Sarah Gonzalez: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Sarah Gonzalez in for Tanzina Vega. Earlier this month, Congressman Ted Lieu of California introduced a bill that would create a 21st-century Federal Writers' Project inspired by the Federal Writers' Project of the new deal. That original Writer's Project began amid the great depression in 1935 under the United States Works Progress Administration. It employed writers, historians, and teachers to document different parts of US culture and history that had previously been pushed to the margins.
Some of the writers who got their starts through the program went on to become literary icons, including Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and John Cheever. There were many programs like this that put people to work during the great depression. The radio program, This Was News was also funded under the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project. It dramatized historical news events.
Announcer: New York City, March 25th, 1911. Ten floors of a building at the northwest corner of Washington and Greene Streets, over 200 people mostly girls employed by the Triangle Waist Company won't work today.
Sarah Gonzalez: If passed into law, the new 21st-century Federal Writers' Project introduced by Congressman Lieu would again pay hundreds of writers to document different aspects of the pandemic, creating a record for current and future generations to learn from. With me now to discuss is David Kipen, founder of the Libros Schmibros lending library in Los Angeles and former Literature Director of the National Endowment for the Arts. An article he published last May in the Los Angeles times inspired Congressman Lieu to create this bill and David was also involved in the drafting process. David, thank you so much for being here.
David Kipen: Hi, Sarah. You're welcome.
Sarah Gonzalez: Tell us a little bit more about how this idea went from an op-ed to an actual piece of legislation.
David Kipen: It was last April, I think, as matters were getting increasingly awful around the country and a couple of my friends were dying. My students were going to graduate right back into their high school bedrooms despite their writing talents. As a journalist for a lot of my life, I saw my colleagues losing jobs, losing hours, newspapers themselves, and what's come to be called news deserts going under, and all the older Americans who were dying in nursing homes with nobody to tell their stories too and the cultural memory we were losing because of it.
I pitched an op-ed to friends at the LA Times. Actually, it was a feature, but secretly, it was an op-ed calling for the return of the Writers' Project and somebody showed it to Congressman Lieu and he told his chief of staff, "This sounds like a pretty good idea. Get right on it," and here we are a year later. Nobody is more astonished at all of this than I am.
Sarah Gonzalez: What kinds of writings came out of the original Writers' Project?
David Kipen: God, it's an all-star team. I think you mentioned Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston who had been fairly famous beforehand but was up against it during the Depression, like so many people, John Cheever, Saul Bellow. It's really a murderers' row of American writing talent. In the 40 years before the Writers' Project, America won one Nobel prize. In the 80 years afterward, it won about 10, including Saul Bellow, who was himself an alumnus of the project. The effects on American literature ever since have been monumental
Sarah Gonzalez: Some of the works that came out of this included interviewing formerly enslaved people who are still alive in the '30s. What kinds of writing projects would you like to come out of this new version? Are we talking about like novels set during the pandemic or sitcoms even?
David Kipen: I'd like to think novelists and sitcom writers can take care of themselves. No, the idea is to document American lives, American voices as it was originally. Oral history was barely a thing in the 1930s until the project sent writers out into the field to listen to Americans and make sure their voices weren't lost to history. There were also researchers of course, and what's come down to is most commonly what people remember the Writers' Project for in addition to the slave narratives of which there were 2300 and Zora Neale Hurston particularly worked on that project in Florida.
What people most identify the Writers' Project with is the American guides, what a lot of people called WPA guides, guidebooks to every state in the union, plus Puerto Rico, plus Alaska, and regions all over the place, and really paying close attention, not just to the major capitals, although the shock of these guides is, the project when it first started was like, "Give these people some jobs as FDR's right-hand man said, "Writers and artists have to eat just like anybody else." The miracle was that within a year and a half, some of these books started coming out and they got great reviews and they were best sellers. People said to themselves, "We got a hit on our hands."
After the state guides were in motion, somebody said, "Let's do city guides." Before they were done, there were 1,000 books and pamphlets created by this Federal Writers' Project that we can learn so much from today and take inspiration from for a new project.
Sarah Gonzalez: Right now, the bill sets aside $60 million for the new Writers' Project, the Department of Labor would administer it. How would they administer it? How would the Writers' Project actually work in practice?
David Kipen: Four different types of organizations apply for grants. There are newsrooms, both nonprofit and for-profit newsrooms, mostly smaller ones. Libraries, both public and nonprofit, Newspaper Guild of course would be a logical grantee, and universities or other organizations that gather and curate educational and cultural material. All of them would apply to the Labor Department and, in turn, writers, and editors, and photographers would work for them to create this second legacy.
Sarah Gonzalez: You wrote in your article that 85 years ago, FDR saved American writers. Do you have an idea of how many jobs this new version would create?
David Kipen: At its peak, the original created 6,600. This one calls initially for between 900 and 1,000, but there is an option to renew after the first year. Of course, the hope is that in addition to chronicling the pandemic, there's so much that's happened in the last 85 years since the first round of Federal Writers' Project guides that there's so many other stories to tell.
Sarah Gonzalez: There are very few bipartisan issues these days. What would your pitch to Republicans be for this program?
David Kipen: This is a deeply patriotic project. This is a conservative project because the idea is to conserve the memories of what we've gone through both this year and ever since the 1930s and create a lasting bequest to the future. I think of this as a shamelessly patriotic initiative.
I plan to send links that anyone can find at the Rowan University Library website to every last Federal Writers' Project guide to every representative, every senator, so that they can see for themselves just what nonpartisan Valentines to America in all its complexity, the good and the bad. The originals were. The new 21st-century Writers' Project as the sainted Congressman Lieu calling it can be for today and anybody who wants to read them from now until doomsday.
Sarah Gonzalez: David Kipen is a Lecturer in Writing at UCLA and former Literature Director of the National Endowment for the Arts. David, thank you so much for joining us.
David Kipen: Oh, it's my pleasure, Sarah. Thanks for calling.
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