Sometime during the cold months between Donald Trump’s election and his inauguration, I decided to write a book about the Federal Writers’ Project. The F.W.P. was the literary arm of the New Deal’s vast jobs program. Its workers, including some of the nation’s finest writers, assembled guidebooks and compiled oral histories while their Works Progress Administration colleagues built roads and bridges.
The F.W.P. existed, officially, from 1935 to 1943, and its practical life span was even briefer. It had been dead for nearly three-quarters of a century when Trump delivered his inaugural address and diagnosed an era of “American carnage.” In that moment, the F.W.P.’s mission—to chart the American land and its people by undertaking a national, collective self-portrait—seemed quaint. As a model of direct government support for struggling cultural workers, the F.W.P. seemed positively alien.