Ghost Stories and Tall Tales of the American South

Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) in the American South


Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was a Great Depression-era federal project to fund and support writers as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Many beloved Southern folktales like this one could have faded into obscurity were it not for an ambitious U.S. government program of the 1930s called the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). The FWP was a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal — a sweeping set of reforms created to help America recover from the Great Depression.

WPA Writers

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 FWP was part of this program and, at its height, hired over 6,000 unemployed writers, both novices and experienced, at a modest salary of $20 per week. Many famous writers were employed by this program, including Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Zora Neale Hurston.

The FWP writers were originally hired to produce a series of state guidebooks, which would later become classics of Americana. The Folklore Unit of the FWP was specifically instructed to collect “life histories” from a wide variety of Americans from all walks of like. The everyday stories of stone cutters, department store clerks, painters, textile workers, farmers and many others were recorded for future publication. The government hoped that this project would provide the nation with a symbol of multi-cultural strength.

 In 1938, the Folklore Unit was placed under the direction of Benjamin Botkin. Concerned with the rise of fascism in Europe, Botkin felt that the folklore project was very important in that it could help foster tolerance between Americans of different backgrounds. He instructed his writers to conduct one-on-one interviews with their subjects, and to do everything they could to make their subjects feel important and, consequently, speak freely.

Benjamin Botkin

Although many of these writers were amateurs when it came to collecting folklore, they soon learned their skills on the job. Without the benefit of latter-day tape recorders, the writers reconstructed the life histories they collected from notes and memory. 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.

The American South was seen as particularly fertile ground for folklore. The South was still a largely rural and agricultural region back then, and had not had its “old ways” buried under large cities and so-called “artificial civilization.” Botkin found that the South’s black population, mountaineers and poor whites were the main sources of folklore, and was impressed with the amount of good storytelling and singing he heard during his travels. He particularly credited the friendliness and camaraderie between natives and visitors for the wealth of storytelling material.

The FWP was not without it’s critics, however. Academic folklorists considered the FWP folklore collection to be undependable, since it was collected by amateurs. Detractors of the Roosevelt administration 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 that the folklore collections were Communist propaganda.

When World War II broke out, the FWP came to an abrupt halt, and most of the folklore collection was left unpublished. The vast piles of records lay virtually unnoticed in the Library of Congress until recently. The Internet, in particular, has made many of these life history manuscripts more accessible to the public.

For more information on the Federal Writers’ Project and the New Deal, check out these sites:

American Life Histories
Part of the Library of Congress’s American Memory series, this excellent site features life history manuscripts from the FWP, as well as historical information on the program itself.

New Deal Network
A project of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (FERI), this site is a research and teaching resource devoted to the public works and arts projects of the New Deal.

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2 Responses to “Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) in the American South”

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.

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.

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