Looking Back at the Federal Writers' Project in Nebraska
An American Self-Portrait
The first comprehensive history of the Federal Writers' Project appeared in 1972. The reception of Jerre Mangione's The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project 1935-1943 reflected the bitterness about Amerian prospects that accompanied the closing of the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Some reviewers found in the book an insufficiently radical history of insufficiently radical times. But Mangione, who as a very young man had been a Project administrator, possessed an unusual combination of perspectives--the rich knowledge of an insider, the historical sense of a political realist, and a sophisticated literary intellectual's ability to recognize revealing moments.
Among the reviewers who recognized these qualities in Mangione's history, one, Bernard Weisberger, took special note of the contemporary significance of the story. "We live," Weisberger wrote, "in another kind of hard times, when pessimism is not easy to avoid." In hard times and with less than one-half of one percent of the WPA's budget, the Federal Writers' Program had helped the nation see itself more clearly. "It takes an effort to remember that the United States--its land, its people, its institutions--adds up to something bigger than one generation's troubles and mistakes." Mangione's history of the Federal Writers' Project, he concluded, "is really telling us that we were in deep trouble before, and we almost accidentally paid for a self-portrait, and we liked and were strengthened by what we saw."
Regionalism between Past and Present
If the making of that self-portrait was truly accidental, the regionalist perspective that made it possible to conceive of the portrait, and pay for it under the New Deal, was hard won. The success of regionalism across the United States owed, as we have seen, a surprisingly deep debt to Nebraska writers. Willa Cather and Louise Pound laid the foundations for this movement in literature, folklore, and linguistic studies. Lowry Wimberly proved a brilliant, flexible and determined advocate, building Prairie Schooner into the movement's most respected literary voice, in the face of great financial and personal challenges. Mari Sandoz labored in the background. She refused--on Louise Pound's advice--to allow eastern editors to soften the harsh edges of her carefully observed western speech. Sandoz mastered her craft in Lincoln and persevered there in the face of rejection and poverty for a decade. After a few months retreat to the Sandhills induced by poverty and disappointment, she returned to Lincoln again in 1933 and, trying to both work and write full time, once again began to rewrite and seek a publisher for her masterwork, Old Jules. In hard times, Sandoz and Wimberly provided each other with moral support and intellectual stimulation. Sandoz told Rudolph Umland she would have given up, if it were not for Wimberly's example and encouragement. The Atlantic Monthly committee's choice to award Sandoz's manuscript for Old Jules its prize was a victory not just for her authentic and unusually frank voice, but for the whole Lincoln literary community in its commitment to regionalist ideals.
Detail of Joseph Di Gemma's cover art for the Nebraska State Guide.
Yet regionalism, however sophisticated, faced a crisis of identity almost from the moment its influence became visible. By the 1930s, standardized public education, greater mobility and better communications, the automobile, and radio, were sweeping away regional differences. Already by 1930 Lowry Wimberly believed in his heart that true regional culture was fading. Serious writing would have to accept that fact. Wimberly mourned the transition. "...in its passing from regionalism to nationalism our literature will doubtless lose both in depth and in beauty... but such as our national culture is, it is all we have." The regionalist perspective, he believed, would be confined, more and more, to retrospective and historical views.
Wimberly waited until 1940 to drop from the Schooner the dedication that in earlier issues had declared that the magazine would serve "as a medium for the finest writing of the prairie country." He continued to publish regionalist work, including work from other regions of the country. He was, we have seen, an enthusiastic mentor of the Nebraska Writers' Project. Regionalist standards could be adapted to other kinds of writing, so Wimberly continued to favor authors whose writing reflected their autobiographical experience, and whose work closely observed the patterns of speech and ways of thinking that shape communities.
Though it is easy to see that Wimberly was right about the direction of the changes he described, local culture and regional identities have still not faded entirely into history. Regionalism as a self-conscious literary movement died with the 1930s. But the spirit of regionalism survived, in a way, in the kind of literary ideals that Wimberly and his students still pursued. Elements of local folk cultures survived too, though attenuated by commercialism and outside forces. Regional identity is now more self-consciously bound to literature and history, more in the care of writers and intellectuals and more retrospective. But regional identities are still sustained by other forces, by consciousness of unique natural environments, ecology and landscapes and land use, by economic facts and ways of life, and by the habits of speech that reflect all of these.
The work of the Nebraska Writers' Project of the 1930s is best understood not as a simple historical portrait of lost worlds, but as part of a dialog about the sources of American character that continues to this day. A glance at what some contemporary Nebraska writers say about our character can help us better understand the Writers' Project's part in that conversation.
Language and Character at Home
The idea that "such as our national culture is, it is all we have," would present a bleaker prospect now than even the notoriously pessimistic Wimberly could have dreamed when he suggested it. Since the 1950s, historians have worried about changes in the way Americans work, play and think. Their concerns include the influence of television, declining standards of literacy, and dependency on large corporations and government, among others. Americans are enmeshed as never before in corporate and government bureaucracies, where their survival depends not on their ability to do good work, but on their skill at making themselves well-liked and on their ability to manipulate others to see the world as they wish them to. The historian John Lukacs, reflecting on these changes, quotes Robert Cluett's description of their immense impact on the way we express ourselves: "a softening of diction, a turning of the concrete into the abstract, a general muting of all that is frank, harsh, anthropomorphic, or indeed true in our thoughts."
