Library Programs Humanities Themes

“Soul of a People: Voices from the Writers’ Project” Online Site Support Notebook

Building on the content of the film Soul of a People, the five required public programs in libraries are meant to focus on several humanities themes:

1. The relationship of regional cultures to national identity. The Writers’ Project’s architects recognized that the country’s regional cultures were fading with the advent of mass communication and modern travel, and they responded by attempting to capture those vanishing cultures in the state and city guidebooks. Today, many programs designed to revive traditional cultures and languages and preserve historic landmarks have their roots in the cultural investigations of the Writers’ Project. A number of later writers, including John Steinbeck and Barry Lopez, credited the state guides with inspiration for books about America.

2. The importance of individual life stories in American history. By bringing to light some of the oral histories and interviews done through the Writers’ Project, as well as the sources through which public audiences can locate more of these interviews, this project will allow audiences to understand the importance of individual stories and how they aid in understanding history. Hearing the words of an ex-slave or a grocery store owner in a small town during the 1930s makes history vital and vibrant, and allows insights and personal identification with history that are not often available in a textbook.

3. Two visions of America.  In the state and city guides, the Writers’ Project presented a portrait of America that some said was propaganda, and others said truly reflected the country’s cultural richness. When WPA writers delved into uncomfortable issues such as slavery and its legacy, local scandals, and episodes of corruption, the New Deal’s opponents complained. Congress created a committee to investigate Un-American Activities in 1938, and, headed by Martin Dies, it criticized some sections of WPA guides as propaganda. This conflict about the nature of the guides and other FWP works provides public audiences the opportunity for discussing competing interpretations of American values and identity, and competing views about what is American and un-American—using FWP materials as a lens to focus the discussion.

4. The connection between American history and literature. One library program focuses on a selected Writers’ Project staff member who later became a prominent American author. Discussions led by scholars will help audiences put these authors into an historical context and examine how their own life histories, the era in which they lived, and their association with the Writers’ Project influenced their work. Of particular interest, did the nature of their work with the Writers’ Project determine the subjects or the sensibilities of their later work.