Once Upon a Time, When America Paid Its WritersHistorians in the News
tags: Great Depression, New Deal, Arts, WPA, Federal Writers Project
In February of 1935, at the end of a hellishly cold winter, a small group of writers bundled up in coats and carried signs as they walked in a circle in front of the Port Authority building in New York City. It was the first strike of the Writers’ Guild, a group that had organized to address the hunger, poverty, and joblessness that faced writers during the Depression. The leader carried a sign that read: “Children Need Books. Writers Need a Break. We Demand Projects.”
The unemployment rate that year was twenty percent. Hundreds of people were living in makeshift shanties in Central Park. Hunger marches were common. Workers were fervently demanding relief from the government, and writers needed help, too, even though they were a group many found much less sympathetic than out-of-work bricklayers and construction workers. There was a sense in the 1930s, as there is now, that writers had chosen their fate; they were college-educated bohemians whose work had turned out to be expendable. It was not clear at all that the government would step in to help.
The poets, novelists, and journalists on the Writers’ Guild picket line were part of what writer Jason Boog calls “the crisis generation,” writers who came of age during the Depression and contended with the withering poverty and joblessness of the 1930s in both their politics and their work. In Boog’s new book, The Deep End, he offers colorful and often grim profiles of nine crisis generation writers and connects their stories to the struggles that writers face today. Even before our current economic crisis, it was a depressingly apt comparison. Now that the unemployment rate is at almost twelve percent, layoffs at major media organizations are announced weekly, and already poorly-paid freelance opportunities are winnowing, there could not be a better time to read about how writers in the past dealt with financial calamity.
But Boog’s book isn’t only the story of a generation contending with ruin. It is also the story of a group of people collectively demanding rights and imagining a more just future. The writers’ strikes that started that cold February day at the Port Authority was part of a larger organizing effort that, to some extent, worked: In July of 1935, Congress funded the Federal Writers Project, which for the next seven years paid 10,000 writers decent wages to write guidebooks and conduct oral histories across the country. Although the FWP wasn’t perfect, it did allow many writers to continue to write through the worst depression (so far) in American history. And it showed what is possible when artists collectively organize.