Under the title “Federal One,” Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration set up the Federal Art Project, the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Music Project, the Historical Records Survey, and the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). The last is among the most fondly remembered WPA programs because of its often-colorful American Guide Series. The task of each state branch of the FWP was to contribute a newly researched guidebook to its state and to publish separately whatever related material seemed appropriate. In the words of Harry L. Hopkins, the WPA’s director, the project was”to present to the American people a portrait of America its history, folklore, scenery, cultural backgrounds, social and economic trends, and racial factors.” Such is the nostalgia for those times that the state guides have become collector’s items. Even the editions reprinted after World War II, whether to promote tourism or exploit interest in the guides, are collectible.
Popular history has expunged from memory the project’s reality of wasteful spending, inefficient bureaucracy, and partisan politics. Historian Petra Schindler-Carter, who is sympathetic to the FWP, admits that romanticism has distorted the picture. Many of the accounts she read in her research “erect an image of the FWP as an administrative chaos constantly careening towards dissolution.” The project “had to overcome countless internal and external hardships to produce the American Guide Series.” Whereas, in the popular imagination, “the FWP also tends to be reduced to the big city offices of New York and Chicago where the small band of later famous writers like Richard Wright, John Cheever, and Saul Bellow congregated . . . the vast majority of the FWP experience was vastly different from the commonly held view of a bohemian confusion.” There was confusion, but it was caused by bureaucracy, not bohemianism.
The FWP experience left many of its participants frustrated and disillusioned, including a writer named Vardis Fisher. As he conscientiously tried to accomplish the job assigned him as director of the Idaho FWP, his superiors hindered and delayed his efforts, bedeviled him with ludicrous directives, and gave him a lesson in how government programs not only waste money and energy but undermine their own goals.
Fisher was born in 1895 in eastern Idaho and grew up in the Antelope Hills area where people did not know that the frontier was supposed to have closed. He came from a long line of pioneers so independent that they barely lived within the law. (His father and uncle never bought hunting licenses because they refused to acknowledge laws that had not existed when they were young.) Fisher and his younger brother were taught at home during their early years and later attended distant public schools where they were outcasts because of their ragged clothes; but there was nothing impoverished about the Fisher boys’ minds; each went on to earn a Ph.D.
After stateside military service during World War I, Fisher flirted with socialism, but, while he did not immediately abandon the notion that government intervention might sometimes be appropriate, he soon recognized radical socialism to be an illusory ideology. He later wrote:
The communist intellectual, as I have observed him, if he is not a cynical opportunist, is an evasive emotionally immature idealist, full to his gullet with loneliness, impractical idealism, wishful thinking, and impatience with the existing order. He really believes – and this,· bort) of ignorance, is his fatal weakness and his vice – that if he” were in a position of power, entrusted with the greatest happiness of the greatest number, he would be wise, able and incorruptible. He scornfully dismisses Lord Acton’s famous statement that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. His blind self-love, his narcissistic self-indulgence, and his fanatical talent for converting truth into error in the service of his ends, are possibly the worst that can be said about him.
In 1935 Fisher was a poet and novelist with six published books to his credit, but he made no more than $800 a year from them. Fisher had recently lost a teaching job at the University of Montana at Missoula and lived with his wife and two· sons on his parents’ Idaho ranch and was close to
How could professional writers become civil servants, and if this was make-work for unemployed writers, what was the sense of it in Idaho?
being a subsistence farmer. In spite of his family’s poverty, Fisher had not contemplated accepting help from the government until he received an unexpected telegram from Washington, D.C., offering him the job of Idaho FWP director.
