Date of Degree

2-2015

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor(s)

Morris Dickstein

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Literature | American Studies | Literature in English, North America

Keywords

Depression, Federal Writers' Project, Nelson Algren, Postwar, Ralph Ellison, Social Realism

Abstract

Established by President Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal, the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) put thousands of unemployed professionals to work documenting American life during the Depression. Federal writers--many of whom would become famous, including Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Dorothy West--collected reams of oral histories and folklore, and produced hundreds of guides to cities and states across the country. Yet, despite both the Project's extraordinary volume of writing and its unprecedented support for writers, few critics have examined it from a literary perspective. Instead, the FWP has been almost exclusively in the possession of historians who have rightly perceived its unique place in Depression-era history. This dissertation attempts to fill this critical void by investigating the FWP's contributions to American writing--African American writing, in particular--in the postwar era and beyond. Drawing on archival documents, critical histories, and the work of select FWP writers, I explore how this relief program helped to pioneer a new documentary form that fused literary techniques with anthropological practices in an effort to showcase the unique voices of marginalized Americans. No longer sociological specimens or symbolic agents for reform, these subjects became empowered "selves," in part because of the FWP's efforts to create a grassroots literary methodology that privileged self-expression and the first-person perspective. Scholars have traditionally framed the FWP as a Depression-era initiative whose relevance died alongside the political and social currents that helped produce it. However, I contend that by aiming their documentary lenses so precisely on individuals and their unique voices, FWP writers ultimately eschewed the social realism of 1930s culture in favor of themes surrounding personal identity and the psychological dimensions of social engagement.

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