As Nebraska poet Ted Kooser puts it, "the people at the top believe in feeding an abstraction more and more abstractions.... They believe abstract language is the language of power..." Kooser began his 1998 Institute for Regional Studies essay Journey to a Place of Work with the observation that "that part of my life given over to the company at which I am employed could easily be a period of near total immersion in abstraction." He contrasts this with the way he believes humans long for "what might be called our original work" with the concrete particulars of a particular place in the world. He sees the task of pushing aside the "veil of abstraction" that has come to stand between us and the real world as essential if we are to find and sustain our humanity. "Look to the detail," he tells us, "for that is where the doorways are."
Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, twice appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, and celebrated as the first poet from the Great Plains to serve as Poet Laureate, chose the rural culture of the Great Plains as the subject of his life's work. Kooser would fit every definition of a regionalist--if regionalists still existed. Kooser has attracted the widest possible recognition from readers outside the Great Plains, who appreciate the insights that emerge from his deep knowledge of his local subject matter, and an accessible poetic voice that, though carefully plotted and rigorously disciplined in literary terms, honors the plain speech of the communities he writes about. Kooser's attachment to a particular landscape, and his determination--noted by the critic Dana Gioia--never to bully his readers with verbal games are just two aspects of his work that create an unusually powerful sense of trust between the poet and his reader. Beyond his subject matter, Kooser's deep concern with honesty is another aspect of his work that allies him with regionalist ideals. He once published an essay in Prairie Schooner, "Lying for the Sake of Making Poems," reproaching several other local poets for falsehoods he found in poems they had written in autobiographical voice.
The belief that place molds identities, and that the environment of the Great Plains disciplines language and character in unique ways is shared by many Nebraska writers. It is striking how many pieces in The Big Empty, a 2007 collection of recent nonfiction by Nebraska writers, begin by invoking the natural world as a kind of necessary grounding for understanding local culture. "I first think of the weather," Ron Hansen begins, in the first words of the first piece. Ron Block, in the concluding piece, thinks that beyond the "subtlety and precision" needed to appreciate and explain life on the Great Plains, we also need "strangeness and distortion" to bring the all too familiar back into vision. Often, he thinks, just being open to the "incongruent qualities of life in the Plains" provides this strangeness. Life on the Plains is full of clarifying distortions--Block says--that let us see things in an estranged view. It's an interesting argument that builds toward the conclusion that local and regional identities still matter here. "Nebraska is never really through with us..." The Plains experience grows "year by year... stranger to the eyes of mainstream America."
The Nebraska Writers' Project and Democracy
"A writer is a collector, a numismatist, a philatelist of details"----this epigram of Kooser's would also serve as a fine description of the Nebraska Writers' Project as a whole. The writers were enthusiastic collectors, numismatists of details. The Project's collections of local history, folklore, individual life histories, monuments, unusual buildings and curiosities have deepened our sense of connection to place, and our knowledge of the past. The guidebooks have populated the most obscure corners of the state with stories, curiosities, and characters that bear remembering. Distinguished Nebraska writers, among them Roger Welsch and Alan Boye, have continued to make good use of the Project's work. Of course, the modern reader, perhaps in haste, may at times find the numismatist's love of detail----a certain tendency to marvel over every curiosity at every bend in the road----exasperating. But that easy pace and divergent focus were quite deliberate. They would remind the reader, in a democracy facing hard times, that the true sources of vitality and creativity are not gathered at the top of a society, or in any one place at any one time. Rather these sources are scattered among a diverse and sometimes rather peculiar people, whose voices can only be understood with patience and close acquaintance.
In this way, the work of the Nebraska Writers' Project publicized a view of human nature that has long connected constitutional democracy to social and political decentralization. This is the belief that "life in a decentralized society with... small and vigorous groups" will inspire "habits of self-restraint and concern for others." The character and discipline necessary to sustain a democracy emerge over time in this social setting, just as checks and balances evolve in the interplay between responsible actors in constitutional government. The Nebraska Project supported this social ideal not just in what it published, but in the way it functioned. The informal community that united the Nebraska Project's neophytes with Lincoln's most distinguished writers, and the collegial atmosphere and work ethic at the Project exemplified democratic virtues.
This understanding of American democracy, some observers believe, is now fading. There is a growing preference for describing American character and virtue as expressions of universal values, rather than as the product of a specific history and struggle for democratic character. American elites in politics, intellectual life, and the media have come to believe that "good social and political order has its source in ahistorical abstract thinking." If we are fully rational, we can do without history--which is just a repository of backward and irrational belief and practice. This tendency, its critics say, values ideological correctness over concrete achievement. It proclaims its globalism, and covertly disdains historical particularity and local cultures. It favors centralization and the rule of administrators and elites. It has been described as impatient, elitist, arrogant abroad, and relentlessly utilitarian--in that the good intentions it imputes to reason alone, justify harsh and indifferent means.
The story of the Nebraska Writers Project should remind us that in the 1930s, when the rest of the world was charmed by simple ideas, some Americans had better sense. The best work of the writers was patient, diligent, mindful of detail and aware of the contradictions and ambiguities of life and history. In this work they achieved a disciplined realism mixed with humor and affection for their state. Their achievement shows how the character of democracy could be supported, even in a terrible crisis, by local wisdom, which knows the everyday value of plain speech, honesty, good will and accountability. We may still need that kind of wisdom.