Bernard DeVoto later wrote that “only a small fraction” of FWP employees were “even in·the humblest sense, genuine writers.” This was true even of some of the FWP’s state directors who were, after all, political appointees. Fisher was somewhat unusual in being both a writer and unemployed. Throughout the WPA, most people took whatever work was available whether it suited them or not, and this was especially true on the Writers’ Project. But reality did not keep proponents of the FWP from pretending that everyone on the FWP was a writer. In a Jan. 4, 1936, letter to the Saturday Review of Literature, the FWP’s director, Henry G. Alsberg, proclaimed, “For the first time in the history of the United States writers are working for the government as writers.” Neither did the facts keep them from holding out great expectations for the brave new partnership between the government and the artist. Historian Ronald W. Taber says that Hopkins’ assistant, Jacob Baker, who is credited with suggesting a relief project for writers, “maintained that these writers could produce material of permanent value for the nation” and that”such a cultural project would nurture literary talent which might otherwise grow stale during depression times.” Katherine Kellock, a co-creator of the FWP, hoped that the government would “be fathering and producing the masterpieces – dramas, pictures, novels, operas, epic poems – a crude commercial world had scorned.” The reality, of course, was that FWP employees worked within a bureaucracy. Most of them were nonwriting clerks and researchers. If they wrote anything it was only what they were told to, and only about their state or locality.
Finding the right state· directors for the FWP was a continuing problem, and one that held back the progress of some state branches. When Harold G. Merriam was appointed state director of the Montana Writers’ Project”in 1935, he was asked whether he could recommend any suitable writers to be directors of other states. As head of the Department of English at the University of Montana at Missoula, it was Merriam who had recently let Fisher go. Believing him to be in financial straits, Merriam decided to send a job his way.
“Out of the blue,” Fisher wrote more· than two· decades later in Orphans in Gethsemane, “there came a messenger from the telegraph·office twenty miles distant.” The telegram read:
THE WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION IS ESTABLISHING WRITERS PROJECTS IN ALL THE FORTY-EIGHT STATES EACH UNDER A STATE DIRECTOR STOP WILL YOU ACCEPT THE POSITION AS DIRECTOR FOR IDAHO STOP CAN OFFER SALARY OF TWENTY SIX HUNDRED STOP PLEASE WIRE COLLECT STOP DATA AND LETTER FOLLOW
ASSOCIATE NATIONAL DIRECTOR ROBERT BINGHAM
The fictional “Robert Bingham” appears to stand in for George Cronyn, assistant national director of the FWP. (I will try to distinguish between Fisher’s novel and what a historian and a biographer have confirmed. While much of what takes place in Orphans in Gethsemane corresponds to history, I have noted some minor discrepancies and am wary that dramatic license might lurk even where I least expect it.)
In the novel, Fisher’s alter ego, Vridar (pronounced Freeder) Hunter, stares at the telegram wondering whether they have completely lost t~eir minds in Washington, D.C. How could professional writers become civil servants, and if this was.make-work for unemployed writers, what was the sense of it in Idaho? “There aren’t [but] three writers in Idaho and the other two don’t need jobs,” the novel’s protagonist says to his wife. (“Idaho has no unemployed writers,”
Katherine Kellock hoped that the government would “be fathering and producing the masterpieces – poems – dramas, pictures, novels, operas, epic a crude commercial world had scorned.
the real-life Fisher stated flatly in a letter to Washington, D.C.) Looking more closely at the telegram, Hunter says, “Forty-six words, and they could easily have cut ten.” He also notes that the type of telegram Bingham sent cost the taxpayer more than necessary.
Though Hunter is skeptical, he decides that he cannot turn down any. job offer when he has a family to support. Besides, he is curious to see the leviathan from the inside. While he thinks it over, another telegram arrives “which with profuse apologies said that it was impossible to offer a salary of more than twenty-three hundred.” (This, in fact, was Fisher’s annual salary as director of the Idaho branch of the FWP. For the sake of comparison, Fisher’s assistant professor’s salary from New York University in 1929 had been $1,800.) Hunter muses that he had better hurry and take the job. “Tomorrow, there will be a third wire, still longer, say- ing that the salary offer is two thousand. I begin to understand that one of the best places to observe a man is in the telegraph office when he is spending someone else’s money.”
