How well do we know our country? Whom do we include when we use the
word "American"? These are not just contemporary issues but
recurring questions Americans have asked themselves throughout
their history--and questions that were addressed when, in 1935, the
Roosevelt administration created the Federal Writers' Project (FWP)
under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. Although the
immediate context of the FWP was work relief, national FWP
officials developed programs that spoke to much larger and
longer-standing debates over the nature of American identity and
culture and the very definition of who was an American.
Hirsch reviews the founding of the FWP and the significance of its
series, considering the choices made by
administrators who wanted to celebrate diversity as a positive
aspect of American cultural identity. In his exploration of the
FWP's other writings, Hirsch discusses the project's pioneering use
of oral history in interviews with ordinary southerners, ex-slaves,
ethnic minorities, and industrial workers. He also examines
congressional critics of the FWP vision; the occasional opposition
of local Federal Writers, especially in the South; and how the
FWP's vision changed in response to the challenge of World War II.
In the course of this study, Hirsch raises thought-provoking
questions about the relationships between diversity and unity,
government and culture, and, ultimately, culture and democracy.