Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One

Newsweek (New York, NY), February 16, 2009


Ann Banks, editor of First-Person America, an anthology of oral histories collected by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, wrote:

I was raised on Depression stories; this was only one of many told around our dinner table. Hearing them again and again, I became fascinated by the role that stories play during hard times—the way they seem to strengthen people, offering a bulwark against loneliness and feelings of personal failure. That is how I came to find myself spending a year in a dimly lit storage room in the Library of Congress, sorting through thousands of interviews with ordinary Americans telling of how they survived the Great Depression.

The stories were collected in the late 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project, a unit of the Works Progress Administration that employed out-of-work writers. But before the intended series of anthologies could be published, the Writers’ Project was Red-baited out of existence. The oral histories—of tobacco farmers, smugglers, midwives, jazz musicians, oil roustabouts and others—ended up crammed in rickety filing cabinets in a remote storage room in the library stacks.

When I learned of these forgotten stories, I decided to try to finish what the project had started by editing an anthology of the material. Sifting through the 150,000 pages in the dusty storage room, I was looking to fall in love. And I did. P> These days, we are in the midst of an economic meltdown. Now that hard times have returned, I believe storytelling is due for a revival. While the Federal Writers’ Project is no longer around, it has inspired a modern version in StoryCorps, a five-year-old oral-history organization that encourages people to “celebrate one another’s lives through listening.” And we have just elected a president who invited us on his transition Web site to “Start right now. Tell us your story.”

We need again to imagine a future that is meaningful in the face of difficult circumstances. Listening to each other’s stories may grant us a sense of common purpose that money can’t buy.


Subjects Covered: education, healing, personal storytelling

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