Fisher, like his fictional protagonist, vowed that he would take the job only if he could actually do what he was paid to do. He promised himself – as he would later promise others – that the Idaho Writers’ Project would not become a boondoggle. He did not waste the taxpayers’ money in replying to Cronyn. On Oct. 2, 1935, he sent a telegram collect:
I ACCEPT VARDIS FISHER
“Merriam saw the job as a way for Fisher to pick up some easy money,” says Fisher’s biographer, Tim Woodward, but Fisher, in his novel, goes further, ascribing a telegram to “Professor Elmer T. Merrick” that advises, “Don’t take it seriously … It is not intended that we should achieve anything but only that we should put the jobless to work so they will vote for Roosevelt.” Other WPA minions tell Hunter much the same thing. Indeed, the WP A wanted its project directors to hire Democrats before they hired Republicans or independents. (The U.S. Senate’s Committee on Campaign Expenditures investigated the 1938 midterm elections in four states and found a pattern of WP A officials pressuring workers to support the Democratic party and its candidates.) Hunter is not explicitly penalized for voting Republican while working for the WPA, but that might have been different in a state with a strong Republican party.
Fisher reported to the office of J. L. Hood, the state WP A administrator in Boise, on Oct. 25, 1935. Jacob Baker, the WPA administrator who was then in charge of Federal One, had informed Hood of Fisher’s coming, but Hood “had no idea what Fisher was supposed to accomplish.” If his novel is any guide, Fisher and Hood (renamed “Roger Wood”) took an almost instant dislike to each other. The same was to be true of Fisher’s meetings with some other WPA officials. By his own description, he was still “standing around in the halls looking like a fellow hunting for a job” in early November. Fisher also said that he was forced to make his office in “a packing box in the hallway,” though it is not clear whether this was during the “standing around” period or whether it refers to the little one-room office Fisher was given before the end of the year.
Somehow, perhaps through wishful thinking, Hood was under the impression that Fisher’s project would last only six months and employ only ten people. In December, Fisher complained to FWP director Alsberg that “some persons of importance in the WP A set-up here have said my project was only a gesture and would collapse in a month” and that he was facing contempt” from certain sources within the WPA.” I presume that these complaints refer not only to Hood but also to the man in charge of the labor pool (called 1/ Archie J. Reese” in the novel). Fisher’s letter relates the last straw: “[A] man furiously tells me that my progress is to be penalized by the incompetence within his department.” Fisher” put pressure on Washington, D.C., until he was given a decent office and a good secretary, but his main problem remained finding and keeping competent workers.
Initially, he made do by choosing among unemployed truck drivers, grocery clerks, blacksmiths, dry cleaners, and a lawyer, but the paperwork on new hires for the Writers’ Project was given the lowest priority and took weeks. Fisher complained until the interval was moved up to a few days. WP A headquarters mandated new hires by looking at unemployment statistics. The higher the unemployment rate, the more employees the state director had to hire from relief rolls. Because Fisher’s project was the newest one making demands on the WPA job pool, he was getting employees that other projects did not want. Fisher suggests in his novel that some of the people he was given to work with were unemployed for personal and psychological reasons rather than because of a poor job market. (One urinates on the floor in the middle of the office.)
Fisher was among the lowest paid state directors, with (according to his novel) the second-lowest budget. Idaho FWP workers not only received less than FWP workers in more urbanized states, but FWP wages were the lowest in the WPA – on average, $63 a month. When the local economy improved, Fisher’s best workers left for better-paying jobs.
Fisher needed genuine help. He wound up doing nearly all of the writing and most of the research, which involved
Alsberg answered a House inquiry into why the FWP had produced only one guide after nearly two years: “The tour form is a difficult form. It is like a sonnet. “
driving throughout Idaho. His most valued employees were a secretary, a stenographer, a cartographer, and a former schoolteacher who was able to do well at research tasks. All four were hired from the open job market. Fisher was allowed to hire only one competent employee from the open market – paid as much as $100 a month – for every ten useless ones hired from relief. Early in his tenure, Fisher received a telegram, that read, “Put on ten more writers. In two weeks, put on ten more.” “I’m sitting right in the middle of one of the swellest ironies life ever threw my way,” he wrote to Cronyn. “It’s profanity and hair-pulling and many a sardonic chuckle.” He soon wrote to Alsberg, begging him not to require the Idaho FWP to increase its staff size.
