The best books about the New Deal’s unprecedented and often messy contributions to the arts

Scott Borchert Author Of Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America
By Scott Borchert

Who am I?

My great uncle was an eccentric book collector who lived in an old, rambling house stuffed floor-to-ceiling with thousands and thousands of books. After he died, I inherited a tiny portion of his collection: a set of state guidebooks from the 1930s and 40s. These were the American Guides created by the Federal Writers’ Project, the New Deal program that put jobless writers to work during the Great Depression. I dipped into these weird, rich, fascinating books, and I was hooked immediately. Some years later, I quit my job in publishing to research and write my own account of the FWP’s unlikely rise and lamentable fall, Republic of Detours

I wrote...

Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

By Scott Borchert,

Book cover of Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

What is my book about?

Republic of Detours tells the remarkable story of the Federal Writers’ Project, a division of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration founded in 1935 to employ jobless writers during the Great Depression. The FWP took up the lofty goal of rediscovering America in words and soon found itself embroiled in the day’s most heated arguments regarding radical politics, racial inclusion, and the purpose of writing—forcing it to reckon with the promises and failures of both the New Deal and the American experiment itself. Borchert delves into the experiences of the federal writers as they compiled state guidebooks, oral histories, and more, and traces the FWP from its optimistic early days to its dismemberment by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 

The books I picked & why

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Posters for the People: The Art of the WPA

By Ennis Carter,

Book cover of Posters for the People: The Art of the WPA

Why this book?

If you want to learn about the New Deal’s contributions to the arts, there’s no better place to begin than with the art itself. This lavish book—I keep it displayed on my coffee table—collects hundreds of color posters created by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which put unemployed artists and designers to work during the Depression. It’s no wonder that many of these posters, mostly silkscreen, have been cherished by collectors for years: they’re beautifully designed, often quite striking, and sometimes funny. And like most of the WPA’s cultural endeavors, they were meant to serve the public good. Flip through this book and you’ll find advertisements for national parks, a reminder to brush your teeth, and a warning to always report dog bites!  

Lamps at High Noon

By Jack S. Balch,

Book cover of Lamps at High Noon

Why this book?

When I was researching my book, I spent hours and hours in the National Archives and the Library of Congress, poring over the records of the Federal Writers’ Project. But I turned up few documents that offered as much insight into the FWP as this absorbing novel from 1941. Its author, Jack Balch, worked for the project in Missouri—one of the most dysfunctional and tumultuous outposts anywhere in the country. His thinly fictionalized account describes how the project’s idealistic workers came up against the machinations of a local political machine and, eventually, went out on strike. Balch’s memories, and his anger, are still fresh as he takes stock of both the FWP’s promise and the obstacles it faced in carrying out its mission. 

Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times

By Susan Quinn,

Book cover of Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times

Why this book?

When Harry Hopkins, the head of the WPA, needed someone to run the Federal Theater Project, he made a bold choice: Hallie Flanagan, a visionary director, dramatist, and critic. Flanagan is at the center of Furious Improvisation, Quinn’s lively and deeply researched history of the FTP. Quinn’s propulsive narrative never flags, even as she showcases the project’s many triumphs, such as the “Living Newspaper” productions dramatizing current events, or Orson Welles’s so-called “voodoo Macbethfeaturing Black actors. But these productions and others were highly controversial, and the project was eventually attacked by the House Un-American Activities Committee. When a defiant Flanagan told the committee that she was fighting against the “un-American inactivity” imposed by the Depression, they ignored her—but this book stands as a monument to her achievements.   

Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings From the Federal Writers' Project by Zora Neale Hurston

By Pamela Bordelon,

Book cover of Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings From the Federal Writers' Project by Zora Neale Hurston

Why this book?

Today, most people know Zora Neale Hurston as a novelist, thanks to her classic Their Eyes Were Watching God. But she was also an accomplished folklorist, anthropologist, playwright, and essayist. And yet, by the late 1930s, she was broke, and she found work with both the Federal Theater Project and Federal Writers’ Project. This book collects Hurston’s writing for the FWP in her home state of Florida, along with an incisive essay by Pamela Bordelon. The sheer variety of material on display here wasn’t unusual for the FWP: you’ll find essayistic meditations on folklife and art, collections of tall tales and children’s songs, and sketches of labor in the turpentine camps and citrus groves—as well as a chilling report on a racist massacre in Ocoee. 

Documentary Expression and Thirties America

By William Stott,

Book cover of Documentary Expression and Thirties America

Why this book?

This is a scholarly work, but don’t let the unassuming title fool you: Stott’s writing is crisp, elegant, and highly readable, and his insights are crucial to any understanding of the New Deal’s place in American culture. He covers the Roosevelt administration’s cultural undertakings—from the WPA projects to Farm Security Administration photographers to FDR’s own political style and “documentary imagination”—but his real subject is the broader documentary impulse that was expressed so forcefully and variously during the 1930s. This impulse was hardly confined to the federal government’s interventions in the arts. The connections he draws between the New Deal and, say, Martha Graham’s dance productions, or James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, are illuminating and convincing. 

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