Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story (DVD Review)28 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark
The disinclination to pay writers for their services isn’t merely a product of the Internet era, as we see in this oddly contemporary 90-minute recollection of the Depression era’s Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) — perhaps the most controversial component of the Works Progress Administration (or WPA) in the FDR Administration’s brew of alphabet soup. Paying laborers to wield shovels was one thing … but writers?
For one thing, this meant a lot of intellectuals on the payroll, which in those days meant (in many cases, at least) communistic leanings. For another, a government agency has to be geographically equitable with funds — and whereas New York City or Washington, D.C., might be packed to the rafters with writers, the Idaho field officer (Vardis Fisher, who much later wrote the novel from which Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson was adapted) had an almost insurmountable challenge when ordered to “find” 10 of them on a dime. For another, the agency’s ball-juggling over a 48-state trajectory (back when long-distance phone-calling was an adventure just by itself) required someone with consummate organizational skills in charge. What it got was journalist and theatrical producer Henry Alsberg, who, in the opinion of someone quoted here was not particularly organized even about his personal appearance.
The agency’s brainstorm came in conceiving personal guidebooks to represent each of the states — not just tourist stuff but deep insights into what made the local culture tick. Though the end result, released in piecemeal fashion, is still enjoyable reading today, even this benign-sounding endeavor was full of landmines. Let’s say you’re a governor or chamber of commerce honcho in some Southern state, and you want to use your specific guide to promote local tourism. This means you’re probably not going to want the writer to mention the Ku Klux Klan or chain gangs, which is what any honest portrait would be obligated to do. Nor were boosters too happy in Massachusetts when its guidebook gave more space to the Sacco and Vanzetti miscarriage of justice than to the Boston Tea Party.
Then there was Vardis himself, portrayed as a kind of organizational cowboy who wanted to jump the gun and get the Idaho tome (utilizing a local publisher) out before some other volume(s) Alsberg might deem more politically appropriate — like, say, Washington, D.C.’s. And then there was the Dies Committee, as in Texas Representative Martin Dies, who is approximately to Congressional history what Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is to film history. Co-founder of what later became the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Dies didn’t like the warts-and-all portrayal of American life as it was really lived, and he agitated against the project as loudly as he could.
Narrated by Patricia Clarkson and packed with voiceovers of germane writings by employees whose later fame eclipsed their years tiling in crummy makeshift WPA offices, the story is almost inevitably entertaining because it deals with attempts to bring order to a project and, yes, profession not always known for the same. Some of the staffers profiled here later became 20th-century literary titans: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever (who hated editing lousy manuscripts and never brought up his WPA days until much later in his life); crime writer Jim Thompson (whose The Killer Inside Me has just opened in its second screen version); and Zora Neale Hurston, whose Their Eyes Were Watching God finished on Time’s list (along with Ellison’s Invisible Man) of the hundred best English-language novel from 1923 to the present. Certainly, they’ve outlived Martin Dies.