The Federal Writers’ Project of FDR’s New Deal documented the lives and stories of the American South during the Great Depression.

Many beloved Southern folktales like The Boo Hag or The Plat Eye could have faded into obscurity were it not for an ambitious New Deal program of the 1930s called the Federal Writers’ Project.

What Was the Federal Writers’ Project?

The Federal Writers’ Project was a nationwide writing program that was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (also known as FDR) New Deal. FDR created the New Deal to combat the Great Depression through U.S. government reforms and work programs.

Federal Writers Project, Campbell School Writers at Work, Oakland California , 1940

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of the programs under the New Deal that helped give government jobs to thousands of unemployed Americans during this time. The Federal Writers’ Project was part of this program. At its height, the program hired over 6,000 unemployed writers, both novices and experienced, at a modest salary of $20 per week. Many famous writers were once employees, including Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Federal Writers’ Project originally hired authors to produce a series of state guidebooks. These books would later become classics of 1930s-1940s Americana, describing America to Americans.” But their mission would quickly broaden to provide a written record of stories existing only in the oral tradition.

The Folklore Unit

The Federal Writers’ Project originally instructed its Folklore Unit to collect “life histories” of Americans from all walks of life. They recorded the everyday stories of stone cutters, department store clerks, painters, textile workers, farmers and many others for future publication. The government hoped this project would provide the nation with a symbol of multi-cultural strength.

Federal Writers Project American Guide Week Describe America to Americans

In 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project placed the Folklore Unit under the direction of Benjamin Botkin. Concerned with the rise of fascism in Europe, Botkin felt the Folklore Unit could help foster tolerance between Americans of different backgrounds. He instructed his writers to conduct one-on-one interviews with their subjects. They tried to make their subjects feel important and, consequently, speak freely.

Although many writers were amateurs in folklore collecting, they soon learned their skills on the job. Without the benefit of latter-day tape recorders, the writers used notes and memory to reconstruct these life histories. Botkin encouraged them to listen for characteristic speech patterns and vernacular language. From 1938-1942, the writers documented traditional statements, expressions, songs, essays and stories from across the country.

Documenting the American South

The American South was particularly fertile ground for folklore, as it was largely rural at the time. Folktales, beliefs and superstitions were much more prevalent in the fabric of everyday life.

Botkin found that the South’s black population, mountaineers and poor whites were bountiful sources of folklore. He was impressed with the captivating storytelling and singing he heard during his travels. Botkin particularly credited the friendliness and camaraderie between natives and visitors for the wealth of storytelling material.

Federal Writers Project, Mill Workers in Lincolnton North Carolina, 1908

The Folklore Unit also collected slave narratives. These accounts later became crucial to African American written history.

The Federal Writers’ Project was not without its critics, however. Academics considered the Federal Writers’ Project folklore collection to be undependable, since it was collected by amateurs. Detractors of FDR considered the WPA program as a whole to be wasteful, slow and excessive (they joked that WPA stood for “We Piddle Around”). Some congressional leaders even believed the folklore collections were Communist propaganda.

When World War II broke out, the Federal Writers’ Project came to an abrupt halt. The vast piles of written records lay virtually unnoticed in the Library of Congress until recently. Thanks to the internet, many of these life history manuscripts are now easily accessible for future generations.

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  1. Brenda Jones Merchent

    My grandfather was a self taught historian of his region in Cave City Kentucky. I myself have sat beside him as he told stories real and “said to be real” about that region. He worked for the WPA. I had not heard much about the FPW but I am as you are seriously interested in this history. I have read quite a bit about the Appalachian area and its people and have a special interest in the Melungeons. I like you hope these stories continue to be told and not lost.

  2. Kathie Bowman Morris

    My Grandfather was one of the people involved. He was not an amateur having worked for several newspapers. I really wish more of these stories were more easily available.