"Wisely draws on a wide variety of material from the skilled writers ... Taylor's version is important as the place to start learning about that remarkable era." --Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Best Books of 2009
"An excellent history" --Washington City Paper
"With accessible prose, a wealth of detail and vintage photos, Taylor recounts the project and some of the writers who benefited from it -- and who benefited the nation with what they produced." --Richmond Times-Dispatch
"A nice way to take a slice of biography... A good literary biography." --The Book Doctors, KCUR
"Taylor's book takes us back to the Depression days of the 1930s and reminds us that the state guides are still in use today." --Lincoln Journal Star
From the Inside Flap
In the wake of the Crash of 1929, companies fired an average of 20,000 workers every day; in some cities over half the adult population was unemployed. The story of writers rescued from joblessness by the Federal Writers' Project is as much the compelling drama of people caught when a soaring economy suddenly crashes as it is the fascinating account of some of America's best writers—before they were famous—turned loose on the landscape with a government mandate to "hold up a mirror to America."
John Cheever was a high school dropout living on raisins and buttermilk when he got a job with the Writers' Project. Richard Wright, 28 with a seventh-grade education and a passion for books, was digging ditches and cleaning hospital operating rooms. Anzia Yezierska had already ridden the American dream all the way up and then back down—from poor immigrant to bestselling author and Hollywood screenwriter to sharing a cramped place and looking for work.
In 1935, the federal government's WPA Writers' Project offered a lifeline: it hired unemployed writers to document life in America for a series of state travel guides. The WPA writers walked streets, interviewed passersby, described urban landmarks and rural landscapes, chatted about nightclubs and bars, recorded folklore and folk music, and compiled what is now very precious information about how Americans lived and how America looked. With striking images, firsthand accounts, and new discoveries from personal collections and other sources, David Taylor's Soul of a People brings it all to vibrant and unruly life: the writers, their friendships, the hardships, the political battles, and the enduring outcome.
The book follows Richard Wright from his WPA job in Chicago to New York, where he sits elbow to elbow with John Cheever in the WPA cafeteria and recruits a "smart young man and sharp dresser" named Ralph Ellison to start documenting the scene in Harlem. You'll see Florida's Gulf Coast through the eyes of Zora Neale Hurston, and oil-flush Oklahoma City through the eyes of Jim Thompson, who one day lost patience with a younger Project writer, Louis LaMoore. "The biggest fraud in the world," Thompson complained to a coworker about LaMoore, who had not yet become Louis L'Amour, one of the bestselling authors of Western novels of all time. You'll find out what happened after Studs Terkel dropped out of law school into the worst job market in history and meet a young Kenneth Rexroth climbing Mount Shasta in California—decades before he introduced Allen Ginsberg's Howl and helped launch the Beat Generation.
From Nobel Prize winners to barroom brawlers, Soul of a People traces lives drawn together in surprising ways and beautifully captures the voices and spirit of America's past—and the profound effect of those voices on our modern culture.