The best books about the Works Progress Administration or by WPA authors

Who am I?

While writing Never a Lovely so Real, I fell into many traps. The Federal Writers Project was one of the deepest. Nelson Algren’s time at the project in Chicago saved him from personal and professional ruin. And I became a bit obsessed with the idea that, during the Great Depression, there had been a government program that hired writers by the hundreds and brought them together to work toward a common goal; one that helped shape a literary generation. As I say though, it was a pitfall. Most of what I learned wouldn’t fit in my book, but I’m grateful for all of the writing my research introduced me to.      

I wrote...

Never a Lovely so Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren

By Colin Asher,

Book cover of Never a Lovely so Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren

What is my book about?

Never a Lovely so Real is a biography of Nelson Algren, a brilliant but neglected American writer. During a career that lasted nearly fifty years, he penned several books so fully realized and deeply felt that they remain powerful today. Among his finest are: Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, The Man with the Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, Nonconformity, and A Walk on the Wild Side.

Although Never a Lovely so Real is a literary biography, I’m a touch uncomfortable thinking of myself as a biographer. I never planned to become one and I wrote my book as a work of creative nonfiction. It’s the form that best suits Algren’s story, which includes several lifetimes’ worth of travel, work, thought, fame, romance, and trauma.

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The books I picked & why

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

Colin Asher Why did I love this book?

Several books focused on the Works Progress Administration (WPA), or discreet parts of it, had been published before Borchert’s was released but this is the best of them. I doubt that any other book will ever tell the story of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) quite so well. On one level, it lays out the project’s scope and walks readers through the politics involved with its creation and continued operation. And on another, it explains what the project meant for the writers it employed and how it influenced their work. Every other book on this list was written by an author employed by the project or another part of the WPA; this book will help you understand them as part of a coherent literary moment in American history.     

By Scott Borchert,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice | Winner of the New Deal Book Award

An immersive account of the New Deal project that created state-by-state guidebooks to America, in the midst of the Great Depression—and employed some of the biggest names in American letters

The plan was as idealistic as it was audacious—and utterly unprecedented. Take thousands of hard-up writers and put them to work charting a country on the brink of social and economic collapse, with the aim of producing a series of guidebooks to the then forty-eight states—along with hundreds of other publications dedicated to cities,…

Book cover of Never Come Morning

Colin Asher Why did I love this book?

Never Come Morning is Nelson Algren’s second novel and his first great book.  He wrote it during his time with the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago, between working on a cookbook, a travel guide, and sundry other assignments. In some ways, this book feels of a piece with his first. In some ways, this book feels like a piece with his first. Both books center on alienated young men; both are coming-of-age stories (after a manner). But this novel was a leap forward for Algren. The psychological portrait of its protagonist is fully realized, and the prose sings. Algren had the project to thank for both developments. He used the access his job afforded him to conduct interviews, portions of which made their way into the novel verbatim. And with the projects’ financial support, he was able to revise for months, and months – folding nuance, insight, and poetry into his work with each draft.          

By Nelson Algren,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Never Come Morning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Never Come Morning is unique among the novels of Algren. The author's only romance, the novel concerns Brun Bicek, a would-be pub from Chicago's Northwest side, and Steffi, the woman who shares his dream while living his nightmare. "It is an unusual and brilliant book," said The New York Times. "A bold scribbling upon the wall for comfortable Americans to ponder and digest." This new edition features an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and an interview with Nelson Algren by H.E.F. Donohue.

Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Colin Asher Why did I love this book?

Hurston worked for two different WPA projects – the Federal Theater Project, and the FWP – and she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in between those jobs, while on a fellowship. Reams of critical praise have been devoted to this book, which is often found on lists of the last century’s finest novels. I won’t try to add any deep insights to the extant critical record here, with such limited space. But I will note that there are stylistic commonalities between it and the work of other WPA writers, commonalities which I enjoy and which make me think of them in relation to one another – attention to language and place, and the use of idiom and vernacular. 

