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 essential Iowa guidebook, 1938.

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.

And yet the F.W.P. continued to fascinate. Book collectors still hunted down its first editions. Scholars still examined its legacy. University presses still issued collections of unpublished F.W.P. material, rescued from neglected archives.

Past and Present

As I delved into those archives myself, I came to accept the notion that the F.W.P. was a kind of historical curiosity. You might pick up a copy of New Jersey: A Guide to its Present and Past and appreciate it as you would a Dorothea Lange photograph of Dust Bowl migrants (snapped for the Farm Security Administration) or a Woody Guthrie song about the Grand Coulee Dam (recorded for the Bonneville Power Administration). These artifacts are compelling on their own. But as products of the New Deal, they carry a faint political charge. Call it liberal nostalgia or social-democratic melancholy. These artifacts feel like relics from a defeated kingdom. They feel like glimpses of a future that never came to pass.

Henry Alsberg, director of the Federal Writers’ Project, and the writer Katharine Amend Kellock at work in Washington, D.C.

Or so I believed, as I worked on my book and the Trump administration staggered from one outrage to another. By early 2020, I was revising a draft and planning a final mopping-up exercise through the archives in Washington.

Like any researcher, I was still hoping to turn up a revelation: a lost manuscript, a shocking letter. (I didn’t come close, although I can tell you that the F.W.P.’s aborted guide to Hawaii was going to be illustrated, possibly, by the artist Rockwell Kent.) First, I took a train to Manhattan to meet with my editor. I was so consumed by worries about chapter structure and endnotes that I hardly noticed the ubiquitous hand sanitizer or people bumping elbows. That was my last trip into Manhattan. Before I could get to D.C., the archives shut their doors.

The essential Nebraska guidebook, 1939.

The rest of the story is familiar. But this part took me by surprise: as cultural workers had their livelihoods crushed by the pandemic, the New Deal arts projects became suddenly, freshly relevant. Press releases and op-eds—first a trickle, then a stream—called for their resurrection. New York and other cities developed programs inspired by the W.P.A. Most startlingly of all, legislation to create a 21st-century F.W.P. was introduced in the House of Representatives.

It all happened with remarkable speed. The F.W.P. was no longer just a story but a model—not a relic from the misty New Deal past but a viable tool for the present. It took an experience of true American carnage—of staggering human loss and blatant government neglect—to get us here. But that’s how the original F.W.P. was born, too.

Maybe I shouldn’t say “original,” but “first.” Maybe this book I’ve written isn’t the story of a bygone age but the prologue to a new one.

Scott Borchert’s Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America will be published on June 15 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux