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The Nebraska Federal Writers’ Project: Remembering Writers of the 1930s – Study Questions

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  • In what ways did the Nebraska Federal Writers’ Project address the crises and suffering of people in the Great Depression of the 1930s? How did it document or leave a record of that suffering? How did it help people affected by unemployment and despair in hard times?
  • In 1929, traveling as a hobo, Rudolph Umland visited Washington D.C. and slept beneath Augustus St. Gaudens’ bronze statue of a hooded mourner at the grave of Marian and Henry Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery. It is hard to say whether Umland–who was an art and architecture student for a time–was drawn more by St. Gaudens’ sculpture, or by the vision of Henry Adams, the writer, historian and cultural critic. Imagine now that you yourself are seeking inspiration and a better understanding of the world we share today, what writer’s grave would you choose to sleep on, or beneath what public work of art? Explain your choices.
  • On his death bed in 1928, Mari Sandoz’s indomitable but cruel and tempestuous father lamented the depopulation of region of the Sandhills he had helped settle. “The whole damn sandhills is deserted. The cattlemen are broke, the settlers about gone. I got to start all over–ship in a lot of good farmers in the spring, build up—build—build—” these were his last words. Discuss the possible meanings of the recovery of life histories of the dying pioneer generation in the hard times of the 1930s.
  • The writer John Buchan (not from Nebraska) once predicted that the day would soon come when “Men would go everywhere and live nowhere; know everything and understand nothing.” Do you really live in Nebraska (or wherever it is you think you live, for that matter)? Perform your own regional identity self-check: Make up a score card for your activities. Score activities according to whether they are about the same everywhere or unique to Nebraska. For example… going to a fast food franchise restaurant that is the same in Baltimore as in Omaha or Grand Island? Watching professional wrestling (or any sport) on television? Going to the Wilber, Nebraska Czech festival, a Thresher’s reunion, or some other local festival? Going to see the Sandhill cranes along the Platte in the Spring? Buying food in a supermarket (shipped in from Chile / Argentina / California / Mexico / Texas /South Africa) versus buying food from a local farm? Visiting the fossils at Morrill Hall? Hiking? Fishing? Birdwatching? Surfing the Internet? After performing this self-check, consider the following question:

    How have people’s attachments to their local communities changed over the past century? What aspects of those changes surface in the 1930s and in the Nebraska Writers’ Project?

  • Transcripts of life histories collected by Nebraska Federal Writers’ Project workers are available through the Library of Congress’s American Life Histories web page. Find several of the following accounts and skim through one or two others at random to discuss the questions that follow the list. (The numbers in parentheses will help you find these specific accounts, once you learn the geography of American Life Histories web page. We can only offer a single link here.)

    Martin’s Ranch (#159–Indian attack)     C.L. Ray (#283–White settler)
    W.A. Potts (#305–Treatment of Indians)     C.P. Wiltse (#21–Folklore)
    Caesar Ernst (#22–Folklore, humor)     Elmer Dellett (#60–Folklore)
    Arthur Goodlett (#8 through 10–African-American)     Henry W. Black (#100–African-American)
    Josiah Waddle (#138–African-American)
    Dad Streeter (#278–A narrative about life in Nebraska collected by the Colorado Writers’ Project)

    Nebraska writer Mari Sandoz once said “the frontier historian is always faced with a great many divergences in the accounts of old timers and eye witnesses long after the fact. Memory plays strange tricks, as do our emotions. We recall what our point of view wants us to recall. Nothing more, or different.” If Sandoz is right, what value do these accounts have? How do you assess the accuracy of these accounts? What other sources might you look at to find out more about events or customs described by these individuals?

    If you choose very many of these histories at random, you will discover enormous variation in the interest and quality of these accounts, what might be the reasons for this variation?

  • In the Great Depression of the 1930s longing for better times caused people to turn away from the present in a variety of ways; some looked at America’s agrarian past with nostalgia, others looked to the future for inspiration. You might investigate some of these trends by looking at the 1930s paintings of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, (famous regionalist painters), or social realist photography, like Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Try to place what you now know about the Nebraska Federal Writers Project in this context. Look at the pictures and publication covers in this web exhibit in making this assessment.

  • How much of a person’s identity comes from their possessions, or from the work they do, or reflects their family’s economic prosperity? Would you be the same person if everyone in your family lost their jobs, and you lost your material possessions? If that happened, what about you would remain the same? What would change? Once you have thought about that:

    How might the Great Depression have challenged people’s ideas about who they were and how society should work? Considering what you know about other countries in the 1930s, what directions might a reshaping of American’s identities have taken? How did the Writers’ Project address the question of American identity?

  • Historians often use the word nostalgia as a kind of curse. When we accuse someone of nostalgia, we are suggesting that they belong to the unwashed masses of the ignorant and historically naïve. Look up the word and discuss the following issues: Does nostalgia itself cause us to falsify history? Why or why not? Would it be wrong for writers to deliberately try to evoke the feeling in their readers? Do you find evidence of nostalgia in the work of the Nebraska Federal Writers Project available to you on this website?



    Additional information on goals and standards for teachers using these materials.

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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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The Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors
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