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cover design by Harlem renaissance artist Lois Mailou Jones

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds ...

'For me, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD is one of the very greatest American novels of the 20th century. It is so lyrical it should be sentimental; it is so passionate it should be overwrought, but it is instead a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece…

Book cover of Native Son

Colin Asher Why did I love this book?

Native Son is a classic. You should read it because it’s a great work – full stop. But when you do, consider that it’s also an example of what writers were able to accomplish thanks to the support of the WPA. Wright developed his talent by writing portions of his first book while at work in the Chicago FWP office. And after Wright moved to New York and began working on Native Son, Margaret Walker (his friend, and a project employee) mailed him newspaper clippings that he used as source material. Wright borrowed the title for Native Son from Nelson Algren, who had tried (and failed) to use it for his first novel. Wright borrowed the title for Native Son from Nelson Algren, who had tried (and failed) to use it for his first novel. Wright returned the favor by critiquing the manuscript for Algren’s Never Come Morning and writing an introduction to its first edition.  

By Richard Wright,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Native Son as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reissued to mark the 80th anniversary of Native Son's publication - discover Richard Wright's brutal and gripping masterpiece this black history month.

'[Native Son] possesses an artistry, penetration of thought, and sheer emotional power that places it into the front rank of American fiction' Ralph Ellison

Reckless, angry and adrift, Bigger Thomas has grown up trapped in a life of poverty in the slums of Chicago. But a job with the affluent Dalton family provides the setting for a catastrophic collision between his world and theirs. Hunted by citizen and police alike, and baited by prejudiced officials, Bigger finds himself…

Book cover of The Golden Apples

Colin Asher Why did I love this book?

Welty was never employed by the WPA as a creative writer, per se. She was a publicity agent, and a very young one. She was hired on to the project in her early twenties, not long after finishing college, and she spent her tenure traveling in the south, interviewing people, and taking photos. And the seven stories in The Golden Apples, to me, read like a natural outgrowth of that experience – attentive to place and mores, and full of imagery. Its characters have lips stained by blackberries and they smell of “orphan-starch;” their eyelashes look like “flopping black butterflies.” They are closely observed and intimately rendered – the creations of an artist who, at the very dawn of her career, was encouraged to go out into the world, exploring, observing, recording.    

By Eudora Welty,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Golden Apples as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1949, THE GOLDEN APPLES is an acutely observed, richly atmospheric portrayal of small town life in Morgana, Mississippi. There's Snowdie, who has to bring up her twin boys alone after her husband, King Maclain, disappears one day, discarding his hat on the banks of the Big Black. There's Loch Morrison, convalescing with malaria, who watches from his bedroom window as wayward Virgie Rainey meets a sailor in the vacant house opposite. Meanwhile, Miss Eckhart the piano teacher, grieving the loss of her most promising pupil, tries her hand at arson.

Eudora Welty has a fine ear for…

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Book cover of At What Cost, Silence?

Karen Lynne Klink Author Of At What Cost, Silence?

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What is my book about?

Secrets, misunderstandings, and a plethora of family conflicts abound in this historical novel set along the Brazos River in antebellum Washington County, East Texas.

It is a compelling story of two neighboring plantation families and a few of the enslaved people who serve them. These two plantations are a microcosm of a country on the brink of war, encompassing a variety of issues: love and friendship between men, relationships between fathers and sons, sibling rivalry, slavery, and the position of women in society.

At What Cost, Silence?

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What is this book about?

Adrien Villere suspects he is not like other boys. For years, he desperately locks away his feelings and fears-but eventually, tragedy and loss drive him to seeking solace from his mentor, a young neighbor Jacob Hart. Jacob's betrayal of Adrien's trust, however, results in secret abuse, setting off a chain of actions from which neither Adrien's wise sister, Bernadette, nor his closest friend, Isaac, can turn him.

At What Cost, Silence presents two contrasting plantation families in a society where strict rules of belief and behavior are clear, and public opinion can shape an entire life. Centerstage are the Villeres,…

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