Public Enemies and the WPA Writers

July 1, 2009
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Today the film Public Enemies hits screens across the country, with Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger. Reviewers note how Dillinger and other 1930s outlaws capitalized on the unpopularity of banks to boost their popular support. You see reflections of that atmosphere in the WPA guides and in the stories the WPA writers gathered.

In the Wisconsin guide, for instance, you find on Tour 7 the lodge where Dillinger holed up with Baby Face Nelson and others in Little Bohemia, and where his father later opened a curiosity museum of his son’s gangster friends. (More about this in the book.) And in the WPA life history of a kindergarten teacher in South Jacksonville, Florida, you hear her concern about her “little kindergartners’” impressions of life from pop culture and “the five-year old who strives to imitate Dillinger and struts about in imaginary defiance of the G-men.”

The Great Depression shaped what you could either call either a jaundiced view of the world or one with few illusions. So that the 1939 WPA almanac to San Francisco (subtitled an almanac for “Thirty-niners”) has a wry account of a disastrous July Fourth celebration in 1854, where everything possible went wrong. Americans of the 1930s saw a world that held both farm foreclosures and bank robberies, a world that Woody Guthrie captured in the last two stanzas of “Pretty Boy Floyd”:

Well as through this world I’ve rambled

I’ve seen lots of funny men

Some will rob you with a six gun

And some with a fountain pen

But if through this world you wander

If through this world you roam

You won’t ever see an outlaw

Drive a family from their home.

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