soul of a lemon meringue

image from the boston public library

By their very nature, projects with children often lead to surprises. Either they embrace the oddest little detail from which they can’t be torn away, or they lose interest and succumb (rightly so) to the temptation of riding a bike or drawing or playing with a friend.

The tremendously complex, three-tiered project of lemon cupcakes (the cake, the curd, the meringue) kept me captive in the kitchen for a good chunk of the day, alone. (Yes, she heeded the call of the wild over that of lemon curd, and no, I will never again attempt such folly.)

The delicacy and exactness of baking never did settle well with me, and I felt the tug of my book which sat teasing me on the table, alongside my latest Letter In The Mail, from The Rumpus, which sat there full of possibility, still unopened.

Fortunately, I happened on an incredible documentary, “Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story” which is currently airing on the Smithsonian Channel. (watch it, tape it, share it)

It is the story of the Federal Writers’ Project, which I of course knew of, but most likely in the context of a long history class at a time in my life when it meant little to me, when the present and the future was far more compelling than the past. Today, however, it all seemed so remarkably relevant to what we are going through, as a nation and as a world, struggling with challenges yet overflowing with riches and untapped (and often unemployed) creativity.

Launched as part of FDR’s New Deal in 1935, the Federal Writers’ Project employed several thousand people, and in fewer than eight years produced 120 publications, of note the State Guides and the Slave Narratives, which captured the places and the voices which otherwise would have been lost forever. It died a messy death, as most good things often do, coming under the lens of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, sandwiched in between the Great Depression and WWII.

What is left is writing… amazing writing, and stories, incredible stories to read and hear, much of which is available online, gratis.

Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, John Cheever, and Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison and John Steinbeck, Dorothy West and Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel, Stetson Kennedy and a corps of writers, known and not-so, as well as photographers, musicians and so many others who put to paper what, and who, they found as they traveled the country.

It must be done again…I thought.

But naturally I am not the first to think so. It was, I soon found, discussed quite a bit in 2008, with a mention or a few in the years following.

image from the nat'l archives

There are, of course, other organizations who work towards documenting, capturing that which is rapidly fading, but to do so on a large scale, as a way of employing just some of the unemployed and at the same time enriching us all, would be a brilliant revisiting of what, in the end, proved to be an incredibly valuable effort. Just think of your favorite authors (and all the young writers who’ve yet to showcase their talents) and imagine if they were sent off to document our world, oh the things they would return with! Modern-day explorers.

Words, after all, are golden.

(I won’t submit you to some lame clichéd ending about how words last longer than a first meringue… but mmm, they do.)



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