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Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America 1st Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0470403808
ISBN-10: 0470403802
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1st edition (February 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470403802
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470403808
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,111,982 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover
When miracles occur one of the natural responses is to try and recreate them. What was it about 18th Century Vienna that produced Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and hundreds of other worthy composers? Even if you could figure it out, there is no way to pull all the elements together again in the real world. Just like the little flower that finds its way through a crack in the pavement to give life and beauty, however briefly, in a barren and hostile place, we should notice, wonder, and be grateful it happened at all.

In my view, this book from David Taylor is a little miracle about a bigger miracle. How many of us know about the WPA writers' project? How many know about the city guides they produced all over the country? Or the famous writers who were part of that project? Those city guides are collector's items now and widely admired not only for their historical value, but also for the marvelous writing and creativity and down right quirkiness so many of them have.

The FDR administration was throwing lots of money at lots of different things in an effort to find ways to help people who were without help. There was no social safety net. There was no bureaucracy in place to get in the way of fast action or creative approaches. Yes, there was criticism and a great deal of money was wasted, in the sense that people were paid and allowed to continue eating without actually successfully producing much. But a great deal was produced.

Today, there would be volumes describing what each standardized city guide must include and more volumes on style and acceptable language.
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Format: Hardcover
I just loved this book! It is meticulously researched and beautifully written. For me, it has brought to life a period in this country's history that has enormous relevance to the difficult times in which we now live. I am not a historian, but I was fascinated by the story of the Federal Writers Project and Taylor's wonderful portraits of the writers who were offered a life line by the Project. The fabulous Depression-era photographs chosen to accompany the text were a perfect visual plus. Mr. Taylor is a terrific storyteller; I highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
I was unaware of this book until I had the good fortune of hearing Mr. Taylor read from his book at a local bookstore. He's a wonderful personality and the excepts were fascinating. So I got the book and have been throughly enjoying it. It's a vibrant account of a little known but important aspect of the WPA, and I've enjoyed learning more about it. I look forward to reading the rest of Mr. Taylor's work. He's one to watch.
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David Taylor does an excellent job in capturing the WPA Writers' Project in the social and economic context of the day. For me, the most valuable pieces were not the success stories of writers who got a break and later became accomplished writers, but rather the stories of everyday people in an era of massive social change. I was born in the 50s and really never had much of a feel for the Great Depression, despite the stories of my grandparents and mandatory novels of high school. This book really brought much of the challenges of those days to life - not only economic hardship, but the realities of racism, the fear of Communism, and the ways progressive government thinking can help people by providing a second chance. A wonderfully written book that gives us much to think about. I highly recommend it - it provides an insightful window into our collective ancestry as Americans.
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This book is an interesting and thought provoking introduction to an era, and a group of people gathered by accident as it were, who let us in on what it was like to labor and create in The WPA Writers' Project. Not just the collective, but individuals, and how they reacted to the experience.
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This is a nice book to just pick up and read when your time permits. Each essay is both enjoyable and informative, giving the reader a real feel for what it was like to be a "starving artist/writer" during that time in our history. Being from Florida, I particularity liked that essay but they all were fun to read. A great "cold winter's night" read...
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When I first started reading this book I didn't know what to expect. I read the first 10 pages and I was hooked. It was very engaging and interesting. The writing was clear and descriptive; I felt as if I were in those WPA offices hearing the constant click of the typewriter keyboards. My curiosity is piqued and now I want to plan my own cross country trip to discover some of the colorful locations described in this book. Another fascinating aspect of this book is the human drama that seemed to unfold in these pages. It is truly a wonderful thing that these stories were told, giving us another view of what it means to be American.
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Excellent review of an important historical subject. Very readable and well researched. Liberally illustrated with historic photographs.
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