The Federal Writers’ Project

The Great Depression and THE guidebook of West Virginia

West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State

West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State

The book featured in the photo at left is called West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State, published by the West Virginia Writers’ Project in 1941. It was written over seventy years ago during the Great Depression, and though most local libraries own a copy, most people who love and live in West Virginia have never even glanced through its pages. Click here to read Tour 8, along US 219.

Dr. Jerry Bruce Thomas, author of An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia During the Great Depression, traveled US 219 in 2010, speaking in Marlinton, Lewisburg and Union, WV. During this lecture series, Dr. Thomas led community discussions about the possibility of revisiting these materials for a modern day guide to West Virginia along US 219. The following article is from his presentation, the inspiration behind the Traveling 219 website:

To learn more about the Federal Writers’ Project in West Virginia,  click here for the Traveling 219 audio story  featuring Dr. Jerry Thomas

The Federal Writers’ Project

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was launched in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal relief program initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. The original writers’ project, an eccentric, quirky, and unwieldy venture, was funded entirely by the federal government with the primary goal of giving work to unemployed writers.

The WPA represented an effort on the part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide work relief for the unemployed. Roosevelt preferred federally-sponsored work relief rather than handouts for the many thousands of able-bodied workers who could find no work. For the aged and those unable to work, Roosevelt proposed Social Security, a system to be administered by the states. The Great Depression left some cities with unemployment rates up to 50%. In some West Virginia counties, this rate was even higher.

Even writers had to eat, so the WPA, which employed hundreds of thousands of blue collar workers to wield picks and shovels on construction projects, hired unemployed writers or would-be writers to apply their pens, papers, typewriters and inquisitive spirits to writing projects.

Zora Neale Hurston interviewing musicians Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1935.

The writers put to work by the FWP include some of the twentieth century’s most celebrated American writers. Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Margaret Wright, Conrad Aiken, Zora Neale Hurston and Studs Terkel – as starving young writers in the depths of the Great Depression they all got jobs with the Federal Writers’ Project, a relatively small part of the WPA.

Not all of the 7,000 or so writers employed by the project became famous. But most worked hard at discovering and writing the history, geography, folklore and culture of their cities, towns and counties. A lot of what these writers generated unfortunately lies forgotten in the files of the Writers’ Project. Other parts of it had enduring consequences for state and local history throughout the country, particularly in calling attention to people and topics neglected in past histories and telling the story of how America had become a vast mosaic of ideas and culture.

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.

The files of the West Virginia Writers’ Project contain little biographical material on the writers. Most were not well known. For instance, in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, most were former newspaper writers, reporters and schoolteachers. During the Great Depression, some believed that women should not work. All jobs should be reserved for family “breadwinners”—meaning the men. Some school districts even fired their women teachers, but the Writers Project was one of the work relief jobs of the time for which women could qualify.

The Federal Writers’ Project in West Virginia:

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 read more about the Writers’ Project State Guide and hear the Traveling 219 audio story about it, click here!]