Saturday, August 02, 2003

You pay, they forget
On a topic related to this site--the perennial drawbacks of state intervention--today’s New York Times has an interesting story by historian Douglas Brinkley on the Library of Congress’s decision to unpack and publish thousands of items from warehouses and storage facilities belonging to the Federal Writers’ Project, a program of FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Much of the material is now available on Internet.

Two ironies come to mind reading the piece. The first is that one public-funded entity has decided to salvage the lost works of another. Is that a bad idea? Hardly, since there seems to be material in the warehouses and storage facilities that adds to a better historical understanding of 20th Century America. It’s just that resurrecting the FWP treasure trove only confirms again what a waste large government-funded projects, particularly artistic projects, tend to be. Had the private sector been given access to all those piles of FWP junk, we could have picked the stuff up at Borders years ago, and the government could have actually made some money off of it, instead of paying twice for the same project.

The second irony is that, as the Times story reports, many of the FWP writers (including John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Malcolm Cowley, Edward Dahlberg, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Kenneth Patchen, Philip Rahv, Kenneth Rexroth, Harold Rosenberg, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright and Frank Yerby) were later reluctant to be identified with the project at all, even though it did pay them $20-25 a week during the Depression.

The reason was simple: as artists none wanted to be remembered as government factotums (John Cheever described his job as fixing “the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards.”) However, since many came from the political left, and a few even championed the splendid experiment taking place in the Soviet Union, where the state consumed all, it was a revealing insight into the fact that when writers must choose between ideology and image, they tend to prefer the latter.

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