Seventy years ago today, the WPA guide to Illinois came out as controversy swirled around the Federal Writers’ Project. Texas congressman Martin Dies was deep in the investigations of his House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities, better known as HUAC, and within weeks he would bring his investigation to Chicago, interrogating witnesses and launching raids on offices across the city. In Chicago, his list of suspected un-Americans included 514 milkmen, 144 newspaper reporters, 112 lawyers, and 161 radio workers.
Meanwhile in the Writers’ Project office, Nelson Algren, Margaret Walker, Sam Ross, Hilda Polacheck and others had shifted from work on the guide (Algren had written much of the text on Galena, among other tasks) to documenting interviews with a cross-section of the city’s residents – jazz musicians, barflies, aldermen, fishmongers, prostitutes, and meatpackers. Their first-hand accounts are on the Library of Congress American Memory site (searchable by key word like ‘Chicago’) and make a vivid complement to the Illinois guidebook.
Studs Terkel worked in the creative radio division (Chicago was one of the rare cities that had such a unit), writing scripts for weekly programs — many of them researched with curators at the Art Institute, in a series titled Men of Art — along with Sam Ross and others. Ross later wrote scripts in Hollywood, and Terkel later conducted interviews for radio and Pulitzer-winning books that he called oral histories. In the Soul of a People film interview (and in the book) he credits the WPA with getting him started as a writer, and with giving many people the sense that their voice counted.
Not long after Martin Dies left Chicago, a radio play that Terkel wrote for the WPA was broadcast, on the nineteenth-century French satirist Honoré Daumier. In words that spoke to the air of fear stirred by HUAC, Terkel’s Daumier responds to the concern that he mocked France with his satirical cartoons about the king:
I love France with all my heart… It’s not ridiculing France, it’s not mocking France. I’m fighting the enemy of France within its gates: greed, intolerance, ignorance.’
Last week Soul of a People screened, appropriately, in Chicago at the Newberry Library, and in the coming month Chicago State University and the Maywood Public Library are hosting more events and celebrations in Chicagoland. Check details at http://library.csu.edu/presentations/soap.html.