Dr. Jerry Bruce Thomas, author of An Appalachian New Deal, was interviewed by Jessie Wright Mendoza, who produced this audio piece “An Almost Perfect State.”
The Federal Writers’ Project in West Virginia: Here is part of Dr. Thomas’s article about the West Virginia Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. You can read the full article by Dr. Thomas here.
The most tangible result of the Writers’ Project was a series of state guides, compendiums of folklore, history, geography and recommended tours. One of the last to be published, West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State, represents a pioneering effort to assess the state’s social and cultural heritage. The Guide’s recommended tours also provide a handy snapshot of the state of the state in the Depression Era of the 1930s. The West Virginia Guide became a hot political issue at the time. Some tried to stop its publication, but after more than 70 years it remains one of the best and most comprehensive books ever written about the state.
To get a job with the Writers’ Project you had to qualify as both eligible for welfare (they called it the pauper’s oath) and offer some evidence of skill as a writer. It was a strange situation (as David A. Taylor put it, in Soul of a People). “Are you poor enough? Okay. Now, are you skilled enough?’ It was a Kafkaesque situation.” If they got the job, it paid about $20 per week in urban areas. In West Virginia, it paid less than that. The salary for a field assistant in Monroe County, West Virginia, for example, was $67.50 a month for a month of 130 hours. This sum helped to keep the wolf from the door—if it wasn’t a very big wolf.
The writers had no easy time of it. In addition to their low pay, they frequently had shortages of paper, envelopes, typewriters, equipment and travel allowances. Few of them would have owned cars, and getting around the area to cover their assignments could be a problem. They did a lot of walking.
These researchers worked from 1935-1941 collecting a mass of historical, cultural, geographical, and anecdotal material about the state of West Virginia. They talked to people all across West Virginia, listening and researching the uncommon stories of America at a time when our country was searching for its own identity. The West Virginia guidebook provided some of the most striking descriptions of the roadside wonders, historical tales and travel destinations written about West Virginia.
While the West Virginia writers were busy making progress in their tremendous effort to produce a book about the county, the nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor and the United States entered into the worldwide conflict that would consume it for the next three years. As unemployment declined with the crisis of the Second World War, Congress called for an end to New Deal programs, and FDR said it was time for Dr. Win the War to take the place of Dr. New Deal.
With the sudden shutdown of the WPA in March, 1942, the work of the Pocahontas County writers was left incomplete. In an inventory of the work as the WPA closed down, State Director Bruce Crawford listed materials completed in the county history project, but concluded his report bluntly: “Wordages sent to publisher—none.” Though most of the program–including WV’s–shut down in 1942, the agency’s official demise came in April 1943 as a small number of employees who had basically worked the graveyard detail quietly left their office in Washington on April 27.
David M. Kennedy has written that “it was [as] if the American people, just as they were poised to execute more social and political and economic innovation than ever before in their history, felt the need to take a long and affectionate look at their past before they bade much of it farewell, a need to inventory who they were and how they lived, to benchmark their country and their culture so as to measure the distance traveled into the future” that would be very different from the past.
–Dr. Jerry Bruce Thomas is Professor Emeritus from Shepherd University. He is the author of An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression, An Appalachian Reawakening: West Virginia and the Perils of the New Machine Age, and “The Nearly Perfect State: Governor Homer Adams Holt, the WPA Writers’ Project and the Making of West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State.”