Monday, December 8, 2008

Writing History Again

President-elect Obama wants a massive public works project to repair roads, build rapid transit and make America green. Nice things to do with my tax money but let us not forget the finer things in life. In my last post I wanted Mr. Obama to put some money into some fine art in our modern built Post Offices. Now I want him to also open the money bags to today’s young writers, composers, geographers and cartographers.

From 1936 to 1943 the WPA and the States sponsored several projects for writers including Folklore Project and the Federal Writers Project. The Folklore Project included the Slave Narrative project and Life Histories Project. The Federal Writers Project included my favorite works: the American Guide Series. Now it’s time to do them all over again - with a few changes.

The Slave Narrative project concentrated on the history of slavery in the South gathering information from wills, slavery related papers and narratives from former slaves. The narratives are most informative because the writers use the exact language of the former slave, for example:

LULA FLANNIGAN Ex-slave, 78 years.
"Dey says I wuz jes fo' years ole when de war wuz over, but I sho' does member dat day dem Yankee sojers come down de road. Mary and Willie Durham wuz my mammy and pappy, en dey belong ter Marse Spence Durham at Watkinsville in slav'ry times."
"When word cum dat de Yankee sojers wuz on de way, Marse Spence en his sons wuz 'way at de war. Miss Betsey tole my pappy ter take en hide de hosses down in de swamp. My mammy help Miss Betsey sew up de silver in de cotton bed ticks. Dem Yankee sojers nebber did find our whitefolks' hosses and deir silver."
"Miss Marzee, she wuz Marse Spence en Miss Betsey's daughter. She wuz playin' on de pianny when de Yankee sojers come down de road. Two sojers cum in de house en ax her fer ter play er tune dat dey liked. I fergits de name er dey tune. Miss Marzee gits up fum de pianny en she low dat she ain' gwine play no tune for' no Yankee mens. Den de sojers takes her out en set her up on top er de high gate post in front er de big house, en mek her set dar twel de whole regiment pass by. She set dar en cry, but she sho' ain' nebber played no tune for dem Yankee mens!"

Disclaimer: I mean no offense by this except, it is from a real historical narrative. Believe me there are a lot worse that this one.

Today instead of Slave Narratives lets do narratives of Native American’s. Let’s fine out how they feel about living in today’s society, life on the reservation, and living their lives in the modern world as Natives.

The Life Histories Project employed over 300 writers who produced thousands of documents - typically 2,000-15,000 words in length, varying in form from narrative to dialogue to report a case history. The histories describe the informant's family education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores, medical needs, diet and miscellaneous observations. Pseudonyms were often substituted for individuals and places named in the narrative texts. I have a copy of one of these narratives done for my great-uncle C.

Now let’s do the same today and put some young writers to work to collect the narratives of our dying off Korean veterans and our graying Vietnam veterans. I bet they have a lot to say about their times that we should really listen to.

Finally it's time to redo the America Guide Series which were originally written in three parts for the then 48 states and the Alaska territory: state’s history, essays about various subjects germane to the state and a travel/tour section.

Round up today’s writes, geographers and cartographers and let’s redo the whole series. This time we can include Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

So Mr. President-elect get going and find all those young high school graduates who like to write, all the Writer Academy graduates who can’t find a job, geographers and such and put them to work. We need some new books. If John Steinbeck could do it so can America’s new writers - we might find a new Steinbeck.

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