just in time for the depression!

September 18th, 2008 | Other Projects

WPA art

Am I imagining it, or does there seem to be a lot of nostalgia lately for New Deal programs? A friend just sent me this beautiful postcard of a poster created for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. There was a show on tv the other night interviewing old guys who’d been part of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

And today State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America is released. This is an anthology of writing about the 50 states based on the American Guide Series produced in the late thirties and early forties by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project. I contributed the essay on Vermont. If you go to the Powells.com page for the book and scroll down a bit, you can see a preview of a little movie about the book in which I talk about moving from Minnesota to Vermont for a relationship.

If you’re in NYC, there’s an event tonight with Lawrence Wechsler interviewing various contributors to the book. I won’t be there, but I’ll be doing readings in Boston, New Hampshire, and Vermont at the end of September/beginning of October.

And speaking of books and depression, here’s another NYC event you might want to attend. The First Annual Sarah Palin Book Club Fundraiser, an event to raise money for the Lambda Literary Organization. It’s at Cattyshack on October 2. Check out the link even if you’re not in NYC–it’s hilarious.

53 Responses to “just in time for the depression!”

  1. Jessie says:

    Oh, I love that poster–my roommate has it, framed. He got it ten years ago, touring national parks, and I’d never seen it since.

  2. Rohmie says:

    The neo-New Deal art trend has been building for a while, but the Obama campaign seems to have stoked it with their Art Deco “O” logo. Then you have Shepherd Fairey’s famous “Progress” Obama poster which has an almost Che-like iconic quality:


    Fairey’s poster has sparked a range of immitators of varying quality. I’m particularly fond of this one by El Mac. The maze-like shading gives it an almost Native American / Heavy Metal like quality. It has the feel of a United Farm Workers union poster:


    Here is the work in progress:


  3. The Cat Pimp says:

    The sudden interest in that style might be inspired by those Obama posters. http://obeygiant.com/post/party-for-change-sf-2

    They have that mashup propaganda poster/WPA kind of look about them.

  4. Feminista says:

    I think about the New Deal programs whenever I’m in a state or national park,or in the post office. My great-aunt,after being unemployed during the Depression for 2 years,got a job with the WPA as a folk music cataloger. My dad worked for the YPA (Youth Projects Administration)briefly.

    In the 60s War on Poverty,Johnson set up projects such as Head Start,Migrant Education, & Model Cities to address a range of social issues. I volunteered as a teacher aide the summer after eighth grade in the first year of Head Start. Four years ago I taught in a Migrant Ed.program. These two are among the few programs from that era which still exist.

    The only other program close to the WPA,on a smaller scale,was the CETA program Carter started,which funded social/human service jobs,among others. I remember activists getting CETA funding for progressive temporary jobs,such as working with a feminist law collective or women’s shelter. I applied for several CETA positions during the mid-late 70s recession,but the competition was heavy.

    I think it’s time again for a program which combines the best aspects of the WPA,CCC,the War on Poverty,and CETA. Obama,are you reading this?!

  5. j.b.t. says:

    Speaking of investing in the Public Good, did anyone catch that article in the Washington Post today about how this current economic crisis has roots that go to the Reagan era, when deregulation started, and grew up under Republican care… Hopefully the Dems will jump on this.


  6. the squealer says:

    You should pick up Nick Taylor’s “American Made-The Enduring Legacy of the WPA When FDR Put the Nation to Work”…a terrific read!

  7. Feminista says:

    Yup,Reagan set the country’s social programs’ back decades. I remember the early 80s recession…

  8. Ready2Agitate says:

    A guest on Fresh Air yest. remarked that in the US we privatize profit, and socialize loss. Ain’t it the truth!

    AB, I’d like to think of your opening query above as the start of a latest D2WO4 ep. (I can dream, right?) (even if I can’t come to your Camb. reading on account of we have the Jewish High Holy Days….)

    (Uh-oh, Sarah Palin speak is creeping into my vernacular… no!) (see George Saunders humor column in this week’s New Yorker)

    (ugh – did I mention NPR AND the New Yorker in one post? I swear I used to be such an agitator!!!)

  9. Pam I says:

    You’ve all seen this by now?

