In an article in The Public Historian, David Glassberg discusses conflicting visions of the work public history does in the world. His description of the "civil-religion" approach reflects a lot about how the New Deal administration and its associated liberal-progressive community imagined its historical projects (Public History and the Study of Memory).

This particular worldview, he argues, understands public history as ultimately consensual, "embodying an underlying civic or national faith" that transcends socioeconomic divisions or cultural difference. Thus the practice of public history is "actually integrating society rather than... an effort of some to structure reality for others" (12-13). Whether or not we agree that enterprises like the Federal Writers' Project's state guides (not themselves strictly historical works, but with significant historical content) achieved this transcendence of social difference, we have to establish that this was the ideological vision on which they were premised.

In a letter to Henry Alsberg, the director of the Federal Writers' Project, Katherine Kellock, the national tours editor, suggested that every project worker read The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard, published in 1927. The argument she makes reveals how history fit in to the educational schema of the FWP guides, as understood by the architects of the project:

In my opinion the attention of each worker should have been directed to about five major works:

1. The World Almanac
2. The Dictionary of American Biography
3. The Enscyclopedia of the Social Sciences (sic)
4. The Britannica
5. The Rise of American Civilization

...The Beard Rise is chiefly valuable for giving workers perspective on what is important and what is unimportant. The introduction to the latest edition could very well serve as an explanation of the purposes of the guide; the real purpose is, of course, to educate Americans to an evaluation of their own civilization. 'The history of civilization, if intelligently conceived, may be an instrument of civilization.' (Katherine Kellock, National Tours Editor, to Henry Alsberg, Director, Jacksonville, Florida, Jan. 20, 1936; Field Reports: Florida; Records of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), Record Group 69.5.5; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.).

Here we pick up on some of the same rhetoric of a usable past that Haworth Jones argued characterized 1930s attitudes about history. The goal of educating Americans to an evaluation of their civilization could be achieved through several approaches; both the strictly historical and the documentary design surfaces in the Federal Writers' Project's work.

On the state level, the historical impulse was not guaranteed to play out in the same terms the national office imagined. Responsible for the majority of research, most of which was not supposed to be original work, workers and supervisors had to translate the historical goals of the project into concrete content.

Alfred Haworth Jones has suggested that the search for a usable past engendered an obsession with accuracy during the 1930s; "if they turned to the past as a guide to the present, then the landmarks must be accurate and reliable or the lessons would be misleading. Hence meticulous attention to authenticity became a canon of the decade" (715). This anxiety about objectivity and obsession with the real is something we can trace in the writing processes of the FWP, as well as at work in broader strokes during the time.

You can check out some intriguing examples of how this obsession surfaced in the work of the FWP...


Juliet Gorman, May 2001