WEB: American Life Histories


American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project 1936-1940

From an interview with Mr. Trout, born of tenant farmers in Alabama, 1901: "[My cousins] showed me how to masturbate. I don't know whether I really ought to bring this in or not, but it was something that really affected my whole life and it's important. I felt that I was just awful--evil--wicked--just horrible. I'd pray to God to give me strength not to do it again. I was only 10 and a half years old. It ain't right that a kid has to feel like that." Mr. Trout went to work in a mill at age 10 for 65 cents a day. Later he sold furniture--"and I'd better tell you, too, that they ran an undertakin' parlor along with the rest of the business." He worked as a soda jerk, an electrical assistant, a candy-maker on Coney Island, an insurance salesman in L.A., and a minister. Trout eventually went to college and got into poetry as well as political and economic theory: He became a union organizer and a teacher for the Works Project Administration, a skeptic of organized religion, and an activist for economic justice.

His story, like almost 3,000 others, was documented under the WPA's Federal Writers' Project, a massive effort to chronicle the daily lives of average Americans during the Depression and to employ jobless writers, historians, and photographers. All these interviews (complete with sound clips) are now contained in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project 1936-1940, a sprawling, gorgeous, and endlessly consuming site that also collects black-and-white photographs as well as links to the other Writers' Project programs--including complete documentation of the Federal Theatre Project (where Orson Welles got his start, directing an all-black Macbeth); recordings of folk music; oral histories of African Americans during Reconstruction; and on and on. Drink deep and come often: This is the sweet fruit of our history, and it'll never get old.

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