When times get tough, new ideas are needed to get people through them. The Great Depression put many people out of work. Times don’t get much tougher than that. The government decided to try something new. The project that was put forward was the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). The idea was to fund written work and support writers during those dark days. The project was deigned to be in operation from July 27, 1935 to October 1939. It was part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program.
Of course, this was not really designed to allow people to explore the idea of becoming a writer, but rather to ease the plight of the unemployed writer, and anyone who could qualify as a writer such as a lawyer, a teacher, or a librarian. As the Roosevelt Administration ironed out the details of the New Deal, the administration and writers’ organizations and persons of liberal and academic persuasions felt that somehow, they could come up with more appropriate work situations for this group, the writers, other than blue collar jobs on construction projects. The final project was for one all the arts, which was called Federal One. As part of President Roosevelt’s Second New Deal, Federal One was divided into five specialties…writers, historical records, theater, music, and art. Each specialty was headed by professionals in that field.
The Federal Writers Project was first operated under journalist and theatrical producer Henry Alsberg, and later John D Newsome, who were charged with employing writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologists, geologists and cartographers. Some 6,600 individuals were employed by the project compiling local and cultural histories, oral histories, children’s books, and other works. The most well-known of these publications were the 48 state guides to America known as the American Guide Series. These books contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. They also contained a state’s history and culture, automobile tours of important attractions, and a portfolio of photographs. In each state a Writer’s Project staff was formed with editors and field workers. Some offices had as many as 150 people working, a majority of whom were women. Staff also included several well-known authors of the time and the program helped to launch the literary careers of others.
Though the project produced useful work in the many oral histories collected from residents throughout the United States, it had its critics from the beginning, with many saying it was the federal government’s attempt to “democratize American culture.” Though most works were not political, some writers who supported political themes sometimes voiced their positions in their writings. This led some state legislatures to strongly oppose some projects and in a few states the American Guide Series books were printed only minimally. As the Project continued into the late thirties, criticism continued and several Congressmen just wanted to shut the project down. In October 1939, federal funding for the project ended, due to the Administration’s need for a larger defense budget. It was decided that the project could continue under state sponsorship, but even that ended in 1943. I’m sure that was due to World War II, and all that was needed to be poured into the war effort.
While I am not really a fan of the government manufacturing jobs, I think that some of the great writings that came out of the Federal Writers Project, made this project one of the better government funded job ideas. During its existence, the project included a rich collection of rural and urban folklore, first-person narratives from people coping with the Depression, studies of social customs of various ethnic groups, and over 2,300 first person accounts of slavery. In documenting the common people, a number of books emerged from writers on the project including Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited and John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath. While this project was certainly unorthodox, it makes you wonder if we would have missed out of some great books, had it not been for this program. When the project ended, there were actually protests in an effort to keep it going, but it had run its course, and in 1943, it ended.
Whenever we make a trip to the emergency room, most of us find ourselves waiting impatiently for the myriad of tests to be returned from the lab to find out what is going on. And, most of us find that annoying, but when you think about how things used to be diagnosed, you might just find yourself rethinking those tests. Imagine a time when something like Pneumonia, Bronchitis, or Tuberculosis might have been “diagnosed” by having you doctor place his ear to your chest to see what you sound like. While I’m no expert, I have a pretty good idea that those three lung diseases would sound fairly similar. So if you had Tuberculosis and your doctor treated you for Bronchitis, how good would you expect your prognosis to be. Not very good, but this was all the doctor could do at that time.
Enter René Théophile Hyacinthe Laennec (February 17, 1781 – August 13, 1826), a young man who’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was five years old. Laennec went to live with his great uncle the Abbé Laennec, who was a priest. As a child, Laennec became ill with Lassitude and repeated instances of Pyrexia. Laennec was also thought to have Asthma. At the age of twelve, he proceeded to Nantes, where his uncle, Guillaime-François Laennec, worked in the faculty of medicine at the university. Laennec was a gifted student. He learned English and German and began his medical studies under his uncle’s direction. Laennec knew first hand that things like Tuberculosis can kill…he lived that nightmare with his mom. I am fairly certain that there were probably issues with her diagnosis too. After studying medicine, Laennec became a doctor. He also became a lecturer at the Collège de France in 1822 and professor of medicine in 1823. His final appointments were that of head of the medical clinic at the Hôpital de la Charité and professor at the Collège de France.
Laennec’s father was a lawyer, and he thought that being a doctor was a waste of René’s talents. With his father’s discouragement, René had a period of time during which he took long walks in the country, danced, studied Greek and wrote poetry. However, in 1799 he returned to study. Laennec studied medicine at the University of Paris under several famous physicians, including Dupuytren and Jean-Nicolas Corvisart-Desmarets. There he was trained to use sound as a diagnostic aid. Corvisart advocated the re-introduction of percussion during the French Revolution. In 1816, he was consulted by a young woman laboring under general symptoms of diseased heart, and in whose case percussion and the application of the hand were of little avail on account of the great degree of fatness. “The other method just mentioned [direct auscultation] being rendered inadmissible by the age and sex of the patient, I happened to recollect a simple and well-known fact, in acoustics…the great distinctness with which we hear the scratch of a pin at one end of a piece of wood on applying our ear to the other. Immediately, on this suggestion, I rolled a quire of paper into a kind of cylinder and applied one end of it to the region of the heart and the other to my ear, and was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear.” This situation started Laennec’s mind whirling, and before long, he had developed a simplistic version of what we now are all very familiar…the stethoscope. Ironically, like his mother, Laennec died of Tuberculosis on August 13, 1826. While I’m sure medicine had vastly improved during his lifetime, there was still no significant help for Tuberculosis.
So often we determine the value of a person by their beauty, wisdom, athletic prowess, intelligence, college degree, or bank account, but so often these things have nothing to do with the real value of a person. It who the person is inside that we should be looking at. That is the person of value.
My sister-in-law was mentally disabled, but while she wasn’t an athlete, a lawyer, doctor, or nurse, she was one of the most valuable people I have ever known. She didn’t leave some great mark on history, or set any world records, but she left her special mark on my heart, and on the hearts of the rest of her family. Marlyce was a child in many ways, and yet not in ways of playing with toys. She loved to bake and knit. And as a Special Olympian, she learned to bowl and totally loved it. Another thing that she totally loved, was being an aunt. Marlyce loved babies.
I could always tell when Marlyce had been baking chocolate chip cookies before we arrived, because even before the smell hit me, I could tell by the smile on her face. She knew chocolate chip cookins are my favorite, and she loved pleasing me by having them there for me. As I said, she had a way of getting into your heart and staying there. In fact, once she got to know you, you were like family. She didn’t have enemies, or strangers…just friends she hadn’t met yet.
Marlyce left us in 1989. She was only 39 years old at the time. Though she has been gone now for 23 year, I can still see her smiling face and her her infectious laugh. She comes to my mind whenever I smell or eat chocolate chip cookies. I still miss her very much and every day. Happy birthday sweet Marlyce. We love you very much.