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

Colin Asher Author Of Never a Lovely so Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren
By Colin Asher

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.

The books I picked & why

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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

Why 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.     

Never Come Morning

By Nelson Algren,

Book cover of Never Come Morning

Why 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.          

Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Why 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. 

Native Son

By Richard Wright,

Book cover of Native Son

Why 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.  

The Golden Apples

By Eudora Welty,

Book cover of The Golden Apples

Why 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.    

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