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...

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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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!  

By Ennis Carter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Posters for the People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This lavish coffee-table book highlights 500 of the best posters produced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during America's 1930s and 1940s. The WPA employed hundreds of out-of-work artists to raise awareness about public issues and civic life in the United States. These posters provide a snapshot of life (and graphic design) during the Great Depression and offer timeless messages about the merits of hard work, good parenting, a clean house, and healthy personal hygiene. "Posters for the People" includes many 'new' images never before published in book form. Full of beautifully reproduced images and fascinating text about a decisive…

Lamps at High Noon

By Jack S. Balch,

Book cover of Lamps at High Noon

Why did I love 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. 

By Jack S. Balch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lamps at High Noon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Federal Arts Projects were created by FDR in the summer of 1935. A year later, a handful of writers employed in the St. Louis office of the Missouri Writers' Project, including Jack Balch, went out on strike. Lamps at High Noon is the only novel about this strike and the only one to treat comprehensively any aspect of the Federal Writers' Project, whose participants included some of the country's most accomplished and promising authors.

Charlie Gest, the wide-eyed and well-intentioned protagonist of the novel, confronts firsthand the project's sometimes underhanded efforts to monitor the political views of its writers.…

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

Why did I love 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.   

By Susan Quinn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Furious Improvisation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, a daring 5-foot dynamo, the Federal Theater Project managed to turn a WPA relief program into a platform for some of the most cutting-edge theater of its time. This unique experiment by the US government in support of the arts electrified audiences with exciting, controversial productions, created by some of the greatest figures in 20th century American arts — including Orson Welles, John Houseman and Sinclair Lewis. Plays like Voodoo Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock stirred up politicians by defying segregation and putting the spotlight on the inequities that led to the Great…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Pamela Bordelon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Go Gator and Muddy the Water as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Pamala Bordelon was researching a work on the Florida Federal Writers Project, she discovered writings in the collection that were unmistakably from the hand of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Over half of the works included here have not been published or are only available in the Library of America edition of Hurston's works. As Hurston's fans know, all of her novels draw upon her deep interest in folklore, particularly from her home state of Florida. Here we see the roots of that work, from the wonderful folktale of the monstrous alligator…

Book cover of Documentary Expression and Thirties America

Why did I love 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. 

By William Stott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Documentary Expression and Thirties America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A comprehensive inquiry into the attitudes and ambitions that characterized the documentary impulse of the thirties. The subject is a large one, for it embraces (among much else) radical journalism, academic sociology, the esthetics of photography, Government relief programs, radio broadcasting, the literature of social work, the rhetoric of political persuasion, and the effect of all these on the traditional arts of literature, painting, theater and dance. The great merit of Mr. Stott's study lies precisely in its wide-ranging view of this complex terrain."-Hilton Kramer, New York Times Book Review

"[Scott] might be called the Aristotle of documentary. No one…

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