Book Review: History Repeating?

Susan Quinn: Furious ImprovisationNick Taylor: American MadeOdds are better than even that neither Susan Quinn nor Nick Taylor thought, much less knew, that their respective books on the WPA and the Great Depression would end up being quite so topical. Inadvertently or not, though, neither Taylor’s American Made: When FDR Put The Nation to Work nor Quinn’s Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times could have been timelier.

In the latter part of last year, Wall Street posted losses the likes of which had not been seen in nearly 80 years. This has led to no small amount of talk and speculation about Depression 2.0, and whether the United States, and the world, are headed down the same long, dark road last travelled in the early 1930’s. Similarly, programs promising jobs and economic stimuli have nearly invaribly drawn comparison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s litany of “alphabet soup” agencies–the NRA, AAA, CCC, and especially the WPA–formed to fight the poverty, joblessness, and despair that the 1929 crash left in its wake. Reams have been written trying to study, debate, and make sense of what happened, and (more recently) whether it might happen again, so neither Taylor nor Quinn are exactly covering new ground; but given the overall shape of recent events, both books are uncanny in their timing.

Nick Taylor traces the roots of the Works Progress Administration from the very beginnings of the Great Depression, from President Herbert Hoover’s first halting, and ultimately failed, steps to deal with the crisis, through to successful, though small-scale programs in New York and other locales, and finally to full flower in the early days of the Roosevelt administration. What seems like inevitability with the hindsight of history turns out to have been a fitful process of trial and error.

The author’s examples are drawn first from specific WPA projects, and then fleshed out in the stories of those employed on those projects. Then as now, there was no shortage of politicians willing to paint those who were out of work as lazy and shiftless, nor any shortage of people willing to work for an honest living as long as work was to be found. And there was no shortage of it. There was work building Timberline Lodge in Oregon, book deliveries by pack horse to rural areas, work for those who sewed, wrote, painted, taught and dug for fossils. There was the distribution school lunches, cleanup after hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters, and a variety of other programs undertaken from one end of the country to the other, showing that the government would call on any means at its disposal–including no small amount of creativity–to alleviate poverty and joblessness.

In the end, the greatest legacy of the WPA–at least as portrayed by Taylor–was not just the hope engendered by it and other programs of the New Deal. The WPA in particular laid much of the groundwork, partly through its construction projects, and partly through the bureaucracy it put in place, to put the United States on a war footing starting at the end of the 1930’s. As the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, WPA workers had already begun to rehabilitate military bases and armories, and many of those same workers who didn’t soon find themselves on the front lines soon found themselves instead the backbone of the war effort on the home front.

The “Cast of Thousands” in the subtitle of Susan Quinn’s book isn’t much of an exaggeration. Whereas Taylor examines the whole of the WPA, Quinn’s Furious Improvisation takes as its objects the Federal Theater Project and its director, Hallie Flanagan; she also weaves in the stories of other names better known to our time. If Federal One is obscure, Flanagan has been all but forgotten; Quinn does a fine job of bringing both back to light.

Flanagan had been educated at Grinnell College in Iowa, graduating a year behind WPA director Harry Hopkins. Like Hopkins, she approached much of her work with what bordered on a missionary zeal; she saw, and attempted to realize, a potential to the theater that went far beyond the typical entertainment offered at the time. Social commentary, and indeed a sense of mission, need not be incompatible with the arts, and government, in the guise of the arts programs under the umbrella of the WPA and Project One (the WPA’s arts division) had not only a role in, but also a responsibility for, shepherding a mature and challenging theater to fruition.

The results weren’t always what Flanagan envisioned. Many of the regional and local companies that operated under Federal One simply continued to do what their members had done before the Crash, resulting in a hodgepodge of warmed-over vaudeville, circuses, children’s theater, and revivals of fare usually seen in summer stock. But once in a while came flashes of possibility, and even genius: Living Newspapers, the “Voodoo” Macbeth, Murder in the Cathedral, It Can’t Happen Here, and The Cradle Will Rock gave credence to Hallie Flanagan’s ideas even as they gave employment and hope to experienced theater hands and novices alike.

In the end, both Quinn and Taylor deliver fine books on an all too relevant chapter in our history. Both books, especially Taylor’s, illuminate the problem of a new and very popular president’s nearly imperial hubris that should serve as a cautionary note to the incoming administration. And they also–whether intentionally or not–point up the unlikelyhood of a modern WPA. The Obama administration, for all its talk of job creation, would be likely to find itself up against the same confluence of stubborn partisanship, accusations of boondoggling, and accusations of un-Americanism that its predecessors faced. Indeed, while we no longer have HUAC, the oft-mentioned “culture wars” and hand-wringing over welfare reform have only broadened and deepened over the succeeding years, making on one hand the kind of far-reaching construction projects, and on the other the kind of large-scale governmental support of the arts and humanities that both books explore highly unlikely. This is a shame in its own right, since the brief period of the WPA was a time of frenzied activity and intense creativity, a renaissance in miniature. We can be thankful, however, for the traces left behind.

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