Fisher sent drafts of material to be included in the guide- book to headquarters as early as the spring and summer of 1936. The FWP’s official anticipation of great art was belied by less lofty actual expectations. When Fisher submitted a particularly lyrical description of the Salmon River, Alsberg wrote back, “To be quite frank, I didn’t expect any real literature from our Directors…. I passed [your piece] along to the higher-ups, so they could see the quality of work being
turned out in Idaho.” Cronyn wrote to Fisher, “In spite of the many handicaps you have had in your organization and editorial work, yours is the only body of State Editorial Copy which we have retained as being suitable for Central editing. The copies from other states so far have not been in any condition to edit here. I think, therefore, you are to be congratulated on making a fine effort in the face of difficulties.”
This flattery, in all probability, had the ulterior motive of lulling Fisher into complacency. The FWP was first amused and then alarmed by Fisher’s intention to publish Idaho’s guidebook before any other. His superiors had their own timetable for publication of the American Guide Series, and Idaho did not figure so prominently in it. The FWP originally planned to stall all the state directors until Washington, D.C. had published the first guide. In their minds, Fisher was the greatest threat to this scheme, although the actual problem was that the D.C. guide was barely begun while Fisher was sending in suitable material.
Whether or not they were deliberate delaying tactics, Fisher received countless communications from headquar-
State directors like Fisher were expected to sit around collecting their paychecks until they received the go ahead to publish.
ters telling him to conform to complicated guidelines that prevented early publication. The FWP wanted all of the state guidebooks to be uniform in many details of format, but memoranda sent to the state directors were contradictory and likely to be rescinded shortly after being issued. Many directives were completely unworkable. At one point, headquarters insisted that each of the guides begin describing “tours” of their state in the north and work their way south, which happened to be impractical for a tour of Idaho because most of the traffic in the state flowed from south to north and, accordingly, the forestry service had placed all of their signs so that they only faced travelers coming from the south.
“I don’t like all this bewilderment of orders that rescind orders or contradict orders,” Fisher complained to Cronyn. “The discrepancies in the various instructions we have received leave our finance administrator throwing up his hands. What I want is explicit and irrevocable orders to go ahead as I was first instructed to or an invitation to resign.” Fisher got neither. Nor were such arbitrary directives aimed at Fisher alone. Taber quotes a verse from a California FWP writer:
I think that I have never tried
A job as painful as the guide,
A guide which changes every day
Because our betters feel that way.
Alsberg dismissed Fisher’s complaints, saying that the state guides must be uniform without any exceptions. He would later answer a House inquiry into why the FWP had produced only one guide after nearly two years: “The tour form is a difficult form. It is like a sonnet.” This is as if the tour form’s complexity, having been set for four centuries, was beyond his control.
Editors at the national.office even wanted to change the text of the Idaho guide in ways that were factually incorrect. They told Fisher that the Grand Teton National Park is in Idaho (it is entirely in Wyoming). Alsberg told Fisher that there could be no “unusual natural bridge” near Arco, Idaho because “consultants in Washington [D.C.] know nothing of the bridge east of Arco and doubt that it can be particularly unusual inasmuch as they were unable to find anything on its existence.” Fisher answered, “Well let the gentlemen try again. The bridge, on the contrary, is one of the most remarkable natural phenomenon in the state and we shall have a photograph of it in the Guide – if we have a Guide.”
Fisher was not only hectored about style and geographical facts. He was censored when he wrote about union violence in Idaho 30 years earlier. Headquarters worried that such material might be construed as being unfavorable to labor unions. Yet the FWP let the Massachusetts guide include a leftist account of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, which got the FWP in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee and led Alsberg to set up an official system of censorship. Fisher was also told that he could not include pictures of Idaho potatoes in his state’s guide because that might be regarded as excessive boosterism.
