Response Paper to American Life Histories

There are many different projects that provide insight in the history of the US. However, Federal Writers’ Project was a totally new historical experience since it engaged writers, editors, art and other historians, researchers, historians, archaeologists, geologists, and cartographers among others. In general, 6,600 people were involved in the implementation of Federal Writers’ Project. Most of the staff of were of relatively young age, and many came from the working class (Thurston 752). Among thousands of people working on the project, several well-known authors could be named, such as writers Conrad Aiken and William Attaway, to name a few. Many of them were women, who got the chance to have the work of their dream. Only a few Afro-Americans worked for Federal Writers’ Project, except for the Illinois Writers’ Project. For example, the program helped Arne Bontemps, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, and Frank Yerby to become professionals in Chicago’s department (Thurston 752-753). They all worked for 20 $ per week. With this project, the new history of the United States was born, based on the personal stories of its citizens, voiced and recorded by the pride representatives of the nation, namely, those respectful citizens who overcame the social taboos and differences, making it possible to hear the voice of the bygone creators of the American Dream. These individuals were interviewing people from different places of the United States, documenting the stories of ordinary people. Due to them, more than 10,000 life stories of representatives of different strata of society were documented.

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Therefore, the project incorporated lived events of those US citizens who had to bear the brunt of the Great Depression and helped to revive the whole country in the aftermath of this event. They lived in the world where in the rural areas of the Great Plains, droughts occurred, which, combined with deficiencies in agricultural practices and led to extensive soil erosion, causing the ecological catastrophe. Moreover, cities were filled by dust storms for several years in a row. Additionally, population, losing property and livelihood in the Dust Bowl, migrated further to the west, mostly in California, picking up any low-paying jobs and decreasing the levels of wages that were too low due to the economic crisis. These were people who did not afraid of the most difficult works, such as Chris Thornsten who was employed as an ironworker. He confessed that many workers were injured at the workplace, but this obstacle did not stop them. 

Only sitting at home and typing this essay, it can be possible to understand the enormity of the circumstances of life in which he had to live. A similar parallel can be made with the story of the man at Eddie’s Bar, who said that he was a New Yorker, though New York was not in him. Based on his words, such statement was the cry of the soul about those fears that were paralyzing the bottom of society, when people were driven from their homes for the debts and they were forced to engage in criminal activity. The story of the man, standing in Colonial Park, who claimed that all Americans were breathing the same air, created by the God, who also made all equal. However, the rich one had money, while he had nothing. These words are tearing the soul. These phrases of a poor man, who lost everything, but kept the deep wisdom of his mind and saved his self among the horrors of the surrounding world.

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It is hard to say why all those people were interviewed. Perhaps, their histories were a way to preserve the memory about the most difficult years, similarly to the memorial to those people that gave their lives changing the fate of the country. Probably, it was an attempt to create a documentary chronicle of the events of that time through the prism of life stories. The themes of these archives mostly are interesting episodes of history, cultural events, scientific facts and hypotheses, as well as stories about well-known persons and communities. Masters of this type of art had often raised serious philosophical generalizations in their works. This factor is reminiscent of sketches, consisting of individual stories from different members of one global event. From these personal stories, a master can build a holistic story with its domestic scenario, the current character of which is the American nation. Thus, we can assume that those people who have interviewed ordinary citizens have created a unique set of stories about the life of the nation. This venture was a kind of an interactive photo collage, which tells about the history of each individual and about the general history of the United States.

All these stories are different and the differences between them are the indifferences between the interviewees, along with social strata to which they belong. The destruction or transformation of the social structure or its institutions, which is especially notable in transitional historical periods, finds expression in the marginalization of society while creating transitional social formations with no clearly defined social group characteristics. This factor is what differs them from one another. Marginalization is associated with breaking normative value systems in society that affects the uncertainty of regulatory and social doctrines. Such a feature can be noted in the manner of speaking of different interviewees. This situation raises ‘splitting’ the duality of personality, the loss of sense of social and ethno-national identity, the formation of double morals among others, which is also traceable in the content of their stories, by the main issues in them. They are different by the worldview itself, the challenges faced by them, and by what they want to change. They have different backgrounds, and as a result, the situation impacts on them differently. They have a different perception of the events of the 1930s themselves and their consequences.

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However, there is even more than expected in common among all of those interviewees. They have the similar past. They all know the taste of sorrow and need. They all passed through the challenges. The difference is only in the fact that, while someone gave up, others did not. All of them were fighting for survival in the harsh world of the 1930s. The openness of their inner world also unites them. People involved in the project openly talked about their thoughts and did not afraid to look silly or ridiculous. Interviewees spoke about what they saw and understood, as well as what they have learned on their hard way. 

Moreover, they had the common future. Most of them had to pass through the horrors of the World War II on their way, in line with the hard postwar years filled with the bacchanalia of mafia, and came to the dawn of the United States. The Great Depression had tempered them and gave the strength to meet the challenges of the future, go through the severity of the ongoing tests and trials. They also had a common vision of the problem. They know that the US was not in the best position, but at the same time, they realized that the fault was on those, who used the country for their self-interest, who have not learned how to cooperate with the people as a whole. This fact can be evidenced by their stories, in which banks and the commercial elite represent the negative role.

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In addition, the work of interviewers should be outlined. They had much to be done, and asking correct questions was very important for them. The questions were clear and understandable: the interviewer knew what he or she had to ask. For the interviewees, all of the asked questions were short and explicit. Interviewer asked specified questions that can be used to ensure that the interviewee formulated their own answers in the specific, unambiguous words. The open-ended questions were also used. Interviewer left no chance to evade the questions, while allowing interviewee the philosophical discourses. Questions were created in easy to comprehend style. They were ‘similar’ to the style of speech of the interviewees. In terms of the Federal Writers’ Project, it was very difficult for the interviewer not to bring in an interview the socially expected answers, give a person a chance to express their personal opinion, tell about their way without sugarcoating. In any case, they also managed even this task.

Exploring the archive was a great experience for me. I learned about the fate of people who lived in the era of the Great Depression. In the early 1930s, the USA experienced twofold banking panic when depositors massively rushed to withdraw deposits, and most financial institutions were forced to stop issuing loans. The citizens had no choice but to go to rallies. Afro-Americans were hit hardest during the Great Depression because they were laid off first from workplaces. The demonstration called ‘hunger march’ was the most resonant and happened in 1932 in Detroit, when the unemployed workers of Ford expressed their dissatisfaction with the situation. Police and private security of Henry Ford opened fire on protesters, and as a consequence, 4 people were killed and more than 60 workers were injured. In the struggle against unemployment, millions of Americans were directed to the construction of dams, roads, railways, power lines, bridges and other important sites. This factor resulted in the logistics and transportation problems and gave additional impetus for the business. Additionally, it increased the pace of housing construction. As a result, by the end of the 1930s, the US economy has slowly started to revive, though with occasional downturns and some shocks, such as the recession of 1937-1938. Finally, the World War II helped to overcome the Great Depression. Specifically, the mobilization of men helped address the problem of unemployment. Numerous defense orders provided the budget with money due to that the US economy during World War II grew more than twice. The heroes of the life stories that I had read and listened to were living in this world exactly. Their interviews have put the pieces of the puzzle in the form of a picture of the history of the United States. They allowed me to see the history through the eyes of ordinary citizens to hear their pain and sadness and learn from them patience and the philosophical view on the world. This learning quest was a great journey through the dark pages of the history of the United States.


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