Sunday, March 22, 2015

Culture Fixes

Prof. Tom Barden on WPA & Writers Program,
Lourdes Lifelong Learning, March 2015 
Whenever I hear about the WPA I become nostalgic and wistful.  The Works Progress Administration, headed by the indefatiquable Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to FDR to the very end, put millions of Americans to work during the Great Depression, including artists, writers, dramatists, musicians, folklorist.  I think it was one of the most successful New Deal programs. It's aim was work rather than relief. It shined a brilliant light on the resilence and strength of the American people in hard times.  And it strengthened our cultural fabric for future generations, up to the present.

WPA posters
Not only did the WPA result in wonderful buildings and great architecture, new roads, bridges, parks, zoos, libraries and post offices, but also fabulous public art, a series of State tour guides (still great resources), innovative folklife, folk music, and oral history projects, including the narratives of former slaves living in the South, wonderful theater, and a historical records survey. These programs were of, by and for the people, not just the elites; they touched the lives of millions of ordinary citizens.

Best of all, these extraordinary and varied projects have withstood the test of time. Close to home, I think of the Toledo Zoo. the Valentine Theater, the Toledo Public Library, and on a national level, the creation of the National Archives and Library of Congress. No matter what city or state you live in, I'm sure you can boast a WPA legacy, the program was that far-reaching and enduring.

WPA posters
Today, when the arts and humanities are undervalued and underfunded, it's good to remember what a little federal funding can do to enhance our social and cultural life.

Tom Barden, professor emeritus of English at the University of Toledo, did just that in his Lourdes University Livelong Learning lecture on the WPA Cultural Agencies.  Barden presented a good overview and historical context for the New Deal before focusing on the work of the WPA and the Federal Writers' Project.  Barden emphasized that Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Harry Hopkins and his Grinnell college colleagues, who created, managed and implemented the  pioneering cultural programs.

Barden especially lauded the Writers' Project's State guides, quoting from John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: "The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it."   Steinbeck's final road trip around America bears witness to the influence and significance of the WPA and its cultural programs

Just before attending Barden's lecture, I had finished reading William Giraldi's depressing New Republic article on "the destruction of America's creative class" (February 2015),  Giraldi bemoans the marginalization of artists and writers in a now-dominant cultural mindset that denigrates them and has pushed them from the middle-class into the starving classes.  They are barely surviving.  I was glad to be reminded of a time when our government employed them.

Oh sure, conservatives lambasted the whole idea from day one, screaming that the federal government should not be in the culture business, using the very same arguments against federal funding for the arts and humanities, for museums and public broadcasting, that we hear today.  Notable among the rabid detractors was Rep. Martin Dies (Texas), who railed against the "communist" programs and in 1938 created HUAC, the ignoble House on UnAmerican Activities Committee. Sen. Joseph McCarthy took it from there.

Professor Barden's lecture was informative and timely.  The arts and humanities add meaning and beauty to our lives.  The WPA offered real jobs to our "creative class" during the New Deal.   What a difference it made in the nation's quality of life! What a difference such large-scale and well-funded projects would make today, in a world shaken by ignorance and violence, at a time when critical thinking and creative endeavors are needed more than ever.

Some sources;
*William Giraldi, " Creative Destruction," The New Republic, , February 2015.
*Scott Timberg, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class" (Yale U Press, 2007).
*On WPA history, documents and images, lots of online resources, including the Library of Congress (
*Jerre Mangione, The Dream and The Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 (1977; Syracuse Uni.Press, 1996). A Google eBook. 
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