Can you recommend a good book about the WPA artists program, or a great book that came out of the Federal Writers' Program?
November 30, 2009 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend a good book about the WPA artists program, or a great book that came out of the Federal Writers' Program? Bonus points if you know of a fictional story that uses it as the main theme.

Recently my girlfriend and I spent some time going through the 1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition at the American Art Museum in Washington. We both enjoyed it, and I plan on getting her the Smithsonian-produced art book for Christmas, but I was wondering if anyone has any suggestions on a historical book that looks at the WPA program itself, not necessarily what came out of it. A book discussing the rational, highlighting struggling artists, why it was important to fund the work, implementation of the program, etc.

She doesn't really read non-fiction (unlike me, who only reads non-fiction), so a fictional look at the WPA artists program would be amazing. I figure that probably doesn't exist, so recommend whatever you may have.

Also, if you know of a great book from the Federal Writers' Program, which was the same basic program but for authors, I'd love suggestions from that as well. I'm more inclined to give her a fiction book that came out of that program than a non-fiction book about WPA art.

(anon because it's a Christmas gift and my username is, in hindsight, far too obvious.)
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Not quite what you were looking for, but I read The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food--Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation's Food Was Seasonal by Mark Kurlansky this year and found that the combination of actual stuff the WPA writers wrote along with Kurlasky's narration of how the project worked and what happened to it made the whole thing really readable. Granted, I like non-fiction so this may not work for you, but if she's into cooking or food at all, she will likely find this interesting.

There are also a lot of the Writer's Project histories available at the Library of Congress which are linked by region. You might want to see if you could find a particularly locally appropriate one [they have page images available] which might make a neat card.
posted by jessamyn at 11:37 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ralph Ellison collected stories as part of the WPA. The stories he collected, the experiences he had, informed so much of Invisible Man, that it arguably couldn't have been written without the WPA. Other important writers who came out of the Federal Writers Program:

Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright.

A good book: Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America .
posted by girlbowler at 11:46 AM on November 30, 2009

Check out James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which reads like Whitman's fiction but covers abject Southern poverty among white sharecroppers. He and photographer Walker Evans documented these stories as part of the New Deal projects. It's one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:50 AM on November 30, 2009

Also, as someone who reads fiction almost exclusively, I really loved The Land Where the Blues Began.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:51 AM on November 30, 2009

I liked American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, which covers the program from start to finish, with focus on particular projects, including arts programs - particularly the theater program and the collection of state guidebooks. Also looks at several other programs, and puts the whole thing in the context of its time.

Big takeaway: the Republicans haven't changed a whit. You could literally plug almost anything quoted in this book into the current political landscape and not be able to spot the edges.
posted by Naberius at 12:08 PM on November 30, 2009

There's some good stuff to read online at the Living New Deal project. Gray Brechin is a really interesting lecturer and writer.

Also, At Work: The Art of California Labor contains some New Deal/WPA art and might be up your alley. As is Posters for the Poor: The Art of the WPA.
posted by vickyverky at 2:38 PM on November 30, 2009

There's also the film Cradle Will Rock, which is an ensemble of basically every left leaning actor in Hollywood dealing (a tad melodramaticly, perhaps) with theater under the WPA, focusing on the issue of funding art which doesn't follow mainstream tastes with politically attached money. Worth a watch, maybe, as an appetizer, before you get into meatier fare.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:25 PM on November 30, 2009

Can't find a link right now, but the WPA Guide to New York City is great.
posted by boots at 3:39 PM on November 30, 2009

Seconding the recommendation of American Made above. Christine Bold's The WPA Guides: Mapping America is a decent (albeit a bit academic) summary of the history of the Federal Writer's Project Guides (with a bit of literary analysis thrown in). A bit older, but a much better read, is Jerre Mangione's The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writer's Project, written in 1972. Mangione worked for the FWP, and did a lot of oral interviews with people who worked for the WPA in various capacities.
posted by heurtebise at 4:11 PM on November 30, 2009

I cannot for the life of me find the title, but I happened across a murder mystery (!) themed around one of the New Deal projects (I think it was the Writer's Project, but again, my memory is hazy, and there are so many acronyms...) which sounds like it might be ideal. Of course, since this answer is far from the same way, you might be out of luck. I found it while browsing library shelves at a university library, but of course said library does not store patrons' back catalogues for them. If I could remember more of the plot, even... because it sounds like what you're looking for in terms of contemporaneous presentations of pro- and con- arguments about the FWP, and is also fiction -- although I don't think the author was on the Project.

Anyway, this answer probably deserves the "Worst Answer" tag, but I wanted you to know that such a thing existed, in case your (or some other Mefite's) google-fu is better than mine.
posted by obliquicity at 4:37 PM on November 30, 2009

The Cultural Front is an excellent book about the various forms of political art of the 30s, much of which was funded by the WPA. It is non-fiction, though.

Also, have you seen The Cradle Will Rock? Fun movie about the WPA Theater Project, specifically the production of a fairly radical play.
posted by lunasol at 8:51 PM on November 30, 2009

Maybe the book obliquicity is remembering is Lamps at High Noon.

Amazon's Product Description:

The Federal Arts Projects were created by FDR in the summer of 1935. A year later, a handful of writers employed in the St. Louis office of the Missouri Writers' Project, including Jack Balch, went out on strike. Lamps at High Noon is the only novel about this strike and the only one to treat comprehensively any aspect of the Federal Writers' Project, whose participants included some of the country's most accomplished and promising authors.Charlie Gest, the wide-eyed and well-intentioned protagonist of the novel, confronts firsthand the project's sometimes underhanded efforts to monitor the political views of its writers.Named assistant director of the project in Monroe (a fictional St. Louis), Gest is vaguely aware that the program's good intentions do not always overshadow the abuses it tolerates, which include shielding corporate interests and avoiding hiring highly qualified black writers. Gest is hounded by a nagging suspicion that, like lamps that burn in broad daylight, the issues at stake in the work stoppage are not the ones that most need addressing. Part radical socialist commentary, part absurdist theater, Balch's novel offers a peerless critical engagement of the economic constraints and political exigencies surrounding debates over the federal funding of art since the New Deal.

Sounds like it fits the OP's request.
posted by ljshapiro at 10:49 AM on December 1, 2009

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