Friday, September 10, 2021

Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America (Scott Borchert)

The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was part of the FDR-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935 to employ jobless writers during the Great Depression. Former best-selling novelists and acclaimed poets, along with individuals with lesser qualifications, took up the ranks of writers whose goal was to rediscover America through words. The FWP set out to create guides to each of the 48 states, plus a number of regional and local guides, filled with stories of local folklore, formerly enslaved people, recipes, and other traditions.

Republic of Detours, written by Scott Borchert, shares the story of this ambitious and at times noisy undertaking. In tracing the FWP from its idealistic early days to its gradual demise at the hands of Congressional committees and subsequent reduction in funding, the author brings to the forefront names you have heard of, such as Zora Neale Hurston, along with others that may be less well-known, such as Vardis Fisher. The FWP, while hosting writers of various capabilities and reputation, also was the breeding ground for future literary talent such as Studs Terkel and John Cheever. Speaking of breeding ground, the gradual demise of the FWP was due to the thoughts of some in Congress that it harbored a large number of Communists (somewhat true) and that they were using their writings to promote communism (not so true).

The FWP, and its sister agency the Federal Theatre Project, were two New Deal-era agencies that were not as well known as the WPA. However, Borchert’s argument that the FWP’s impact in helping revive the publishing industry and increase interest in domestic travel were essential to the recovery from the Depression. Additionally, the writers’ intent to create books that were broad, diverse, and inclusive helped nudge the needle on civil rights and unite a country in the midst of economic turmoil.