You could call the Federal Writers’ Project the first reality show, with contestants thrown together from all walks of life vying for a chance to get a job doing real writing, not just emergency relief. Their challenge, more chaotic and impossible than a gourmet snack-food quickfire test on Top Chef: ‘Keep it real’ and paint America’s portrait in guidebooks and the words of people floundering in hard times.
Or you might argue the roots of the genre lie somewhere else in that period. During the Depression many writers engaged their readers in a kind of Survivor contest, challenging the reader directly to get through new and harrowing encounters. Ernest Hemingway practiced a brutal version of this in a New Masses article about the Florida hurricane of 1935, where he frog-marched his reader through a ruined landscape where hundreds of World War I veterans died working on a battered WPA highway in the Florida Keys. An outraged Hemingway spares you nothing and forces you to handle the bodies:
“Hey, there’s another one,” Papa says. “Turn him over. Face tumefied beyond recognition…” After pushing you to turn grey and vomit, Hemingway by the end of the article is ready to kill you off the way the veterans died: “a high wall of water rolls you over and over… You’re dead now, brother.”
That would teach readers of New Masses a lesson! “But presumably if you had survived,” William Stott writes in Documentary Expression and Thirties America, “this imagined death, as Hemingway did, you would try to do what he was trying to do with his article: bring to justice those ‘who left you there in the hurricane months on the Keys.’”
The WPA writers didn’t take it quite that far, but the life history interviews take you deep into their narrators’ experiences. In some cases, it was up to you to survive, for example, the vagaries of a corrupt local mafia, like one Fort Worth family in Soul of a People.