The enduring lessons of a New Deal writers project

EXPERTS CREDIT THE FEDERAL WRITERS’ PROJECT with germinating some of America’s great literary works. Its oral histories helped inspire Dave Isay’s audio project StoryCorps; the author Colson Whitehead read the interviews with formerly enslaved people when he was researching his novel The Underground Railroad. The project’s guidebooks remain in use, and have many dedicated fans.

One is David Kipen, a writer and former director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts who now teaches at UCLA. Kipen discovered the guidebooks in college via the work of Thomas Pynchon (a fellow Writers’ Project devotee) and scoured secondhand bookstores to build his own collection; later, when the University of California Press reissued the state’s guidebook, Kipen wrote the introduction. After the pandemic hit, Kipen noticed the similarities between the period in which the original project was born and the present moment. “The situation of writers was not all that great to begin with—for years I’ve been saying the Great Depression is already here for writers,” Kipen told me recently. “It hit me that maybe some reinvention of the project—which would put writers back to work but also reintroduce the country to itself, because it seems like half of America seems so clueless about the other half and vice versa—would serve a double benefit.”

Kipen started lobbying for a new Writers’ Project in opinion columns and letters to lawmakers. One US congressman—Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat—wrote back to Kipen expressing interest in the idea, and now hopes to introduce a bill in the next Congress. The timing and exact details of the bill have yet to be finalized, but Lieu’s office says that a new project could be anchored within the Department of Labor or a cultural agency, and run as a grant program administered through existing community institutions, including news outlets. As with the original, the goal of a new project would be both economic and cultural, putting the next generation of talent to work capturing the stories of the pandemic—those of the elderly, for example—and this broader moment, while also serving as a national archive for the existing work of local newsrooms and nonprofits.

In Kipen’s conception, the new project would produce a multimedia mix of journalism and literature. “I like to think journalism, on a good day, can be literary,” Kipen says. “I think there should be cross-pollination, and something better than either should emerge.”

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