While FWP higher-ups viewed Fisher as oppositional, he was actually a team player when a task contributed to the accomplishment of the project’s goals. Alsberg and Fisher both contacted Idaho Gov. C. Ben Ross, who asked the state’s forest supervisors to provide technical help and tourist information to the Writers’ Project. In spite of Republican opposition to the WPA and FWP, Fisher, a political independent who understood their skepticism all too well, succeeded in reassuring many that he did not intend to let the Idaho Writers’ Project become a boondoggle. He found it most effective to appeal to state and regional pride against the arrogant East by making his disagreements with headquarters known to local politicians, newspaper editors, and chambers of commerce so that .they could send their own complaints to Alsberg. This ultimately served the purpose of the FWP however, by turning principled opposition to spending any tax money at all on the project into opposition
“Don’t take it seriously. It is not intended that we should achieve anything but only that we should put the jobless to work so they will vote for Roosevelt. “
to the mismanagement of the project from Washington, D.C. In enlisting the help of skeptics, Fisher must have made many of them forget about their principled objections to the whole project and imagine themselves to be helping to eliminate government waste. By August of 1936, Fisher could report that”not even the most invincible Republicans of this state believe that this project has been one of boondoggling.”
Although he may have rationalized his participation in the federal bureaucracy by focusing on the goal of actual, timely publication of a guide, Fisher’s seduction by the leviathan was hardly complete or painless. In the novel, he tells a story that, although not confirmed in my nonfiction sources, is included here because so much else that is outrageous in the novel turns out to be true. In mid-1936, “Maxwell Cahan,” the fictional Alsberg, calls all of the directors to a conference in Salt Lake City. The novel’s Idaho director writes a letter to his wife from Utah:
What a damned innocent naIve thickwitted hillbilly I am! I traveled by the cheapest means; ate sandwiches on the train; checked in at a second-rate hotel, all to save public funds; and though I was not able to verify this I was told (1) that the California directors (two short fat fellows built like barrels) came by special plane; (2) that after two or three days of it they quit in disgust and chartered a plane to fly home (I’d like to see their offices down there!); (3) that most of the directors, some with entourage, demanded only the best accommodations (I can say this, that I was invited to one of the parties and saw some of the directors so stinking drunk that they didn’t know whether they were in Zion or Stalin’s Utopia). A rumor went around that our boss himself got bored with Mormon food and took off for San Francisco. I know this, that he vanished; that a full-dress meeting was called for ten one morning and the boss was not there, nor did any of us see him again before the conference adjourned. I guess I was the only one in the whole damned outfit who misunderstood the purpose of Mr. Harry Hopkins.
Thousands of dollars were absolutely squandered, while so-called public servants drank and wenched and raised hell. Not a single iota of good was accomplished – and at last I have got it into my simple Antelope Hills head that accomplishment was no part of the purpose. The boys and girls just got together at public expense – and I stood around and watched them, who only three or four years ago actually wondered if Communism might be a good thing!
The moment is an epiphany for Hunter:
Filled with disgust, shame, and anger he returned to Idaho, believing that his disillusionment was now complete. Those who founded the American system, he told himself, had not been foolish idealists like him, but wise men, not cynical but knowing; not without faith in the future of mankind, but without faith in any man when given too much power. They had known, even more than Lord Acton was to know later, that absolute power corrupted. Looking back across the empires that had risen and fallen, they had known that the power to tax was the power to destroy. They had known that restless itch in most people to manage the affairs of other people – and their inordinate vanity – their incredible capacity for self-deception. These things he told himself, riding back on the bus.
Fisher’s disillusionment never led him to abandon his original promise to publish a guide to Idaho with all due speed. Such ambition was rare in the FWP. Well over a year after the beginning of the FWP, only a tiny bit of local and no statewide material had been published. On Sept. 23, 1936, Fisher told Alsberg’s office that Caxton Printers, under the management of J.H. Gipson, would publish Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture by Jan. 2, 1937. Alsberg told Fisher to go ahead, but the Washington, D.t. staff spent the next three months quibbling and demanding text revisions. Toward the end of October, Fisher received harassing telegrams and letters from Alsberg and Cronyn questioning the suggested price of the guide and demanding 439 revisions of the tour of the state; threatening to withhold authorization for publication if their demands were not met. By this time, Fisher fully understood that Alsberg wanted the District of Columbia to produce the first guidebook, followed by the “most important” states. State directors like Fisher were expected to sit around collecting their paychecks until they received the go-ahead to publish. This offended his work ethic, and he reiterated his pledge to produce a guide for the state of Idaho before any other state.
