Reading for Labor Day

PEN America 10: Fear Itself features excerpts from Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, by Studs Terkel, who, a few years before he died, contributed a tribute to John Steinbeck to PEN America 4: Fact/Fiction. The issue’s title, of course, came from the Depression era, and the issue was inspired in part by the growing sense of anxiety brought on by the current economic crisis.

As we read through Terkel’s book, we discovered that Roosevelt was by no means the only person talking about fear. “The Depression left a legacy of fear,” says Larry Van Dusen, a labor organizer, a point also made by a twenty-three year-old named Marshall, whose parents had lived through the Depression. “People haven’t felt unfearful since,” Marshall says—
Fear of Communists, fear of people living in sin, fear of the hippies—fear, fear, fear. I think people learned it from the Depression. Money brings security, that was the idea. But it turned out to be just the opposite. If you have a great big house, that meant you had to be fearful again: somebody might rob you. If you had a great big store, you had to be fearful now that there’s gonna be a riot—and everything in your store would be stolen. See, money brings more fear than security.
There’s more in the issue—and much more in Terkel’s book, which is a fascinating read. You might also check out these two excellent pieces from Poetry magazine about the Federal Writers’ Project and Kenneth Fearing (one of them by PEN America contributor Robert Polito) and an interview Mark Athitakis did back in April with David Taylor, about his book Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America.

Taylor’s book isn't the only WPA-inspired project of late: there’s also Mark Kurlansky's The Food of a Younger Land, which draws on the work of a “number of writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and Nelson Algren,” who, as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, “were dispatched all across America to chronicle the eating habits, traditions, and struggles of local people. The project, called America Eats, was abandoned in the early 1940s because of the World War and never completed.”

And then there’s State by State, a WPA-inspired collection of essays about each of the United States, featuring such PEN America contributors as George Packer, Ha Jin, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, and many more.

The poster pictured above was itself produced by the WPA, and can be found at this wonderful website.

Happy Labor Day.

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