    Senators Palin and Clinton cross party lines to battle sexism.

  10. Hey, Ready2. Yes, I saw George Saunders’ piece and laughed out loud. Usually I find the New Yorker humor column to be a belabored one-trick pony, but this one got funnier and funnier. I especially love the riff on the “Élites.” (Though I’m not sure if the capital, accented ‘e’ is part of the joke, or the New Yorker’s own weird style, like the way they put a diaeresis in words like ‘cöoperate.’)

  11. And speaking of elitism, Nancy T sent me a link to this great column by the always delightfully overwrought Mark Morford.

  12. I was gonna say I’m getting a t-shirt printed that says “elitist and proud” (or hey, maybe “Élitist and proud”) but I googled the phrase first just to see if anyone else is bandying it about, and it has 3,730 hits.

    Maybe the tide is turning and kakistocracy will soon be just a traumatic memory.

  13. Good procrastinating, huh? I should have been at work 30 minutes ago.

  14. NickelJoey says:

    When you’ve posted more than three times in a row without comments in the interstices . . . I think that’s a bad sign. 😉

    Not that I would know anything about procrastination, of course.

  15. ksbel6 says:

    AB, when you post too many times quickly do you also get the “Slow down cowboy” message? 😉

    Reagan totally started this economic mess…I just cringe when any republican says they want to take the country back to the great times when he was in charge!

  16. Pete says:

    Hell, yes – in fact, I just finished a story chapbook based on (and including) 1930s photos from the Farm Security Administration archives. Publishers, call me!


  17. brita says:

    To shift the subject back to the book, which I am very excited about: you may or may not have heard mutterings from Maine about the Julavits piece posted on Slate a week ago.


    People in Maine (where I have lived for a paltry five years) are quite offended by this take on our state. They’re not taking it as a joke. I’m curious, has there been any discussion among the contributors or editors about the reactions to the essays from particular states?

  18. Melbournite says:

    from AUS would like to assure all readers that your de-regulation of the financial sector acually WORKED … in australia.. where we have a resource boom in carbon emitting exports to China and India…

  19. Kate L says:

    If you REALLY want to get depressed, just watch the 1930’s images that go with Tom Waits’ cover on this Depression-era song. I’m old enough to have known a lot of the Americans who lived through the Great Depression. They were tough people.

    Once in khaki suits,
    Gee, we looked swell.
    Full of that Yankee-doodeley-dum,
    Half a million boots
    Went slogging through Hell,
    And I was the kid with the drum.
    Say, don’t you remember?
    I was your pal.
    Buddy, can you spare a dime?
    – Lyrics by Yip Harburg. Music by Jay Gorney (1931)

    – Kate L

  20. Andi says:

    Hi Alison,

    Those retro National Park Service posters have been around for for years, so there’s probably no connection to the foundering economy. They’ve been in print for at least as long as the Republicans have been in power, so… Oh, wait a minute…

  21. NLC says:

    (brita raises the issue of how folks from other states have reacted to “State by State”, and gives Maine as an example)

    Actually, I got my copy yesterday and after reading the Vermont entry[*] (aside from the obvious reason, this is where I live) I immediately went to Susan Choi’s chapter on Indiana, my home state.

    In her article Heidi Julavits claims that many of her Maine readers might be offended. I guess I don’t feel offended, but I’m certainly a bit bewildered. How the heck does this qualify as a piece on Indiana?

    Briefly, Choi is native of South Bend, Indiana and her piece records the brief (two? three? day) home-return tour that she took with her father in preparation for writing her chapter.

    All fine and good. However the bulk of the chapter is about her father’s history, and Choi’s relationship with him. The state itself only makes brief appearances of the form of “…and then we drove through Terre Haute”.

    OK, I can buy the argument that maybe the world can survive without a new Hoosier Travelogue. But, ostensibly, isn’t this book supposed to be about the states? Among the few I have read so far, in addition to the Vermont chapter those on Utah (David Rakoff) and –especially– Montana (Sarah Vowell) have been quite fine.

    I mean, I suppose that Choi’s chapter is a nice enough piece of writing. But –in the specific context– it comes off as little more than a self-indulgent piece of fluff. Where the heck were the editors?

