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The Nebraska Federal Writers’ Project: Remembering Writers of the 1930s – Publications and Impact

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Paths to Publication

The first draft of the Nebraska Guide was completed in 1937 and submitted to Federal Project editors in Washington. Washington’s ideas about what the State Guides should be like were still evolving then, and new instructions appeared every few months. The result was that just as a new revised draft would be completed, a new set of instructions would come in the mail. This problem was not Nebraska’s alone of course, virtually every State Project struggled with the process. A California Project employee wrote a verse that suggested that “only God” could call a halt to the endless task. It circulated widely, and read in part:

I think that I have never tried
A job as painful as the guide.
A guide that changes every day
Because our betters feel that way.
. . . .
A guide to which we give our best
To hear: “This stinks like all the rest!”

Cover of the Nebraska Guide

Cover of the Nebraska Guide

The manuscript of the Guide, Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State, was finally approved by the Project’s federal administrators in May of 1938. With the Nebraska State Historical Society as sponsor, it reached publication in July, 1939.

The Nebraska Guide was the state’s first modern guidebook, the first to belong to the age of the automobile. The Guide begins with a series of thematic essays about the natural setting, history, culture, and economy of the state. The second part surveys the history and points of interest of the pricipal cities and towns of the state. The Guide concludes with a series of automobile tours of the various regions of the state, looking at local history, anecdotes, interesting buildings, monuments, and natural features. It remains a surprisingly useful and entertaining overview. It has been reprinted a number of times, most recently in 2006, and at this writing remains in print. If its road tours are sometimes dated, it remains an excellent guide to the geography, culture, and history of the state.

Among the Nebraska Writers’ Project’s published works, the Lincoln City Guide and the State Guide, Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State stand out as the most polished and durable productions. The Nebraska Guide is considered among the best of the Guides produced by the Federal Writers Project. As Nebraska writer Alan Boye says “it is one of the most concise, comprehensive, and lucid summaries of the state’s history ever written.” Beyond that history, Boye notes “even a casual reading will give you a sense of what it was like to be alive in the state in the 1930s.” Individual stories and isolated events merge into a grander natural and cultural landscape. Recent guidebooks to the state borrow from the Nebraska Guide. Others have borrowed from its subtler subtexts. William Least-Heat Moon has said that he would not have written his study of a sparsely populated Kansas grassland, PrairyErth: A Deep Map without the example of the Nebraska Guide. A sense that the natural rhythms that sustain the ancient landscape also give shape and meaning to the more ephemeral passages of human lives and communities is a shared theme.

With the completion of the State Guide, the Nebraska Writers’ Project turned to other work. The Project continued to collect folklore and publish a series of some 30 Nebraska folklore pamphlets. It published a number of other booklets, local histories and guidebooks. As Jerre Mangione noted, the Nebraska Writers’ Project “exceeded, on a per capita basis, all other states in the number of books published.”

These publications, some of which deserved to be called pamphlets rather than books, depended as a rule on the support of a sponsor for publication. The Nebraska State Historical Society sponsored the Lincoln City Guide and the Nebraska Guide. The Omaha Urban League Community Center sponsored The Negroes of Nebraska. Printing Comes to Lincoln was sponsored by the Ben Franklin Club of Lincoln, an organization representing the owners of local print shops. Other sponsors and supporters ranged from the Miller & Paine department store in Lincoln, to the Wausa Improvement Club of the village of Wausa, Nebraska, and the Omaha chapter of the Order of the Sons of Italy.

Cover, Italians of Omaha

Cover, Italians of Omaha

The necessity of finding sponsors extracted a price. To begin with, it resulted in publications that, while of interest to the sponsor, had little appeal to others. The History of American Legion Post No. 11, Hastings and A Pagent of Wausa, Nebraska were unlikely to have broad appeal. The relationship with a sponsor invited superficial works of celebration in the place of critical histories. Several historians have cited The Italians of Omaha (1941) as a particularly egregious example of the superficial celebration of the sponsor’s identity. A more painstaking social history would have been more interesting and of more lasting value.

The Omaha City Guide was never published. Umland believed that the sponsor, Omaha’s Junior Chamber of Commerce, deliberately sat on the manuscript, preventing other interested organizations from assuming the sponsorship. Omaha has a complex and conflicted history that includes race riots and lynchings, and considerable labor conflict. The Nebraska State Guide itself was explicit enough about Omaha’s Saturday night brawls, its gambling dens and women of “ill-fame.” It observed that the site of one of Omaha’s Hospitals was willed to the city by the notorious queen of its underworld.

