Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story: The Documentary from Spark Media

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

Origins of the Federal Writers’ Project

In the grip of the Great Depression, Americans endured a crisis not just of economy, but of identity, and millions of unemployed men and women looked to the government for a life raft. Hundreds of thousands found jobs with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), most wielding picks and shovels to build roads and schools.

For a smaller cadre, however, the tools were little more than pen, paper, and the spirit of investigation. The Federal Writers’ Project is the story of an eccentric cultural experiment funded entirely by the U.S. government. The Project, one of four arts programs under the WPA, fed thousands of unemployed writers and “would-be” writers, and assigned them to document America in guidebooks and interviews. Writers’ Project writers included a handful of published authors, and a diverse, energetic goulash of old newspaper hands, former schoolteachers, typists, high-school dropouts, bohemians, and other struggling people. None earned more than $100 a month.

Even so, the money came as a godsend, for those who came to the Project had fallen on the hardest of times. In describing the depth of their plight, the director of the Minnesota Writers’ Project office wrote that at the end of a few weeks the forlorn men and women she had hired became different human beings. “Heads were raised, shoulders squared, and eyes lost their haunting fear. How can you compute human morale in terms of dollars? At that stage little mattered, except that hopeless men and women found their hope again.”

Had it not been for the Project, the suicide rate would have been much higher. It gave
new life to people who had thought their lives were over.—Nelson Algren

With the Writers’ Project, the government pitted young, untested talents against the problems of everyday Americans. From that experience, some of America’s great writers found their own voices.
Soul of the People looks at the deeply personal stories behind the familiar images of the Great Depression and shows the vitality of a democracy built on a diverse citizenry. The film includes interviews with Studs Terkel, Stetson Kennedy, David Bradley and Douglas Brinkley.

The Writers’ Project influenced me a great deal. Without it I would not have thought of writing.—Studs Terkel

Two visions of America

At the peak of its short span (1935–1939), the Project employed over 6,600 people in all 48 states. Their job was to fan out over America, read its history, interview its citizens, and produce a portrait of America from the ground up in a series of state travel guides. Those guides, far from being glossy tourist pamphlets, showed states and cities in a rich, idiosyncratic tapestry, “warts and all.” Today they remain a fascinating but little-known trove of American life. Their creation involved a contest of ideas, petty feuds, strikes, the hot lights of a Congressional investigation, police raids, and a few outsized personalities.

The film traces the grand drama of this brief episode in American history. That drama centers on the struggle between two visions of our country—between an idyllic version of America and the iconoclastic, “warts and all” picture that went into the state guides—and how that struggle played out in the effort to hold up a mirror to America.

Controversy and Conflict

On the national stage, FDR and his New Deal cohorts launch the Writers’ Project to give desperate people a paycheck and document a diverse America. Against them stood Texas congressman Martin Dies and his House Un-American Activities Committee, who saw the red brush of Communism and un-American ideas in the text of the Project’s state and regional guidebooks. Congress put the whole project on trial as the travel guides lurched toward publication.

On the front lines of the Writers’ Project, the dramas were more personal: a secretary in Maine committed suicide after being laid off, a lone editor in Idaho horded all the tasks of writing a state guide for himself, and the New York City office seethed with the brawling energy of talented and ambitious writers. Alongside the political battles, Project uncovered shattering revelations, including modern-day slavery in the turpentine camps of Florida.

The Project’s end came with courtroom drama and Congressional fireworks as World War II loomed. Ultimately, publicity spin and the start of war transformed the American Guides from “subversive propaganda” into a patriotic mosaic of a diverse people. Today, a fresh look at those guides and long-hidden interviews reveals a rich legacy that speaks to us anew.

A Road Trip Through First-Person America

The film shows a spectacular range—from New York to the West Coast, from Chicago to the Deep South. The stories of the writers and the people they chronicled take viewers beyond stock images of the Depression into the trials and fragile joys of people’s lives. The Writers’ Project workers were assembling guides and interviews, but they were also knitting together the cultural fabric torn apart by the national crisis.

For this sweeping subject, the film uses a broad palette of archival film and audio from the 1920s and ’30s, murals from the arts project, FSA photographs, live-action footage and spellbinding interview commentary shot in High Definition. Interviews with surviving Project workers Stetson Kennedy in Florida and Studs Terkel in Chicago (one of his last interviews) provide riveting stories that help anchor the narrative. A diverse group of leading authors, poets and historians provide witty and heartbreaking insights on an extraordinary vision of the America we never knew. Rarely seen footage from early social documentarians from the 1930s reinforce the immediacy of these perspectives.

The soundtrack features a collection of original field recordings made by Writers’ Project workers on acetate disk, using a massive machine the size of a coffee table, which was lugged along to interview sites. Newly restored by the Library of Congress, this recording device is shown “in action” in the film. Sound elements include Cuban and gospel songs, audio of Zora Neale Hurston singing and collecting stories in Florida, street vendors in New York and folk songs of the West. A number of commissioned musical works by artists such as Taj Mahal, the Gypsy Kings and Peter Ostrushko, and a musical score by Joseph Vitarelli, highlights the range of cultures the Writers’ Project set out to capture. The film also draws upon a rich reservoir of radio broadcasts, including a passionate defense of the WPA arts projects (in the face of scrutiny by the Dies Committee) from a young Richard Wright in 1939.

The film shows the most chaotic publishing venture in history and the remarkable national biography it produced. It reveals how out-of-work Americans, young and old, found hope in the country’s darkest days and created a legacy for American culture. Viewers will leave with a deep feeling of how that legacy has renewed meaning today.

Major funding for the documentary Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story
was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the state humanities councils of Illinois, Nebraska, Idaho, Maryland, Texas and Wisconsin. Produced in association with the Library of Congress, the documentary will be broadcast in HD on the Smithsonian Network.

A companion book, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America,
by documentary co-producer and writer, David Taylor, was published by Wiley and Sons in February 2009.