    [* Which, by the way, was wonderful.]

  22. Jana C.H. says:

    Feminista– Ah, CETA! I remember it fondly. CETA got me my first cartography job out of college, with the Clallam County Assessor. At this late date I think I can confess that I cheated to get it. I didn’t want to move out of my parents’ home until I got a job, but their income made me way too rich for CETA. A neighbor owned a vacation house (with wood stove and no indoor plumbing) on Lake Crescent in the Olympic National Park, and she agreed to say that I was living there, paying $50 a month. The CETA folks indeed called her to confirm, and she said something about me living there “part time”. That was good enough for CETA, and I got the job. After which I immediately moved into my own apartment.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith E.G. Forbes: Never spoil a good story with too much truth.

  23. --MC says:

    Kate L — I love the song, but the first version of it that I learned was by Tom Jones. “SAYYY, don’t you remember? They called me Al..

  24. Anonymous says:

    “SAYYY, don’t you remember? They called me Al..”

    It was “Al” all the time,
    Say, don’t you remember? I’m your pal!
    Buddy/Brother, can you spare a dime?

    The title is “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” if anyone wants to Google Yip Harburg’s lyrics.

  25. Straight Ally says:

    Aarrgh! I did it again. That last Anonymous was me.

  26. Straight Ally says:

    Mazel tov on the publication of State By State, Alison!

    I’m a U.S. mainlander who doesn’t live in a state. (Taxation Without Representation!) I’ll have to see if they’ve got me covered.

    (And I just learned that a “real life” friend sometimes comments here, so here’s a shout-out to Dweeb, if she’s reading this.)

  27. Ellen O. says:

    Straight Ally — In State by State, there’s a section on D.C. with the author Edward P. Jones who wrote the prize winning, The Known World.

    I looked through State by State at the bookstore today and will buy my copy at the State by State film viewing next week here in Boulder. It looks just great.

    As far as New Deal artwork, Boulder artist Steve Lowtwait has been drawing in that style for a while now. There’s a grandeur and subtlety, perhaps, that’s missing from his work as opposed to the originals, yet he is still pretty popular around here. Here’s a sample he did for Open Space.


    And here is his website: http://www.campsteve.com/
    And here is another http://www.discovernw.org/store_posters_1POSTERS/

  28. Ready2Agitate says:

    @”kakistocracy” – had to look that one up, AB… but then again, only an elitist would use such a word. (but I can’t do that accent egu thing that only elitists can do 😉 )

    (my friend who teaches at Syracuse said George Saunders is also supposedly a pretty good guy.)

  29. Nigel Patel says:

    Nothing like the return of 1920s style Kleptocracy to make people yearn for The Good Stuff.

  30. Straight Ally says:

    Ellen O.–

    Thanks for the info. on the DC section by Edward P. Jones. I should have looked that up myself instead of wondering!


    Try one of the short story/novella collections by George Saunders if you haven’t already done so. I lack the words to “prepare you.”

    As you may know, there are keystroke codes for the various letter-with-French-accent combos, but I find it easier to keep a Saved copy of the adorned letters in a Notepad document (having collected them from the Internet) and paste them in when I need them.

  31. The Other Andi says:

    I suppose it’s elitist to know that in French, the diacritics are removed when the letter is capitalized.

    Thanks for letting us know about kakistocracy. I’d never heard it before. Another word I’ve been seeing a lot of lately is “idiocracy.” This is truly what we are becoming. How have the Republicans managed to rebrand their party to the extent that people are so willing to vote against their own economic self-interest?

  32. Ready2Agitate says:

    Thanks StraightA. Man (oop) I love this blog. Keepin’ it real – keepin’ it élite!

  33. Straight Ally says:


    All right–élite! You can call me “man,” but FYI, I’m a woman. : )

  34. Feminista says:

    I’m a WOMAN,W-O-M-A-N!

  35. Name Removed To Protect the Elite says:

    The Other Andi, these days diacriticals are often used on upper-case letters. Now that the days of typesetting are largely behind us, there are fewer impediments to using them.

