Writers' Project Searched For American Stories From 1935 to 1939, an army of folklorists and writers went in search of tales both real and tall. These stories of America in the Great Depression were gathered by literary giants like Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Jim Thompson. A new book revisits the project.

Writers' Project Searched For American Stories

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It's August 23, 1939, and 11-year-old Avalia Andux(ph) is about to tell a government worker a ghost story.

Unidentified Man: What is the name of this story, please?

Ms. AVALIA ANDUX: I don't know the name of the story, but I heard it once.

Unidentified Man: Where did you hear it?

LYDEN: Avalia's talking to an employee of the WPA Writers' Project. It was one of the great experiments of the New Deal. From 1935 to 1939, an army of folklorists and writers went in search of America's stories. They collected tales real and tall, like Avalia's story about a woman who fed her husband a human leg.

Ms. ANDUX: I'm coming. And then, just in the corner, I want my leg back.

Unidentified Man: Was this story told to you in Spanish or English?

Ms. ANDUX: In Spanish.

Unidentified Man: Spanish. Well, please tell it to us in Spanish.

Ms. ANDUX: (Spanish spoken).

LYDEN: These stories of America in the Great Depression were gathered by literary giants like Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Jim Thompson. Their stories are the focus of a new book called "Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America." David Taylor is the author. He says the project's main goal was to create state travel guides.

Mr. DAVID TAYLOR (Author): The director of the project was a former journalist and playwright, Henry Alsberg. And his concept of a travel guide was nothing like what we would have now. He was interested in the regional differences of America. He was convinced that the country was changing very quickly, and he envisioned the state guides more as kind of a combination of encyclopedia and travel guide.

So you'd have some tour routes in the back, but in the front, you'd have these essays on everything from economic history to agriculture to ethnic histories. So it was really, in the case of Washington D.C.'s guide, for example, quite a hefty tone. That was over a thousand pages and over five pounds. So, many of them didn't feel like travel guides.

LYDEN: Why don't we go to Florida, it's a very rich place, and focus on Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American writer. She's already written, by the time she's hired, "Their Eyes Were Watching God." She's hired in early 1938. Did she want this job?

Mr. TAYLOR: No. In fact, very few writers, particularly professional writers at the time, would have wanted what was considered basically a welfare job. And Zora was - had done a great job of putting together fellowships and support to get her through hard times. But by 1938, she needed some support. So she took it as a last resort.

LYDEN: In fact, didn't she pretend to some of her family that, whenever she would go to Jacksonville to turn in work, she was doing something else?

Mr. TAYLOR: Right. She would tell her niece, when she was going off, she was going off to see her New York agent, but she would actually be going to Jacksonville to report to the state editor.

LYDEN: Let's hear a recording of Hurston singing a song she learned from the people she talked to, and she's singing it for a WPA colleague in the Florida office.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ZORA NEALE HURSTON (Author): (Singing) You may leave and go to Halifax, but my slow drag will bring you back. Well, you may go, but this will bring you back. I've been in the country, but I moved to town. I'm a total shaker from head on down. Well, you may go, but this will bring you back.

LYDEN: And what we'll notice here, she's explaining how she learns this song.

Unidentified Man #2: How do you learn most of your songs?

Ms. HURSTON: I learn them. I just get in the crowd with the people, if they're singing, and I listen as best I can. And I start to joining in with a phrase or two, and then finally I get so I can sing a verse. And then I sing them back to the people until they tell me that I can sing them just like them.

LYDEN: So that's amazing. She doesn't have a tape recorder like NPR reporters do. She's actually learning these things, singing them herself.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah. She was a fascinating combination of an artist who saw the richness of this material for her own creativity but also had the ear. She was trained as a folklorist by the father of American anthropology, Franz Boas, and so she knew how to capture these things.

LYDEN: She goes from these Florida juke joints to turpentine camps where the workers are practically slaves. Others go to oil fields, farms. Nothing was off-limits.

Mr. TAYLOR: It was chaotic, in a sense. So they had a lot of leeway at the different state levels. So people would have somewhat of a mandate to do their work, but they also could be drawn to what seemed most powerful to them, I think.

LYDEN: I want to ask you about Jim Thompson, who, you know, most of us know as the great noir writer, "The Killer Inside Me," stories like that. He went to his hometown. He'd been born near Oklahoma City and raised there. Before he ever joined this, he was already publishing crime fiction. Wasn't he kind of an odd choice to be writing state guides for visitors?

Mr. TAYLOR: I thought so, too. I never expected to find the writer of "The Grifters" to be doing folklore research. But he had actually studied that some in the early '30s, and he wrote the folklore essay for the Oklahoma guide. And he talks about how, in Oklahoma stories, there is a strain of this macabre going alongside this humor and that you can't pull them apart. I think his view of noir novels later was just an extension of a real kind of down-home way of telling stories that he learned in Oklahoma.

LYDEN: By 1938, just a few years after they'd begun, a real witch hunt was started to find communists in the New Deal. And a congressman from Texas, Martin Dies, is rousing people from one end of the country to the other and attacking the WPA. Funds are slashed. What effect did all of that have?

Mr. TAYLOR: The immediate effect was that it closed down the arts projects like the Writers' Project. There were some communists on the project, but what it really brought a spotlight to was that these guidebooks and these writers were challenging a conventional history of America.

Congressman Dies would, he basically led an investigation that challenged this broad, grassroots view that these writers, wild and woolly army of writers for the Writers' Project was pulling together.

LYDEN: What kind of long-term impact do you think there was on American fiction and letters after the WPA project?

Mr. TAYLOR: That's a really good question. It had a long-term effect in the way that artists listened for their material. And so you find initially social realism but with, also with links to a more folkloric surrealism. And when you look at the writers who came out of this, four of the first 10 National Book Award winners in fiction had ties to this project.

LYDEN: David Taylor is author of "Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America." Thanks so much for being here with us.

Mr. TAYLOR: Thanks, Jacki.

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