Once Upon a Time, When America Paid Its Writers
Jason Boog on the Struggle to Find Security and Creativity
in the Same Life
In February of 1935, at the end of a hellishly cold winter, a small group of writers bundled up in coats and carried signs as they walked in a circle in front of the Port Authority building in New York City. It was the first strike of the Writers’ Guild, a group that had organized to address the hunger, poverty, and joblessness that faced writers during the Depression. The leader carried a sign that read: “Children Need Books. Writers Need a Break. We Demand Projects.”
The unemployment rate that year was twenty percent. Hundreds of people were living in makeshift shanties in Central Park. Hunger marches were common. Workers were fervently demanding relief from the government, and writers needed help, too, even though they were a group many found much less sympathetic than out-of-work bricklayers and construction workers. There was a sense in the 1930s, as there is now, that writers had chosen their fate; they were college-educated bohemians whose work had turned out to be expendable. It was not clear at all that the government would step in to help.
The poets, novelists, and journalists on the Writers’ Guild picket line were part of what writer Jason Boog calls “the crisis generation,” writers who came of age during the Depression and contended with the withering poverty and joblessness of the 1930s in both their politics and their work. In Boog’s new book, The Deep End, he offers colorful and often grim profiles of nine crisis generation writers and connects their stories to the struggles that writers face today. Even before our current economic crisis, it was a depressingly apt comparison. Now that the unemployment rate is at almost twelve percent, layoffs at major media organizations are announced weekly, and already poorly-paid freelance opportunities are winnowing, there could not be a better time to read about how writers in the past dealt with financial calamity.
But Boog’s book isn’t only the story of a generation contending with ruin. It is also the story of a group of people collectively demanding rights and imagining a more just future. The writers’ strikes that started that cold February day at the Port Authority was part of a larger organizing effort that, to some extent, worked: In July of 1935, Congress funded the Federal Writers Project, which for the next seven years paid 10,000 writers decent wages to write guidebooks and conduct oral histories across the country. Although the FWP wasn’t perfect, it did allow many writers to continue to write through the worst depression (so far) in American history. And it showed what is possible when artists collectively organize.
I interviewed Boog, who is the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly, over email about The Deep End. We talked about how the writers in his book expressed their politics in their art and on the streets, why so little of their work is part of the literary canon, and what lessons their stories can offer to writers today.
Heather Radke: Your book is about what you call “the crisis generation,” writers who came of age during the Great Depression. What do you see as the unifying aesthetic force of this generation and why did you decide to write about them now?
Jason Boog: The writers of the crisis generation wrote about how economic insecurity warped their careers and lives. Some, like the once-famous poet Maxwell Bodenheim, were destroyed during that gloomy decade. Others, like the great Richard Wright and Muriel Rukeyser, emerged from those years as powerful and influential authors.“Stories of struggle need to be in people’s faces every single day to have a cumulative effect.”
My writing career began during the Great Recession of the aughts, so these stories always gave me a bit of comfort. But now, in 2020, we have a new crisis generation—the high school and college kids graduating into this terrible moment in history where more than 45 million people have filed for unemployment. This new crisis generation has just begun its own journey into a very uncertain future.
The crisis generation of the 1930s endured ten miserable years in American history, but we stopped reading them a long time ago. We need them now, both for a sense of what might be coming in the next few years and for an appreciation of how their activism achieved reforms during another very difficult moment in history.
HR: Why do you think the work of the crisis generation faded away? My sense from the book is that you think it had something to do with what you call America’s “destructive urge to hide failure.” Do you think people stopped reading the crisis generation because their work challenged American optimism and exceptionalism? What lessons can we learn from their failure?
JB: Much of the writing of the 1930s was designed to drive people into action, to provoke a feeling of shared anger and solidarity in the struggle of workers. That writerly sentiment mostly evaporated after the Great Depression because it isn’t fun to read about people failing. In the postwar years, literature turned its focus to the much less messy problems of the middle class. But without stories of failure, we have no models to fall back upon when confronted by our current predicament.
Crisis generation writers can teach us that we are not alone in our economic and political struggle. And once we realize we are not alone, we can head into the streets together. It took many years of protests, marches, and demonstrations to make change in the 1930s, and that only happened because a generation of journalists, writers, and poets told the stories of the unrest and pain around them.
Richard Wright spent years covering civil unrest in Chicago and New York City. Muriel Rukeyser wrote poems about the rise of fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Both writers produced intense and visceral writing that shook people into action throughout the 1930s.
But the writing from that era even fell out of favor with those who were part of the crisis generation. In 1949, in her book The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser describes “the repugnance” that she and other readers felt looking back at writing from the 1930s. From a distance, she felt the writing from the Depression looked like “a rotten sort of begging for attention and sympathy in the name of an art that was supposed to produce action.”
I agree there was a lot of self-pity in the poetry and prose of the Great Depression, but I would argue that is precisely the kind of writing you need in a state of economic collapse. You need to shake readers out of their stupor. If someone can see themselves in your struggle, then they will join you in the streets.
HR: One of the things I find inspirational about the writers in your book is that work in the street organizing for social change. Can you describe how the crisis generation organized? What were they asking for?
JB: The writers of the Great Depression did two very important things, I think.
