The WPA guides track fine-grained details of 1930s America, from the call signals of long lost radio stations to stories of tenement families. But what does that have to do with creativity? The main purpose of WPA work was a paycheck for the unemployed, after all. Yet Margaret Walker later wrote that the WPA fostered “what nobody believed was possible at that time — a renaissance of the arts and American culture, and some of the most valued friendships in the literary history of the period.”
For years after Congress shut down the WPA writers’ budget in 1939, the only signs of any creative legacy rested on a few bestsellers, mainly Richard Wright’s Native Son, Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning, and a mostly-forgotten novel by Vincent McHugh, I Am Thinking of My Darling, which made the New York Times bestseller list and was optioned by RKO with Cary Grant. (You could argue for Zora Neale Hurston’s books Moses, Man of the Mountain and Dust Tracks on a Road, but neither got big sales, and Walker’s For My People — poetry a bestseller?)
Henry Alsberg, the national director of the Writers’ Project, did want to do more than put people to work. He wanted to gather up mid-century America and its cultures in mini encyclopedias for each state before it was all swept away. And he wanted people working on those guides to be creatively enriched. Eventually, you could say, the results bear him out: Looking down the roster of his staff in New York City alone is like reading a fortune cookie for American letters in the 20th century: John Cheever, Wright, and Ralph Ellison (his first writing job), along with poet May Swenson. Nationally the project rolls included Hurston, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Margaret Walker, Kenneth Rexroth, Meridel LeSueur, pulp writer Jim Thompson, western novelist Louis L’Amour, Arna Bontemps, Harry Partch, choreographer Katherine Dunham, and poet and painter Weldon Kees. Maybe more important are writers who gave voice to their regions, including Juanita Brooks and Vardis Fisher in the West, and Lorin Brown in the Southwest.
But could you say in the mid-1940s that the Writers’ Project opened up the imaginations of even its successful writers? Here we look at the answer in terms of Vincent McHugh. He grew up in blue-collar Rhode Island in the 1920s, moved to New York, and wrote several novels and pieces for The New Yorker. Then in late 1936 the WPA called. The WPA guide to New York City had stalled under about eight million words of hodgepodge, a polarized staff, sit-in strikes, and a director who had to be sacked after an affair with an employee. Alsberg asked McHugh to take the job – a dubious personnel choice. Novelist as manager? McHugh accepted the challenge. He visited Washington for guidance but left quickly.
“I never wanted to move to Washington,” McHugh said later. “HQ was middle class and since I came from a working-class family I felt much more comfortable with the New York crowd.”
Back in New York, McHugh retrieved the only copy of the guidebook manuscript from the mayor’s office, where it was being held hostage. Mayor La Guardia was so worried by the warts-and-all portrait of the city that he threatened to pulp the manuscript. McHugh managed to pry the draft free but within a day it was stolen by one of the staff, who were bitterly divided between Trotskyites and Stalinists. After recovering the draft again, McHugh set about improving it. Eventually he got it on track toward publication as two volumes.
As New York director, McHugh subverted Alsberg’s more arcane encyclopedic tendencies and refocused on the human details his staff found at the neighborhood level. In his 1943 novel, he would embrace the city through a science-fiction conceit: a pandemic of happiness and promiscuity breaks over everyone in New York. In a world consumed by fear and war, Manhattan becomes a beachhead of desire. Lawrence Ferlinghetti calls I Am Thinking of My Darling “one of those key forgotten novels that so acutely articulates a certain pre-World War II sensibility.”
McHugh himself got caught up in the hunt for the city’s stories and hit the pavement for fact-checking. Darling shows an intimacy with nooks and crannies of the city’s inner mechanisms, including the Weather Bureau on top of the Whitehall Building (see page 66 of the WPA guide). Against the sleepy, bureaucratic desks (“rather like the offices of an old-line shipping firm in the 1890s”) the windows reveal a thrilling seascape:
I looked out the high windows … There was no land in sight under us. Like the view from a clipper’s main truck. Governors Island in its eighteenth-century neatness of a fortified place, the Brooklyn shore, the hump of Staten Island in the blue. A quarter mile off the Battery, a middle-sized liner was being pushed in circles by three merry tugs, her siren going like a wounded bull.
McHugh helmed a staff of 500, including a young John Cheever. A high-school dropout from Quincy, Massachusetts, Cheever grumbled about his re-write work but was absorbing everything from waitresses’ conversation to Russian novels to the hyperreal world of European surrealists who had sought asylum in New York. Cheever’s stories later show those currents: “The Enormous Radio” channels the unkempt desires and frustrations of an apartment building’s residents through the frequencies of an errant home console, a “powerful and ugly instrument, with its mistaken sensibility to discord.”
After McHugh left the WPA job in 1938, Cheever and a few others worked the guide into final shape for the printer. Cheever wrote several section introductions, including one for Manhattan. Michael Chabon, a fan of the guide, also found Cheever’s fingerprints in the guide’s description of a day at Coney Island.
The late Grace Paley, who grew up in the East Bronx, saw how the WPA connected writers to the city. The Writers’ Project, Paley said, was “marvelous at helping people to find their own ears by getting them talking about what their lives were really like.”
The WPA Guide to New York City came out in June 1939. McHugh had helped infuse it with what Chabon calls “the democratic, all-encompassing impulse that people have been using to look at New York City at least since the time of Walt Whitman.” In turn McHugh, notes Mark Singer, had become “enthralled by the whole business: tunnels, bridges, subways, public utilities, emergency services, harbor management, health care delivery…” and threw it into his next novel along with a highball of sex.
Before starting his novel, though, McHugh proposed a nonfiction book called New York Underground, devoted to the subterranean labyrinth of entrails and subway lines. Publishers nixed the proposal because by then, wartime security concerns put the project off limits — too much potential as a map for terrorists.