Nick Taylor has written an elegant general history of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the legendary federal agency from the New Deal created in the 1930s. We might well need something like this again in the near future to put people back to work as the U.S. sinks into an economic morass in 2009. Accordingly, this book is especially timely and perhaps will help inform public policy in the coming months and years.
Taylor takes a thematic approach to assessing the history and legacy of this organization. He divides the work into interesting groupings by topic that makes accessible to a broad audience what the WPA was involved in and how it functioned. The WPA focused on the building of infrastructure–especially roads and bridges, airports and public buildings–and this was by far where the majority of the federal funding was spent. The building where the History Department is housed at LSU, where I completed my Ph.D., was built by the WPA in the 1930s, and while it is an aging structure it is a sound, useful building still in continuous use more than 80 years after its construction. The investment in this construction, and all manner of other infrastructure, had a profound effect on the development of the United States in the modern era. This story is well told in American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA when FDR Put the Nation to Work.
In addition, the WPA got involved in all manner of other work projects that was strikingly different from the roads, bridges, and buildings for which the agency had become famous. These included the WPA Writers’ Project and the WPA Artists’ Project, and both also had important results beyond the truly significant infrastructure contributions. As examples, and Taylor discusses these at length, are the large number of murals painted by WPA artists in post offices and other public buildings, many of which still exist, and some of the published state and river system guides and histories compiled by legions of participants employed in the writers’ projects of the WPA. Many of those books went through several editions, and some have remained in print to the present because of their continuing value.
The recalling of the work of WPA is useful at several levels because of the current economic situation, but even more Taylor discusses at length the sense of mission and commitment felt by those leading the WPA throughout its existence. From director Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to FDR, to it local officials, the sense that the people of the United States must work together in service both to the nation to their fellow citizens permeated the culture of the WPA. That sense of honorable service to others, of work for the good for the nation, struck me as one of the core lessons emerging from this account of the WPA.
Taylor’s exceptionally readable and comprehensive account does an excellent job of explaining how and why some WPA projects attracted both enthusiastic public support and vociferous political fire from FDR’s opponents until the WPA was terminated in the early years of World War II. It is not a perfect book by any means. It does not argue a new and unique thesis, but it does effectively make the case of the value of public works programs both for the national welfare and individual economic help, a longstanding theme in WPA history. It does not mine new documentary sources to fill out details of the account, even though there are exceptional collections the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, but it certainly marshals effectively the historical data it uses.
As it is American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA when FDR Put the Nation to Work offers a unique angle of vision into 1930s America and the manner in which the federal government can accomplish useful objectives.