The Nebraska Guide’s description of Omaha’s socio-economic divisions was noticed in a review in the New York World-Telegram. This was merely a matter of social geography. “Working people,” as the Guide put it, were concentrated in South Omaha and to the east and north, while “elsewhere, spread out for miles, are the homes of salesmen, advertising men, insurance men, realtors, wholesale officials, refrigerator salesmen, teachers, and second vice-presidents.” The reviewer suggested that writer of this description possessed a certain social sympathy–and not one friendly to refrigerator salesmen. It is hardly conceivable that the “second vice-presidents” (Umland’s later description of its members) that composed the Omaha Junior Chamber of Commerce would have been comfortable with a more detailed and penetrating exploration of that city’s conflicts and social history.

* * * * * * * *

The forces that sank the Omaha Guide were at work on a national level too. In November, 1938 Texas congressman Martin Dies, the chairman of a newly formed House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities attacked the American Guide Series, and mentioned the Nebraska Guidebook among others as criticizing the American system of government and seeking to spread communist propaganda. Dies sought to prevent those guides still in manuscript, including the Nebraska Guide, from being published. He failed at that, but over time the opponents of the Program eventually prevailed in transferring funding responsibility to the respective states. After August 31, 1939, the Nebraska Writers’ Project became the Nebraska Writers’ Program. The University served as overall sponsor. Umland left in February 1942 to join the military. The program was terminated March 1, 1942, as government at all levels shifted resources to the war effort.

It seems hardly necessary to observe that nothing found in the Nebraska Guide could support Dies’ characterization of it. It was not a chamber of commerce product, yet as part of the American Guide Series, it was conceived as a celebration of American identity as regionalists understood it. By the time that Dies succeeded in undermining the Project, it had essentially completed its mission anyway. The Nebraska Guide was published, and the American Guide Series as a whole was on its way to completion. The Nebraska Project had been shrinking since 1936, and by 1939 was only employing about a dozen people in Lincoln.

Successes and Failures of the Nebraska Project

Rudolph Umland believed that “the most valuable contribution made by the Project was the preservation of a vast body of local history” around the nation. The Nebraska Project preserved stories of encounters between whites and native Americans, and of the struggles and customs of early settlers and other old-timers that would otherwise have been utterly lost. In Nebraska, the interest of these accounts was the more striking because the Great Plains state was among the last to be settled, and that settlement took place as the crest of a wave of European immigrants of the most diverse cultures and nationalities reached American shores.

There was of course, dross among the treasures, and plenty of it. Project workers, despite their expert advisors, were, to begin with, amateurs at everything they turned their hand to. Even those few employees who later earned enduring reputations as writers (Loren Eiseley and Weldon Kees) were just learning the trade.

Nebraska folklorist and writer Roger Welsch has used Nebraska Federal Writers’ Program files for a number of books and studies, among them A Treasury of Nebraska Pioneer Folklore (1966), Mister, You Got Yourself a Horse: Tales of Old Time Horsetrading (1981), and Inside Lincoln (The things they never tell you!) (New and improved edition, 1984). His acknowledgments and criticism of materials collected by the Writers’ Project can help us better assess its achievement. The published folklore pamphlets, as he says in A Treasury do suffer from “a crude presentation” and some of the tales they tell are also incomplete. These faults arose both from the cheap, mimeographed method of publication, and the inexperience of interviewers.

A skilled interviewer could make a great difference. Harold Moss, for example, one of the finest interviewers at the Nebraska Project, collected some of the old-time horse trading tales that Welsch found and used in Mister, You Got Yourself a Horse. The careful narrative structure of the horse trading tales Moss collected caused Welsch to contact Umland about the practices within the Project. Moss, Umland recalled in a letter, was an especially careful interviewer and meticulous recorder of what he heard. The storytellers way of speaking belonged to its time. “I think the talk of people generally in the 1930s was more literary in style than the talk of today but I don’t remember Moss’s talk as being that way especially.”

Welsch’s introduction to the horse trading tales offers an appreciation of the way the Nebraska Project collected folklore. “The guide manuals and instruction sheets issued to the Nebraska workers are as rigorous , clear, and professional as anything in circulation in graduate folklore programs today.” Field workers were instructed to take down all stories exactly as told, to record the physical setting of the interview and the circumstances and life history of the informant. They were instructed never to improve on the stories they were given.

The treasures of unpublished folklore saved by the Nebraska writers are now scattered, and Welsch reported having found remnants of the FWP collection “in the most unlikely places and in the most deplorable conditions,” including the basements of buildings at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and files in a drawer in Washington, D.C. More accessible and better cared for files exist at the Nebraska State Historical Society, the Library of Congress, the University of Nebraska at Omaha library, and Lincoln City Libraries.

