VALib v56n4 - Exploring Virginia Life through the WPA Writers’ Project

Among the resources that libraries can use to create life-changing reading experiences, the products of the Federal Writers’ Project under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) have great potential for links with local topics and reading programs. Many public library collections have the WPA guide for Virginia, titled Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion. Many also have others in the WPA series (though that may not always be obvious from the catalog entries). Supplementing these are Virginia life histories from the 1930s and ’40s and discussion tools produced by ALA last year.

The stories from the Great Depression can resonate especially in hard economic times, when the idea of widespread joblessness and an effort to capture forgotten voices is closer to many library patrons’ experience.

Winchester, main street, 1940

Winchester, main street, 1940

The guide to Virginia, which came out seventy years ago, demonstrates how the WPA books offer entry points for examinations of local history. It covers virtually every locality in the state, not just a tour guide’s summary of top tourist spots, and it contains unprecedented material on local histories: how towns sprang up quickly, how rivalries could shape borders, how citizens and outlaws forged their lives, and how people ate, worked, and worshipped. All these years later, the Virginia WPA guide still holds up well. A single sentence about the town of Marion paints a vivid picture: “This aggressive county mart, which has a private school, an asylum, and two newspapers, supposedly at political loggerheads but both edited by Robert Anderson, son of Sherwood Anderson, was founded in 1831 and named for the ‘Swamp Fox’ of South Carolina.”

The WPA Writers’ Project was a remarkable instance of democracy in literature. Begun in 1935 when Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway were underway, the WPA hired (in addition to millions of people to build roads, schools, and bridges) thousands of schoolteachers, laid-off journalists, unemployed nurses, and fresh college graduates to create a series of state guidebooks that combined travel and history. In addition, the WPA produced books on cultural and ethnic history, including The Negro in Virginia, which despite its outdated title gives a remarkable history of black life in the Old Dominion. It was one of a series of titles on African American life nationally produced under the guidance of Sterling Brown, cultural historian at Howard University.

The WPA also interviewed Americans with an eye for histories that didn’t otherwise get caught on the page. This marked a shift when folklore, previously the domain of academics, grew in scope, leading to wider interest in oral history today and initiatives like Story-Corps, heard on public radio. For the Folklore unit of the Writers’ Project, WPA writers conducted life-history interviews throughout Virginia that reveal the state’s variety. These interviews offer librarians immediate, first-person encounters with how people lived that can engage young people directly with history.

Top Left: Galax woman and her daughter, 1941, Top Right: Migratory worker on the Norfolk-Cape Charles ferry writes a postcard home to his parents, 1940, Bottom Right: Bookie at the Warrenton racetrack, 1941

Top Left: Galax woman and her daughter, 1941
Top Right: Migratory worker on the Norfolk-Cape Charles ferry writes a postcard home to his parents, 1940
Bottom Right: Bookie at the Warrenton racetrack, 1941

“The entire tradition of oral history, in my opinion, arose out of the Writers’ Project,” says Stetson Kennedy, a folklorist who got his start as a WPA writer in Florida with Zora Neale Hurston. Kennedy’s interview appears in Soul of a People, a documentary film and book about the WPA Writers’ Project nationally. The film was produced with funding support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian Channel. Others highlighted in Soul of a People include a hobo-turned-editor in Nebraska; Hurston and her folklore research in Florida (she had just published her best-known novel Their Eyes Were Watching God when she needed the WPA job); John Cheever’s editing tasks in New York and Washington; and Studs Terkel, the oral historian (author of Working and Hard Times), who said his experience on the Writers’ Project in Chicago marked his start as a writer.

Virginia WPA writers interviewed nearly 1,400 people, including hundreds of formerly enslaved people. (In the 1930s there were an estimated 100,000 former slaves still living in America.) These interviews tell us how Virginians accounted for their lives, and are available now on the Library of Virginia website ( Nationally, the WPA gathered more than 10,000 interviews. Many are on the American Memory section of the Library of Congress website. In addition to the written interviews, the site also includes audio recordings made by Hurston, Kennedy, and others in the South using what was then a state-of-the-art recording device resembling a record-player console. An affiliated 1939 field tour by John Lomax for the Library of Congress stopped in Galax but was unable to record during that visit. Librarians can use these recordings to point patrons to different kinds of folk music and their living traditions in Virginia, for example at the Richmond Folk Festival held each autumn (

In association with Soul of a People, ALA provided grants for thirty libraries nationwide to host a series of events about America in the 1930s through the lens of the Writers’ Project. For that, ALA produced a brochure, discussion points, and portals for libraries to use in exploring how the WPA guides and books may still show people’s hometowns today, and how the WPA played a role, for example, in Virginia and American literature later, including the work of those who went on to become influential writers. The ALA program website is

Harrisonburg barbershop, 1941

Harrisonburg barbershop, 1941

My own introduction to the WPA guides offers an example of how the WPA books can engage readers. For a cross-country trip, my friend lent me her father’s copy of the WPA Guide to New Orleans. When my wife and I reached New Orleans, I was struck by how much that 1938 guidebook said about how ordinary New Orleanians lived. The text was spirited and yet didn’t sugarcoat hard realities. It inspired me to explore the stories behind that book and find other WPA books.