Alsberg put Cronyn on a train for Boise to tell Fisher and Gipson face-to-face that they were not to publish until they had made “two thousand changes, corrections, and additions.” Fisher picked up Cronyn at the train station on Nov. 7. The story in Orphans in Gethsemane, the gist of which Fisher later confirmed to be true, has Hunter and “Reuben T. Rhode” (Gipson) drink whiskey-colored water while “Bingham” downs Rhode’s best whiskey. In perhaps the funniest scene in the novel, an inebriated Bingham reviews photographs intended for inclusion in the guide, rejecting nearly everyone by sailing it across Rhode’s dining room. The two Idahoans humor all of Bingham’s demands and then load him onto the midnight train for D.C.
Hunter’s secretary asks him the next day:
“What’ll he think when he sobers up?”
“He may decide he’s not quite the man of destiny he thought he was.
“What’ll Harry Hopkins do?”
“He’s too busy trying to make the Social Register to do anything.”
Once back in the nation’s capital, Cronyn did send further instructions. He wanted Fisher to make half of one tour north to south and the other half south to north. Kellock, the
The national office told Fisher that the Grand Teton National Park is in Idaho and that there could be no “unusual natural bridge” near Arco, Idaho.
project editor who dreamed of the government becoming the “unfailing patron” of “masterpieces,” continued to issue numerous tour-form revisions of her own (though she might have been sending hers to all of the state directors, not just to Fisher). Without paying any further attention to these bureaucratic absurdities, Fisher and Gipson went ahead with the Idaho guide. It was published – complete with the forbidden pictures of potatoes – in January 1937, and Fisher had personally written 374 of its 431 pages.
Alsberg and his staff changed their tune once the book was published, praising Fisher and his work. Naturally, Alsberg was willing to shoulder his share of credit, too. Two principle motives for Alsberg’s embrace of the insubordinate Idaho director soon became obvious. Sen. Pope had warned Alsberg that it was “paramount” that the FWP publish a guide by the time Congress met in January 1937. Remarkably, it seems that it was not until Congress actually began asking questions about what the FWP was up to that Aisberg took Pope’s warning seriously. Suddenly he needed the Idaho guide, the only evidence he had that the American Guide Series might fulfill its goal. Alsberg had to put the best face on Fisher’s insubordination when literary critics began praising the Idaho guide in the leading newspapers and magazines. Bernard DeVoto, in the Saturday Review of Literature, called it “an unalloyed triumph.” Bruce Catton declared that not only the FWP but the WPA had “justified itself abundantly… Less than $15,000 was spent on the book from first to last. … [N]ot merely a comprehensive and readable guide to the state of Idaho …; it is actually a bit of literature, worth reading for its own sake and reflecting vast credit on everybody concerned.” Someone fed Catton incomplete numbers; Taber says that the cost of the Idaho guide was well in excess of $16,000. (He also estimates that the FWP spent a total of more than $27 million and that the average state guide cost $100,000 to produce.)
Alsberg made sure that copies of the guide were sent to’ all of the state directors. He even circulated a four-page summary of the largely’positive press reviews; but he also complained to a WP A superior, ” . . . Fisher, who is a well-known novelist, was rather obstinate in his insistence on doing
Fisher must have made many of them forget about their principled objections to the whole project and imagine themselves to be helping to eliminate government waste.
things his own way – in fact, we had a constant struggle with him to make him adhere, even to the extent he has, to the prescribed forms.” In the novel, Hunter visits D.C. and learns that around the national .headquarters “Cahan” (Alsberg) calls him “my bad boy.”