Some Writers’ Project publications have not aged well. The Negroes of Nebraska, a 1940 history of African American immigration and life in the state, sponsored by the Omaha Urban League Community Center, is among the most glaring examples of this. Changed habits of speech, always a sensitive matter in ethnic relations, account for a small part of the difficulty of reading the work. Richard Witt calls it “overly paternalistic.” Although it did openly discuss racial prejudice, as he noted, its point of view is a static, and false objectivity. Under headings like “The Negro goes to school,” and “The Negro goes to war” the discussion is superficial and the reader is told “Negros feel…” or “the Negroes feel…” this, or that, all too often, without ever hearing an individual voice speak for itself.

For all its faults, The Negroes of Nebraska was part of an honest effort to discover and portray a more diverse state. It was the first attempt to put much of that history on the record. It was based in large part on interviews and research by Fred Dixon and Albert Burks, two African-Americans employed by the Nebraska Project. Dixon was an especially indefatigable and skilled interviewer. The actual interviews these men set down –see the Library of Congress’s American Life Histories collection for Nebraska–redeem some of the blind spots of the final publication. The interviews record memories of slavery and its ending, of African-American immigration to the state, and African-American life and culture in Omaha and elsewhere in the state. Without the Writers Project and the work of Dixon and Burks, these stories would have been lost forever.

In October of 1936 the Nebraska Writers’ Project brought out a single issue magazine, Shucks filled with stories, poetry, and sketches that had been deemed “unsuitable” for inclusion in official Project publications. Weldon Kees and Norris Getty contributed a satirical dialog “The Cliché Expert on Our Glorious Heritage” that seemed to pour scorn on the whole historical enterprise. Jake Gable contributed an amusing poem “The Suburbanite.” Margaret Lund wrote a poem about a statue of Jefferson Davis. The most polished literary piece was Rudolph Umland’s short sketch “Arkansas Hoosier,” a skillfully narrated story derived from Umland’s travels as a hobo.

Shucks appeared in the same month as another compilation of creative work, “Material Gathered,” by the California Project. The Federal Writers’ Project was designed to discourage and exclude “creative writing,” yet the desire to find an outlet for this kind of thing kept bubbling to the surface. The simultaneous appearance of these two publications, according to Jerre Mangione, encouraged Henry Alsberg, the Director of the FWP to think of publishing a compilation of creative work done by writers from around the country–suposedly only in their spare time. This was the origin of American Stuff, the first such collection, which, appearing in 1937, began a series of such compilations, including Direction magazine’s special issue under the same title in 1938. Weldon Kees and Margaret Lund of the Nebraska Project were both anthologized in these collections.

* * * * * * * *

The Nebraska Writers’ Project discovered and saved a record of lives and traditions that, absent that project, would have been lost. The Project’s writers and researchers preserved and made accessible a layer of history that could not be found in documents other than the ones they created. There we find, among other things, individual perspectives on historical events, lost customs and habits of speech, and a canny appreciation of storytelling by articulate people whose literacy may have been minimal. We discover disturbing prejudices, and then in contrast, frank and penetrating assessments of injustice and fate.

The Nebraska Project seems to have made the most of its resources and time. If some of its work was of the highest quality, and some not so good, in its best work the Project sustained the vision on which it was founded. It recorded the endurance, the cultures and creativity of ordinary people. It deepened the sense of place and of history, leavening conflict and tragedy with humor and a sense of wonder. It broadened the ethnic and cultural definition of American character and citizenship. It deepened the vocabulary and understanding of place.

The Nebraska Project was the closing chapter in a longer story. It was joined to the glorious decade of Lincoln writers that began in about 1927 by bonds of personal friendship and mentoring by Mari Sandoz and Lowry Wimberly. That decade, Rudolph Umland wrote, “hatched more writers in Lincoln than any before or since,” and he named Sandoz, Dorothy Thomas, Virginia Faulkner, Loren Eiseley, Preston Holder, Robert Lasch, Weldon Kees, Marion Stanley, Kenetha Thomas, Barney Oldfield and LaSelle Gilman, among others. When the Project ended in 1942, long after most of those people had left the city, Lincoln’s little renaissance was truly over.


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Exhibit Contents

Part I
Rudolph Umland
A Family of German Immigrants
A Nebraska Farm Boy
Broader Horizons
From Student to Hobo
Meeting Lowry Wimberly
Lowry C. Wimberly, Between Laughter and Ghosts
Part II
The Federal Writers’ Project
Nebraska Beginnings
Circumventing a Crisis
Writers at Work
Nebraska Lore
Weldon Kees and the Writers’ Project
Loren Eiseley and the Writers’ Project
Publications and Impact
Looking Back at the Federal Writers’ Project in Nebraska
Part III
Notes and Bibliography
Study Questions
Additional Content Information

A Web Exhibit from The Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors at Lincoln City Libraries. This project was supported in part by the United States Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered through the Nebraska Library Commission. Exhibit & Text by Stephen Cloyd. © Lincoln City Libraries, 2007

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