The Virginia guide, like that New Orleans book, is a fine-grained history of the state’s regions: mountains, piedmont, and tidewater. All the state guidebooks share a similar organization: the first half consists of essays on the state’s history, economy, industry, geology, natural history, and folklore; the second half narrates a series of driving tours through the state.

… it was one rung above
joblessness for people
struggling through the
Great Depression.

WPA work was no badge of honor — it was one rung above joblessness for people struggling through the Great Depression. That’s one reason, I believe, why WPA writers made special efforts to canvass groups previously overlooked by history texts. In the Virginia WPA interviews and the state guidebook, you find unusual accounts of Virginians making it through hard times. Eudora Ramsay Richardson, the state director, wrote in the guidebook’s preface, “We have striven to record the exploits [of those who were famous as well as] those ‘to fortune and to fame unknown,’” and who would have fallen into “undeserved oblivion” without the guide.

For four years Richardson managed thousands of out-of-work Virginians to get the book done and cajoled essays out of prominent historians such as Douglas Southall Freeman. Local librarians throughout the state answered questions about landmarks, battles, and congregations, and reviewed drafts about their towns.

Richardson herself wrote for the guidebook, including a piece on Virginia foods, from spoon bread and battercakes to herring roe with scrambled eggs. She explained how dodgers were related to corn-pone except fried on a griddle, and that real Virginia ham is the color of Cuban mahogany, and its fat should have the gold transparency of amber.

After exploring the Writers’ Project works for a view of the 1930s, library patrons can further track down books by the WPA writers who went on to literary careers. While many WPA writers returned to other vocations after the Depression eased, a surprising number went on to rank among the century’s prominent authors. Besides Hurston, Cheever, and others mentioned above, novelists of national note include:

  • Saul Bellow — The only Nobel laureate to come out of the WPA, Bellow created memorable worlds of 1930s life in his classic novel, The Adventures of Augie March.
  • Louis L’Amour — The bestselling western writer worked in the Oklahoma Writers’ Project alongside noir novelist and later screenwriter Jim Thompson.
  • Richard Wright — The author famous for Native Son, written while he was working on the WPA, also wrote the prize-winning story collection Uncle Tom’s Children and the classic memoir Black Boy.
  • Dorothy West — Known now for the stories and sketches in The Richer, the Poorer, West tried to recapture the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance, but in the 1930s served as a welfare relief worker. She distilled the living conditions of many black families in a short story, “Mammy.”
  • Ralph Ellison — The novelist whose Invisible Man is ranked among the twentieth century’s top novels began as a music student before his job on the Writers’ Project in New York.
  • Meridel LeSueur wrote many novels, including The Girl, about a woman who gets involved in a bank heist. It was based on LeSueur’s interviews with women in Minneapolis during the 1930s.
  • D’Arcy McNickle — The author of The Surrounded came to embrace his Native American identity while working for the WPA, and forever after declared himself “a native of the Flathead Reservation in Montana.”

Poets who came out of the Writers’ Project include Utah-born May Swenson and California poet Kenneth Rexroth, as well as Weldon Kees, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Walker. (Conrad Aiken was already a known poet when he joined the WPA.) Regional authors who came out of the WPA include Juanita Brooks in Utah (Mountain Meadows Massacre), Vardis Fisher in the Rocky Mountains, Jerre Mangione in the Northeast, and Lorin Brown in the Southwest.

Top: Shenandoah Valley resident J.C. Myers, showing the model of a steam engine that landed him a job nearly forty years before, c. 1940, Left: Portsmouth women near navy yard, 1941, Right: Portsmouth Courthouse Square, 1941, Bottom: Spectators at the Warrenton Races, 1941

Top: Shenandoah Valley resident J.C. Myers, showing the model of a steam engine that landed him a job nearly forty years before, c. 1940
Left: Portsmouth women near navy yard, 1941
Right: Portsmouth Courthouse Square, 1941
Bottom: Spectators at the Warrenton Races, 1941

Leading authors and historians in later generations have given credit to the WPA writers for paving the way. William Least Heat Moon told best-selling historian Douglas Brinkley that he might never have written his book PrairyErth without the WPA guide to Nebraska. (Brinkley himself notes, in the foreword to Soul of a People, how he found the WPA books as a high-school student by way of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.) Michael Chabon wandered the streets and subways of Manhattan with the WPA Guide to New York City for months while he researched his Pulitzerwinning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and noted his debt to the WPA writers in that book’s acknowledgements. In 2009, editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey published State by State, a book of essays about American life inspired by the WPA guides; Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, penned the essay for Virginia. That essay offers a departure point for library patrons to create their own responses to the WPA approach now.

By tracing the WPA Writers’ Project books chronicling the 1930s and by following the paths of its writers in their later works, librarians and patrons can discover a network of rich and imaginative stories of place and everyday lives. The WPA Writers’ Project also points to a more interconnected picture of American literature and culture, starting with Virginia. VL

Mary Sellen is university librarian for Christopher Newport University and library director of The Mariners’ Museum Library.

Jennifer Anielski is technical services librarian for The Mariners’ Museum Library.