Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (2024)

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (2)

This laudatory experiment in social documentary led to the collection of over 1,200 life histories.

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (3)

By Dr. Taylor Arnold
Associate Professor of Linguistics and Data Science
Data Science Program Coordinator
University of Richmond

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (4)

By Dr. Courtney Rivard
Assistant Professor, English and Comparative Literature
Director, Digital Literacy and Communications (DLC) Lab
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (5)

By Dr. Lauren Craig Tilton
E. Claiborne Robins Professor of Liberal Arts
Data Science Advisory Board Member
Interdisciplinary Program Coordinator, Interdisciplinary Studies
University of Richmond

Introduction

Overview

“The people, all the people, must be known, they must be heard,” proclaimed William T. Couch in 1939 from Chapel Hill. A respected editor turned part-time government bureaucrat, Couch served as director of the University of North Carolina Press and the Southeast regional director of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP).1As economic turmoil engulfed the nation, his concern for the region’s future mounted in tandem with elected leaders, government workers, and academics. Couch also joined cultural workers across the United States, such as writer James Agee and photographer Marion Post Wolcott. They shared a belief in the power of documentary expression to render visible silenced communities. However, with crucial interlocutors, including New Deal liberals in the FWP and sociologists, he troubled over how to “authentically” and “accurately” represent people and their conditions that were honest about the obstacles faced by the South while challenging depictions of Southern life as antiquated, depraved, and languid. “Somehow they must be given representation, somehow they must be given voice and allowed to speak, in their essential character,” Couch argued.2

The desire to circulate Southern voices grew out of distress over how academic sociology and literature intellectuals portrayed the region. While the former risked reducing people to generalizations and nameless statistics further obscured by dense academic prose, the latter often depicted the region as backward through stereotypical characterizations, a theme that federal bureaucrats drew on to argue that the region could not modernize and move out of the Great Depression. The stakes heightened as intellectuals moved between the academy and the New Deal state to identify and develop solutions. Couch proposed the Southern Life History Project (SLHP) as a special initiative in the FWP to address these issues. Government leaders such as Henry Alsberg, state FWP directors such as Edwin Bjorkman and William McDaniel, and federal writers such as Bernice Harris and Ida Moore worked with Couch to determine how the initiative could best document people’s life stories. Relying on the existing state and local FWP offices, the project employed over 150 federal writers and editors across the Southeast. This laudatory experiment in social documentary led to the collection of over 1,200 life histories in which Southerners shared their own stories of life during the Great Depression.

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Projectrecovers the history of the SLHP and its efforts to reconfigure the life history method. We employ an interdisciplinary approach that combines close readings of archival material with computational methods that analyze patterns across the collection. The digital platform gives readers an opportunity to explore archival materials and data alongside our argument, which opens up new forms of reading and interaction in the humanities. We address five questions:

  1. What were the motivating factors that led to the creation of the SLHP?
  2. How did the SLHP come into formation?
  3. How did the project come to define the form of a life history, and who was deemed capable of writing them?
  4. Which rhetorical strategies did SLHP writers employ to document interviewees’ lives, and how did these decisions shape who was and was not represented?
  5. What are the legacies of the SLHP?

In addressing these questions, we demonstrate key points in the struggle over what counted as social knowledge, how to represent social conditions accurately, and who could produce such knowledge. Our digital platform is organized into layers that correspond to a critical question motivating our analysis.

The organization of our text into layers reflects our methodology, which brings together the concept of rhetorical ecology with the spatial turn and computational text analysis in digital humanities. The rhetorical ecology approach emerged from rhetoric and composition studies to better understand how types of rhetoric, notably texts, were invented.3It calls for a move away from focusing on the thought process of individual writers toward an analysis of the larger ecosystem in which the writing occurs and the social processes and power structures that shape such systems. Rhetorical ecology places the collection of life histories within a complex ecosystem that includes SLHP administrators, writers, editors, and institutions, including the academic fields, higher education, and government agencies. To demonstrate the extent of this ecosystem, we turn to the digital humanities.4While mapping serves as evidence and argument aboutwhowas represented and by whom, text analysis through topic modeling and document clustering demonstratehowpeople were represented. Along with revealing our interdisciplinary methodological approach, the use of layers instead of chapters or sections illustrates how the digital modality of our text shaped and was shaped by our methods and form of writing.

The design and navigation of the site is an ecology as well. Readers will note that their screen is divided into two side-by-side portions. The left-hand side of the screen contains the Layers of our textual argument, and the right-hand side displays: Map Interface and Theme Interface. Readers can engage with this interlinking digital text in different ways. The Layers include links that will adjust the Map Interface and the Theme Interface to match a specific point in the textual argument.

Additionally, the Layers contain links as well as figures that provide digital copies of clear archival evidence cited in the argument. One can select a layer either on the home page or on the menu on the top right of the interface. The default setting on the right side is the Map Interface to convey the scope of the SLHP to the reader immediately. However, readers can explore the Theme Interface by selecting the button on the top left of the Map Interface. Within the Theme Interface, readers can explore the collection by topic models or document clustering. They serve as evidence for the argumentation in the Layers as well as an approach to access and discover the SLHP archive held at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection. Connected and mutually reinforcing, our digital text places data, evidence, method, interpretation, and argument together through text, image, and interactive visualizations, demonstrating the ecology behind our writing and research. For more about the collection, data, and computation approaches, see Methods.

