Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story

Os_EgQ3Z5HGhnNcqvy2x8wMts8lJ2cv6b6jDdamFw48Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story is an award-winning documentary on 1930s America and the Federal Writers’ Project, which documented life during the Great Depression. The film features Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Nelson Algren, and Jim Thompson.

Nominated for the 2010 Writer’s Guild of America award for best documentary, the film also received a 2010 CINE Golden Eagle award and a clutch of TIVA Peer Awards, including Best of DC. Order the dvd from Spark Media here or on Amazon.

Also read the Village Voice article about Ellison’s Harlem before  Invisible Man, the Smithsonian article on the WPA Guides, and about the friendship between Wright and Algren in The American Scholar. And see whether noir novelist Jim Thompson produced the darkest guidebook ever, before he wrote The Killer Inside Me (download pdf here).

A pamphlet produced by the American Library Association sets the stage (download here).

In September 2021, the Los Angeles Public Library hosted a virtual screening of Soul of a People introduced by Congressman Ted Lieu. A panel with former NEA program officer David Kipen, author Scott Borchert, and David Taylor discussed the Federal Writers’ Project and its meaning for us now. Watch the highlights of that event. 

Learn about documentary pioneer Leo Seltzer, whose work appears in the film, in this post for the Writer’s Center blog, First Person Plural. And read more on the Soul of a People blog.

Watch a webcast of the Library of Congress event celebrating the 75th anniversary of These Are Our Lives, a major oral history published by the Writers’ Project, with a look at its legacy and oral history since 1939.

Praise for Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story

“A riveting attempt at recreating the trouble-plagued history of the government-funded arts program through the words of those who were there, including noted oral historian Studs Turkel (in one of his last interviews before passing away in October 2008) and Stetson Kennedy. Historian Douglas Brinkley, novelist David Bradley, and African-American literature scholar Maryemma Graham are onboard to lend a contemporary perspective in this outstanding production.” PopMatters

“[Director Andrea] Kalin uses archival newsreel footage, still photographs, and even scenes from Hollywood movies, along with the words of the FWP authors. Actress Patricia Clarkson narrates, and authors and historians such as Douglas Brinkley, Roberto Polito, and David Bradley provide a modern perspective. This touching, straightforward, and well-paced look at a small piece of American history will be a welcome addition to literature and history collections.”
Library Journal


Writers Guild of America Award Nominee

Get the book:

See the book for more of their stories. You can learn more at the publisher’s website. Get the book from Bookshop, your local independent bookseller via Indiebound, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. Watch the C-SPAN Book TV program here.

Do you have a firsthand story of a Writers’ Project worker, or of using the WPA travel guides? Share it here.

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