Alsberg let Fisher stay on long enough to prepare two more books, Idaho Encyclopedia (1938) and Idaho Lore (1939), for publication. Then he promoted Fisher to director for the Rocky Mountain Region. Essentially, this thankless position required Fisher to do other state directors’ work for them (that is, where there were active state directors) but left him with no say as to how or whether any of the material would be published. In Fisher’s novel, much of Hunter’s research notes and writing for other states ends up in the trash.
Fisher resigned in 1939. That same year the WPA, including Federal One, lost much of its funding. Many of its responsibilities were transferred to other agencies. The Theater Project was dismantled altogether. The Works Progress Administration and Federal Writers’ Project underwent name changes, becoming, respectively, the Work Projects Administration and the Federal Writers’ Program. Alsberg also left his position as director of the FWP in 1939. (Harry Hopkins had already left the WPA in 1938 to become Secretary of Commerce.) Under Fisher’s successor, the Idaho Writers’ Program floundered until 1940 when it finally died. Meanwhile, other state Writers’ Programs continued with partial local funding until June 1943 when the WP A officially ended.
A few state FWPs went on after 1943 with strictly local, sometimes private support. (Lyle Saxon, director of the Louisiana Writers’ Program, who published a state guide in 1941, did not publish his state’s book of folklore, Gumbo Ya-Ya, until 1945.) In many states, city and county guides for the populated urban areas were published as early as 1937, but much local material never was. “Many of these works were never printed because the local sponsoring agencies lost confidence in the projects, often due to controversial passages.” Also, thousands of oral or “life” histories were collected and shelved without publication.
Schindler-Carter writes, “The making of the American Guide Series was deeply troubled by staff incompetence and personal anguish and anxiety of the workers, while at the same time it succeeded in fostering creativity and mental recovery.” The inconsistency of this statement is heightened in view of Vardis Fisher’s experience. His troubles with staff incompetence and personal anxiety were caused by the same FWP directives that tormented all state directors, ordering them to hire useless workers and micromanaging the writing and editing of their state’s guides. Fisher’s attempts to function in his job, let alone to be creative, were frustrated so often that he repeatedly threatened tOfesign – and finally did. “Mental recovery,” clearly~ was what took place after one quit the FWP.
Would Fisher have been better off had he found some other way to support his family? Remarkably, while Fisher worked on the Writers’ Project, he found time to write two novels (which, I suspect, kept, him sane). One of these, Children of God: An American Epic, which was a historical novel about the Mormons, won the 1939/1940 Harper Prize for best novel. Besides receiving a cash award, Fisher got to see the book, promoted throughout the United States and other countries. Fisher was also able to turn his experience with the WPA into one of the more entertaining sections of his last autobiographical novel.
A better question is whether it would have been better had Fisher not been around to make the FWP look good in January of 1937. Political graft had been exposed in the Kansas Writers’ Project, Ohio and other states had gone through successions of do-nothing state directors” and Congress wanted to know why so much money was being spent on so little. Later that year, four New England states came through with their guides but, at the outset of 1937, all the FWP had to show for itself was a short book on hiking in Pennsylvania and the Idaho guide. Without Fisher, one wonders whether the boondoggle might have been closed down much sooner) than it was.
Fisher’s later thoughts on the value’ of· his government service are oddly mixed. Referring to the FWP, he complained, “the cost was ridiculous” and, as a rule, “subsidized art becomes propaganda in support of the government in power.” On the other hand, he told a historian in 1967 that “Government is waste, but if we can get a percentage of our tax money back in productive things or things which add not only to the economic but to the cultural life of the nation we should be glad for it.” Fisher even called the FWP “a magnanimous gesture.” I know of no other positive words about big government programs attributed to Fisher. Certainly there are none in his novelistic account of his experience. Perhaps, after 30 years, Fisher still indulged in the same rationalization that must have motivated him during his time at the WPA.
A fitting postscript: All of the states published their guides between 1937 and 1941. Several cities also published local guides within that time frame (Philadelphia in 1937 and New York City in 1939. Washington, D.C.: A Guide to the Nation’s Capital was not published until 1942.