Soul of a People, by David A. Taylor ’83

The word “soul” feels rare these days. But it is perhaps the single perfect word to call a reader’s attention into Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America by David A. Taylor ’83. Get a copy today and begin reading—David Taylor will join us here for discussion Wednesday through Saturday, April 17–20, 2013!

• Author’s Web site
• Smithsonian Channel documentary Soul of a People
E.H. Little Library’s Soul of a People resource page

Soul of a People is about a handful of characters who were on the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s, individuals who went from poverty to great things later: John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Studs Terkel. Through striking images and firsthand accounts, the book reveals their experiences and the most vivid excerpts from selected guides and interviews: Harlem schoolchildren, truckers, Chicago fishmongers, Cuban cigar makers, a Florida midwife, Nebraskan meatpackers, and blind musicians.

Taylor served in the Peace Corps in Africa after graduating from Davidson, and has traveled the globe since to write about the revealing connections between people and their worlds. His articles have appeared in SmithsonianThe Washington PostThe Village VoiceOutsideThe Christian Science Monitor, and Oxford American, and he is author of four other books: Tall Ship Odysseys; Ginseng: The Divine Root; Success: Stories; and The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy.

10 thoughts on “Soul of a People, by David A. Taylor ’83

  1. Welcome, David! Thank you for joining us today through Saturday. I’d like to kick things off by asking you about your own reporting for Soul of a People. Was there a particular road trip or interview that flashed you back in time to the spirit of the Writers’ Project? In other words, what were some of the points in your own journalistic endeavors when you felt closest to your subjects? Also, when did the three-quarters of a century feel thickest between you and them, as well as thinnest? Thanks!

  2. Thanks, John! Happy to be here. As an incorrigible traveler, I loved the journey part of the research. Retracing tour routes from the guides brought me to new sights as well as a sort of ‘return’ to the scenes of the WPA writers – and other travelers who used their books like John Steinbeck, Alastair Cooke and William Least Heat Moon.
    Two scenes stand out: In Jacksonville, Florida returning with Stetson Kennedy to the Clara White Mission, a soup kitchen downtown where he and Zora Neale Hurston had recorded people’s songs in 1939. I was amazed to see the staff there still serving hot meals to others who needed them, and to see Stetson in his 90s come alive mixing with the diners. He got a heartfelt welcome in the kitchen that you see in the documentary.
    Another scene was following a route in the Nebraska WPA guide down the Missouri River – through the Winnebago reservation at Merry, a farm auction in Union, NE and south through Omaha. At some points the diners and homes and even festivals remained unchanged. (Plattsmouth’s King Korn festival, on the seasonal calendar in the 1930s guide, still took place the same week all these decades later.) At other points time had erased almost everything, as in Omaha where I searched for many landmarks and failed. I peered into the livestock exchange there as it was about to shut down, and felt the passing of eras and yet a presence from them at the same time.

    • Great stuff. I’ve driven across the country twice in my life, and the third time, I’m taking Soul of a People and WPA Guides with me!

  3. Well it’s a good question and prompts a couple of my own: 1) Have you ever used a WPA guide in your travels? (Unlikely, I know, but I get surprising answers to that.) and 2) Did the book pique your interest about a particular place or story?

  4. Hello, David — thank you for joining us at Davidson, and thank you for embarking on this wonderful project!

    In answer to your second question, Zora Neale Hurston’s work in Florida piques my interest – I love her writing and am interested in her biography/formative experiences.

    A question: What is the enduring value of the stories told through the Federal Writer’s Project, and do you know of any current initiatives (privately or publicly funded) that seek to accomplish similar goals?

  5. Hi Lisa! Glad you got intrigued by Zora’s work in Florida – it really broke new ground, both in how African-American life got presented in fiction, how literature showed women characters and their concerns, and how folk culture feeds fiction and drama. Her later novel Moses, Man of the Mountain drew a lot from her WPA interviews into an epic of Florida culture.

    And that gets to the answer of your question: I feel that the enduring value of the Writers’ Project comes in the later works of those writers who it sent out to “hold a mirror to America” – everyone from local historians and textbook writers to giant talents like Zora Neale Hurston. It fostered among them the idea that people’s histories matter. And while we take that for granted now, it was a sea change. Before, academic historians more or less dictated how we saw America’s story. After, America’s story grew more inclusive. Working on the Project, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison realized their personal stories of moving to the North weren’t random and isolated – they were among the first to see the Great Migration for what it was. And their later works like “Native Son” and “Invisible Man” and Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” shaped how we see that history now. (Today wonderful books like Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” recognize that.) It influenced WPA alums like Saul Bellow and the books they wrote and shifted the dialogue of literature and history.

    A more direct example of its influence that many people will recognize is StoryCorps, which grew straight from the example of the Writers’ Project interviews, as founder Dave Isay said. He got inspired by how those WPA interviews showed people telling deeply honest stories from their lives. StoryCorps adapted the model to help people now interview their own loved ones, and now you hear selections on NPR. As many people interviewed for Soul of a People told me, oral history in America really grew out of the Writers’ Project.
    Long answer!

  6. Today Boston is in our thoughts. As a reminder of the resilience of people there, here’s a snippet from a 1939 interview by WPA interviewer Jane Leary in Massachusetts, who wrote up her conversation with James Hughes. He recalled the fear that swept in with the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, and how people got through it. Leary gets his accent into her transcript as much as possible, listening carefully:
    “D’ya remimber the flu thet come the tame o’ the war? Always a war brengs somethin’ an’ I always thought that flu wasn’t jest the flu. It was more like the bubonic plague. Anyways a lotta them thet died o’ it turned black, jest like they was said ta have turned black in Ireland in ’46 an’ ’47 when they had the plague there.
    Three months the rage o’ it was here in this city… The people was scared everywhere. Most everybody wore a bag with somethin ‘ in it ta pravent gettin’ it. Somethin’ like moth balls they was that was in that bag. I wore one like all the rest. Everybody wuz adrinkin’ whiskey too ta pravent it. I believe it helped too! Anyway it did me.
    “I wuz in Boston whin I felt it comin’ on me. I took a coupla drenks an’ ya know I hardly felt ‘em atall. Iny other tame an’ I’da bin afeelin’ good from the drenks I took, but thim I didn’t feel atall. An’ did I sweat? .. I had ta keep awiay from the shop fir about a week though, an’ sure felt weak fir about a month. But I din’t die like a lotta others did. I thenk it wuz thet whiskey thet saved me.
    “Whin I went back ta work, thiere wuz only about four min in the rank when thiere shoulda bin aroun’ fifteen. Thiey wuz all sick with the flu. Thim thet wuz thiere looked at ma whin I come in an’ said, ‘You’re as pale as a ghost.’”

  7. Soul of a People is about writers creating reports that have since become history in their own right. I’d like to hear your thoughts on how the language itself used in WPA guides then colors our interpretations now. What types of vocabulary choices or linguistic styles particular to the 1930s stand out in your mind, and how do they, or can they, or should they, inform our interpretations of that time?

  8. It does involve both new and experienced writers learning to hear how people actually talk. This was when Hollywood and radio were starting to homogenize American speech, and folklorists s rambled to record regional idioms and accents that were disappearing like dying species.
    Sometimes in the guidebooks you see that – in the better ones – and they still seem fresh in their tone, informal. Other times you hear sort of snappy movie speak creeping in, or more formal styles. But at their best – and in the life histories (many on the Libary of Congress website) like the one with James Hughes above, you get very personal voices in the language they use. And that’s great for a writer’s growth, as Douglas Brinkley says in the film.