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77 Down the Road: An Anniversary

Today marks the anniversary of the start of the Federal Writers’ Project (under the WPA) by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. Several recent items string together to signal the effort’s surprisingly long influence across the years. First, a recent post by NY Bound Books does a wonderful job noting the WPA writers’ influence on how New York life and history get portrayed still.
    Then Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and other books, invokes the WPA writers in her new Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which aims “to force this country’s crisis of poverty and economic insecurity to the center of the national conversation.” Check out her recent thought-provoking interview with Amy Dean.
    Shifting to the individual writers and their lives after the WPA, Richard Wright scholar Jerry Ward, blogging from China about “Richard Wright and 21st-century Questions,” notes how we’re still learning the range of what Wright learned and wrote in his twenties while he was a WPA writer in Chicago and New York.
    Even this week’s New Yorker brings a glimpse of the creative legacy of these writers. In David Remnick’s profile of Bruce Springsteen, the rock star, speaking about writers that have affected him, notes two WPA alumni in the space of two lines: John Cheever, whose WPA editing job helped him survive the Depression, and Saul Bellow, who gained his first job as a writer with the WPA when he was just out of college. “I was a big John Cheever fan, and so when I got into Chekhov I could see where Cheever was coming from,” Springsteen tells Remnick. “And I was a big Philip Roth fan, so I got into Saul Bellow, ‘Augie March.’ These are all new connections for me.”
    Happy to report that you can now watch Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story in full on the Smithsonian Channel online. The filmmaking team is very pleased that this doc, supported with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as six state humanities councils, is now freely available to the public. See America this summer.

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