  36. Ginjoint says:

    Re: kakistocracy – I know the root “kakos” means “bad”, but couldn’t that have evolved from, you know, “kaka”? *smirk*

  37. Ginjoint says:

    …I bring that up only because I think it makes the word kakistocracy (which, honestly, I can’t wait to use tomorrow at work – thanks Alison!) even more applicable to our current administration. Or maybe politics in general. Yeah, it’s my bedtime.

  38. Jana C.H. says:

    Hmm, idiocracy… Those old Greeks had words for everything. Their word for a person who takes no interest in politics is (…pause for effect…) idiot.

    I noticed “kakistocracy,” too. Great word. It let me feel smug for a moment because I knew what it means. It also make me feel warm and cozy to realize that at least half the people on this blog also know what it means, and the rest will look it up in the dictionary rather than grousing about big words. Finally I felt a bit embarrassed at my smugness, knowing there are at least a few people on this blog who actually know ancient Greek, which I don’t. I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re there.

    I love this blog,

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Floss Forbes: If you don’t know the tune, sing tenor.

  39. Ready2Agitate says:

    What you said, sister!

    And Ginjoint – hee!

  40. Ready2Agitate says:

    Oh, and Straight Ally, I didn’t mean “Straight A. Man” — I meant, “Man, I love this blog.” (as in, Zounds, Hey, Yowsa, Yo, etc.) The after “Man” referenced a previous thread reminding us feminists to be wary of male-gendered words like “Man” as an expression. Because, well, you know the reason. Hmmm, maybe I’ll start using “Yo” instead of “Man” now that I think of it…. (sorry, my bedtime too.)

  41. Juliet says:

    Jenny Lake is so beautiful. My copy of ‘State by State’ arrived today – I started with Wyoming then worked my way round my strange Western tour of 2006 – Utah, Idaho, Washington State. What’s a girl from Birmingham (UK) doing in a place like this…?

  42. *tania says:

    In case you’re feeling nostalgic, Ranger Doug, who produces the WPA postcards, also prints multi-ink silkscreen posters of the same artwork. I’ve seen them in person and they are awesome. If you’re in Seattle, you can get them at Annie’s Affordable Art in Ballard. Otherwise, online at:

  43. The Cat Pimp says:

    Loved the rangerdoug link. Where I live in Berkeley, we have a lot of houses and public works from the WPA era. You can’t throw a stick in a greenbelt park without hitting WPA paths and rockwork.

  44. Ellen O. says:

    I like the funnel photo in the Essential DTWOF promo shots. Who thought of that?

  45. Ellen! You weren’t supposed to see that yet. I’m still working on writing some stuff for the EDTWOF page, about my process putting it together. But I’m glad you like the funnel.

  46. Feminista says:

    News flash! Here’s the link to the excellent show,Women,Power,and Politics Maria Hinojosa did on PBS,which aired 9/19. She covers grassroots and electoral issues in Chile,Rwanda,and the U.S.


  47. NLC says:

    Um, aren’t you supposed to be in Chicago with the other nighthawks?

    (Sigh… Another year, no MacArthur …)

  48. Kate L says:

    I’m having a Great Depression – era dinner tonight of fried bologna and okra! You know the bologna is done when the edges curl up… btw, okra is a “slimy green vegetable native to the (American) south”, according to comedian Steve Martin.

  49. Kate L says:

    Oh, screw it, I’m just going to mix up the Betty Crocker Crunchy Taco mix.

  50. Andrew B says:

    NLC, you mean no Macarthur for you? Or for Alison? Or were you thinking of Sydney? Sabbatical or no sabbatical, I think Sydney is still waiting expectantly.

    And following Ellen’s lead to check out Alison’s links, I don’t think anyone has yet mentioned that AB appears to have a facebook page now. But, exacting her revenge on nerds who have nothing better to do with their lives than keep track of her links, Alison appears to have put nothing on it except a picture of herself.

  51. NLC says:

    Andrew B:

    Neither of us!

    How nuts is that?

  52. Kyle R says:

    Speaking as one person who lived in Maine for years, I thought Julavits got it right (as right as any one author can in this format). Her essay was among my favorites — so much so that I sent it along to a number of friends and family who’ve lived there too.

  53. Andrew B says:

    NLC: Unbelievable. Must be some kind of conspiracy. Probably the liberal press is involved.