In 1935, as the United States was in the grip of The Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) — a program to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians and other white-collar workers.
Part of the larger Works Progress Administration, the ambitious employment and infrastructure program created by FDR, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural and economic resources of the United States.
Surprisingly the most prolific branch of this project was not in big cities or publishing capitals like New York and Boston but in Kansas’ neighbor to the north, Nebraska.
In her award-winning book, “Nebraska During the New Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project in the Cornhusker State,” Abilene author Marilyn Irvin Holt examines the work produced as well as the people involved and how the project operated in Nebraska.
A native of Illinois, Holt moved to Kansas in the 1980s. She served as director of publications at Kansas State Historical Society, taught at the University of Kansas, served on the Kansas Humanities Council and is now an independent historian, freelance writer and research consultant.
Much of Holt’s research and writing focus on children and teenagers during Westward expansion through World War II. It was while looking through research gathered for another project that her interest was caught by the FWP and the volume of work produced by Nebraska writers.
“Nebraska did everything,” she said. “The project got off to a rocky start but ultimately they put out the state guide, pamphlets on pioneer life, a book about Italians in Omaha, books about old pioneers, radio plays — they produced more per capita than any other state.”
Early administration of the Nebraska FWP was given to someone with political connections but little practical experience managing a project of this size and scope. Within a few months, new leadership was named and the project began in earnest.
“Nebraska had 50-55 people working on the project at any given time,” Holt said. “They went out and interviewed former slaves, indigenous people and old settlers all over the state. The amount of first-person information they collected is impressive.”
Holt accessed much of the collected interviews and published works through the Library of Congress and the University of Nebraska. The archives contain a treasure trove of local history, folklore and first-person accounts of life in the Great Plains.
“You get a lot of similar stories but individual voices telling it in their own way,” she said. “Then you have the writers’ stories overlaid and it’s just fascinating.”
As much as her book examines what the Nebraska FWP produced, Holt was equally intrigued by the people doing the work.
“I got so caught up with the people involved in the project,” she said. “They’re writers, they’re poets. Some have published, some are on the verge of a breakthrough when the Depression hits. Some have huge egos. When I got into their personalities sometimes I began to wonder how they got anything accomplished.”
Poet Weldon Kees was one “huge ego” involved with the Nebraska FWP. He had already been published, notably in the Prairie Schooner, but failed to leverage other opportunities into a lucrative career. Not that you would guess from his behavior.
“His ambition was to be named in Who’s Who in America,” Holt said. “He would needle other people about how intelligent and talented he was.”
Some of the people Holt includes in her book revealed surprising talents as a result of working on the project.
“One man was a sales manager in a department store but turned out to be one of the best interviewers they had. He loved to collect stories about old horse thieves,” she said. “Another, an insurance salesman, had been arrested and gone to trial for arson. He was charged with setting fire to his own house to collect insurance money. He turned out to be really good at managing and was with the project the entire time.”
Holt also digs into the controversy surrounding the FWP. As modern readers can imagine, the government allocating funds to employ writers and poets met with some resistance.
“People were asking, ‘why should these writers be allowed to sit at a desk and write? What kind of job is that? Why aren’t they out doing manual labor?’ Many saw this program as unnecessary, not producing anything,” Holt said. “Many people were in ‘survival mode’ while this project was looking at the long-term.”
The cultural and historical benefits derived from the FWP are extensive. For Holt, the information gathered has been invaluable to her own work.
“What these people were doing when collecting these interviews and stories from former slaves and pioneers which is a boon to researchers and historians,” she said. “Thanks to the FWP, we have access to all sorts of information that would have been lost otherwise.”
For the people involved in the project, the wages they earned had a widespread impact.
“One man who worked for the Nebraska project was a bachelor but he was supporting himself and two more families on his block with his wages,” Holt said. “Another person was a woman who had graduated from college and was teaching at a college in Iowa. She had a bright future ahead of her, then her mother became ill so she had to go home and care for her. She was unemployed until she started working for the Nebraska project. It was a lifesaver for her and her mother.”
Holt’s work telling the story of the creative, determined people of the Nebraska Federal Writers’ Project earned her the 2020 Nonfiction Nebraska Perseverance Award from the Nebraska Center for the Book.
Holt’s book is available wherever books are sold.
Melissa Lowery is a freelance content provider who was born and raised in Kansas.