First of all, they wrote about protests, activism, and injustice. Richard Wright published vivid dispatches that recorded how the Great Depression affected black people in Chicago and Harlem. The poet Muriel Rukeyser joined activists protesting the infamous Scottsboro case in Alabama, fighting to get a group of innocent black teenagers off death row—she would later write a long poem and a New York Times piece about that experience. May Swenson recorded the stories of revolutionary biscuit factory workers and retail employees as they unionized around New York City. They kept these stories of resistance alive in newspapers and magazines every week.
Stories of struggle need to be in people’s faces every single day to have a cumulative effect. That’s one of the ways that the #BlackLivesMatter Global Network has been so impactful, they continue to make stories of protest and resistance visible every single day around the country.
The other thing that the writers of the Great Depression did was organize. All around the country, they rallied and organized the messy and beautiful experiment of the Federal Writers Project, but they also worked together to form a number of major unions that are still alive today. That list includes the American Newspaper Guild (now part of the Communications Workers of America union), the New York Newspaper Guild (that evolved into the NewsGuild of New York), and the Screen Writers Guild (that has grown into the Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of America, East).
HR: Although I know many of these unions survive and do important work, it is also the case that many writers don’t join unions and writers as a group rarely have access to basic labor rights like fair wages, health care, and paid family leave. Why do you think poets, essayists, and novelists haven’t been able to organize and win labor battles today in the same way they did in the 1930s?
JB: American culture has separated authors, poets, and journalists from the working class. Instead of thinking of ourselves as workers supporting a particular publication or covering a specific beat, we live solitary and isolated creative lives, shuttling between gigs without any sense of career continuity. When viewed from the island of a freelance writing career, successful unionization efforts seem distant and unobtainable in our own lives.
We can’t forget that the labor organizations we still have today were all created during a time of great uncertainty and economic free-fall. The writers of the Great Depression faced an equally bleak economic situation, and found some long-term solutions. I love that these organizations are still alive today, and I hope they can grow through the troubled days ahead.
There has been a push for media organization in recent years, with unionization efforts succeeding everywhere from public radio newsrooms to new media companies to newspapers. Most recently, The Los Angeles Times Guild bargained to prevent layoffs during the COVID-19 crisis while the Guild’s Black Caucus has fought to correct racial inequities at the paper. While the overall writing profession is still gig-driven and disorganized, these victories should give us all a bit of hope.
HR: One thing I’ve wondered about the crisis generation and about the people who worked on the Federal Writers Project is how they defined “writer” and if they worked to expand that definition. We are currently in such an exciting moment of reckoning with the limitations of the current landscape of publishing, which has often excluded writers of color and other marginalized voices and paid them less. Do you think there are lessons from the crisis generation that we should consider as we organize around the problems in publishing today?
JB: That is such an important question!
The Federal Writers Project accepted people from vastly different levels of experience, and there were plenty of personality clashes as academics and established authors worked alongside activists and working-class journalists.
For example, the FWP accepted Ralph Ellison, a young man who had been advised by his college dean to study agriculture instead of writing. Some of the more credentialed writers in the FWP literally laughed at his hopes of becoming a writer, because he was a young black man without a history of publication.
During his time in the FWP, Ellison roamed through Harlem, collecting stories, sermons, songs, legends, and life histories for the FWP’s Folklore Project. He said that the experience taught him how “to reject the thoughtless discouragement of those who would impose their own narrow sense of possibility upon my desire to gamble for a broader area in which to define myself.”
In our current writing profession, many opportunities arise through higher education, internships, and small paychecks, narrowing the possibilities available to writers of color. Our current writing market makes it very, very hard for a young Ralph Ellison to find his way.
If we are imagining a 21st-century Federal Writers Project, we should find ways to put hundreds of out-of-work and underemployed writers back to work during our current crisis. But we could easily fill the ranks with people who have already established themselves. A 21st-century New Deal should also widen our definition of who can be a writer and what makes somebody worthy of being a writer. The #OurVoices movement has been pushing for months to surface some of the writers of color denied opportunities and discouraged just like Ellison was in the 1930s. Just like the original FWP, we have a chance to acknowledge and address decades of exclusion and denied opportunities.
HR: If you could design a contemporary Federal Writers Project, what would it look like? And, do you think this is something we should be pushing for?
JB: I don’t see a Federal Writers Project coming anytime soon. The original project began in 1935, when protests were a daily occurrence and Americans had already suffered through five grueling years of the Depression. A solution like the New Deal doesn’t arrive until things get very, very bad and the majority of Americans think that radical measures are required.
A few years from now, workers in all fields will still be coping with the fallout from our current economic problems. We have some hard days ahead, and the demonstrations and marches will grow louder and stronger. Things will get worse, and we may reach a point, as they did in the 1930s, when thousands of Americans fill the streets every week demanding a radical recalibration of a broken social system.
If we reach that moment of decision, we need to put writers back to work in a meaningful way. We have a vast field of possibilities to choose from, with new tools and mediums that the writers of the 1930s never had. We could rebuild the local journalism infrastructure that has been decimated the last few years. We could match young video journalists who floundered in the COVID-19 economy with older print journalists who lost work in the crash.
Whatever those jobs look like, I hope the organizers could take this opportunity to balance out the inequalities that have shaped our current media environment and create a more diverse and inclusive writing economy.
Those are the lessons I hope we can carry forward from the writers of the Great Depression.