishers were no longer interested in immigrant success stories. Though Yezierska felt the indignity of being on a welfare project, she later described how interaction with younger writers on the Writers' Project renewed her morale, making her "feel like a bit of withered moss grown green again." In 1950, she published a fictionalized memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, with an introduction by W.H. Auden. She continued writing until her death in 1970.
Born in Mississippi, Richard Wright migrated to Chicago as a young man, hoping for work and a better life. After he lost his job with the postal service, Wright joined the Writers' Project. He created the Southside Writers' Group and found his voice as an emerging author. During his time on the Project, he contributed to the Chicago and New York Guides, and later provided the text for 12 Million Black Voices, a seminal photographic chronicle of African American life. While on the Project, he also wrote his most famous work, Native Son, which captured the public's attention and was a Book-of-the-Month club selection. In 1940s America, Wrights' stories and essays on race relations, as well his association with the Communist Party, made him a controversial figure. He became a permanent expatriate after moving to Paris, France in 1946, where he continued to write until his death in 1960. His other famous works include Black Boy and The Outsider, along with several thousand haikus.
Zora Neale Hurston
A skilled anthropologist and writer, Zora Neale Hurston was one of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance. She had already written several novels, but when her publishing and research funding dried up in the Depression, she joined the Writers' Project in Florida. Hurston took the lead in mapping a field recording tour to gather Florida folklore and song - and also uncovered the darker side of Florida, including the stark story of modern-day slavery in Florida turpentine camps. Hurston's work on the Project informed her ambitious novel Moses, Man of the Mountain and plays such as Polk County. Hurston died penniless, and was buried in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Florida. She did not regain her popularity until after her death, when a new generation of readers, including authors like Alice Walker, rediscovered her work. Her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was named as one of the best novels of the century by Time Magazine, and became a television movie in 2005, produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Halle Berry.
One of the great pulp writers of American literature, Jim Thompson was the son of the sheriff of Anadarko, in Oklahoma. He left the University of Nebraska without graduating and when he couldn't sustain his family as a crime writer, he signed on to the Oklahoma Writers' Project, where he rose quickly to become state editor. The dark stories he uncovered during his years on the Project influenced his hardboiled novels, such as The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night. Thompson wrote over thirty novels in his lifetime, though he received more critical acclaim than general popularity. For years, he also eked out a living as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, working with Stanley Kubrick on The Killing and Paths of Glory. Thompson once told his wife, "Just you wait, I'll become famous after I'm dead about ten years." About ten years after his death in 1977, most of his works were republished and became bestsellers. Several, such as The Getaway and The Grifters, were adapted into successful Hollywood films.
Acclaimed novelist and short story writer, John Cheever joined the Writers' Project as a promising young writer after publishing several stories in The New Yorker. Cheever worked in the Washington, DC office and later returned to New York where as deputy editor he wrote sections of the New York City guide, and helped to prepare it for publication. After the Depression and World War II, Cheever went on to become one of the foremost writers of American literature, writing the National Book Award winner The Wapshot Chronicle and acclaimed short stories such as "The Enormous Radio" and "The Swimmer." His 1979 collection of short stories, The Stories of John Cheever, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
An independent-minded freethinker, Vardis Fisher became one of the foremost voices of the American West, and one of the most prolific American authors. After losing a teaching position and with his novels ignored by the Eastern literary establishment, Fisher found himself with no choice but to join the Writers' Project, where he wrote almost the entire Idaho Guide himself. Fisher went on to publish several acclaimed novels including Children of God, which won the 1939 Harper Prize for Fiction, and Mountain Man, which was adapted into the popular film, Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford.