Portrait of America

A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project

By Jerrold Hirsch

312 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5489-1
    Published: October 2003
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6166-0
    Published: July 2004

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How well do we know our country? Whom do we include when we use the word "American"? These are not just contemporary issues but recurring questions Americans have asked themselves throughout their history--and questions that were addressed when, in 1935, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. Although the immediate context of the FWP was work relief, national FWP officials developed programs that spoke to much larger and longer-standing debates over the nature of American identity and culture and the very definition of who was an American.

Hirsch reviews the founding of the FWP and the significance of its American Guide series, considering the choices made by administrators who wanted to celebrate diversity as a positive aspect of American cultural identity. In his exploration of the FWP's other writings, Hirsch discusses the project's pioneering use of oral history in interviews with ordinary southerners, ex-slaves, ethnic minorities, and industrial workers. He also examines congressional critics of the FWP vision; the occasional opposition of local Federal Writers, especially in the South; and how the FWP's vision changed in response to the challenge of World War II. In the course of this study, Hirsch raises thought-provoking questions about the relationships between diversity and unity, government and culture, and, ultimately, culture and democracy.

About the Author

Jerrold Hirsch is professor of history at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.
For more information about Jerrold Hirsch, visit the Author Page.


"A provocative and thoughtful book."--Washington Post Book World

"Portrait of America is quite an accomplishment, and it will undoubtedly be one of the authoritative studies of the Federal Writers Project for a long time to come."--South Carolina Historical Magazine

"A welcome complement to existing works of administrative history and literary criticism."--American Historical Review

"A thoroughgoing study of the ideas and ideology motivating the leadership of the FWP. . . . Well-organized and gracefully written "--Journal of Southern History

"A fascinating study. . . . Hirsch is most concerned with tackling the difficulties in understanding and championing racial and cultural diversity in the U.S."--Journal of American Folklore

"Without question this is the most thorough and analytical study ever written on the New Deal's Federal Writer's Project. Jerrold Hirsch's first-rate Portrait of America will change the way we think about the Great Depression years. A truly landmark study."--Douglas Brinkley, University of New Orleans