The Layers

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Layer 1: Motivation for the SLHPexplores the factors that led to the creation of life histories by demonstrating how Chapel Hill became the center of debates over sociological knowledge production and how to define the South during the early 1900s. As director of UNC Press in Chapel Hill, Couch was immersed in ongoing debates at the time over how to document social conditions most accurately, including what gets counted as evidence, who are legitimate researchers, and how findings should be written. The field of sociology enjoyed prominence as a powerful intellectual arbiter in these debates during the 1920s and 1930s, when the social sciences were forging and institutionalizing their methodological toolkit. While certain parts of the discipline, such as the Columbia School, privileged quantitative data to develop generalized social truths, other parts, such as the Chicago School and Chapel Hill School, focused on qualitative data of individuals to study specific sociological features. Couch argued that both qualitative and quantitative approaches obscured the voices of the people by relying on faceless statistics or vague abstractions. Instead, he desired to create a new method of documentation that let the people speak for themselves.

Layer 2: The Formation of the SLHPdetails how the project formed within the Federal Writers’ Project. As a New Deal agency, the FWP was part employment project and part laudatory experiment in federal support of cultural work.5Shaped by emerging documentary practices that privileged folkways and institutional possibilities created by the vast bureaucratic infrastructure of the FWP, the documentation of “life histories” was Couch’s answer to the debate between sociologists over how to best capture the real nature of Southern life.6To accomplish this project, Couch sent unemployed white-collar workers, hired as federal writers, across the Southeast region to interview fellow Southerners about their lives. The ability to hear from Southerners in their own words, Couch argued, lent authority and authenticity to their claims about their conditions.

Layer 3: Defining Life Histories and Qualified Writersturns to mapping the topology of the interlocutors that shaped the purpose and possibilities of the SLHP through visual and textual forms of argument. Writers, editors, and administrators negotiated and forged a new method of social documentation that they believed could provide a mechanism to understand the challenges of the American South as articulated by those grappling with the effects of industrialization and systems of economic and racial inequality. The experiment led to the development of what Couch framed as a “new device” of documentary expression called a “life history,” oral interviews of everyday people’s life experiences from their viewpoint captured in words by writers.

Yet, the SLHP emerged among a crowded landscape of documentary projects in the FWP and beyond, which shaped who was and wasnotrepresented. They focused on what they labeled as the “typical” Southerner, which they defined on the Black/White racial binary and by occupation. Such a binary was produced by encouraging writers to avoid collecting life histories from ethnic and indigenous communities as these groups were not deemed “typical.” SLHP positioned Southern laborers as perceptive about their conditions and shaped by the past and the present to disrupt stereotypes about the region as uneducated, lazy, and backward. In the process, the audience for the life histories comes into focus. By centering the hardships of the White working class through first-person narrative stories that emphasized the emotional realities of the everyday experience, they became the voices of the South for middle- and upper-class White readers primarily residing on the East Coast. These stories complicated problematic regional stereotypes but simultaneously erased the brutality of segregation and the effects of slavery by omitting stories that addressed such important issues, thereby reifying cultural and structural racism.

The layer then turns to how assumptions about race, gender, expertise, and proximity shaped who could be a writer. Rather than seeking highly disciplined academics, SLHP administrators sought writers they believed could access the desired communities, listen, and effectively write the history recounted for a more general audience. White women writers dominated this process because of their positionality in Southern society, shaped by gendered and racialized ideas that White women were better equipped to put interviewees at ease, record information, and access the domestic spaces in which the interviews occurred. The hiring practices constituted an opening for White women to hold a key position in gathering social knowledge. However, African American women and men were systematically denied such opportunities due to racist hiring practices that disqualified Black candidates and segregationist beliefs that African American and White writers could not work in the same office space.

InLayer 4: Rhetorical Strategies and Representation, we identify the rhetorical strategies used in the life histories that were developed to persuade readers that they were hearing the person interviewed by using text analysis methods. Writers, editors, and administrators negotiated a form of the life history designed to reduce the presence of the writer and center the voice of the individual, yet with enough literary flourish to maintain their primary audience—White, affluent readers who enjoyed cultural, social, and political power in US society. Centering the interviewee’s voice also included using written dialect to help readers “hear” while they read. However, our analysis reveals that such practices were used unevenly as written dialect dominated life histories of African Americans but was used more sparingly among White interviewees. Such stark differences demonstrate how a nearly all White writing staff relied on Jim Crow sensibilities to create images of African American interviewees that conformed to the expectations of the White middle-class intended readership.

Enduring Legacies

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The SLHP, together with other regional units of the FWP, produced nearly 10,000 interviews nationwide, constituting one of the nation’s largest first-person narrative collections.7However, over 80 years later, few have ever heard of the Southern Life History Project’s groundbreaking project or the significant effect on shaping ideas of what counted as social documentation, collective memory, and regional identity. For two brief years, the SLHP offered a different direction for social documentary. They attempted to reconfigure what counted as data and evidence about social conditions, believing that numbers and percentages could tell only part of the story. The richness of individual stories, as told from the interviewees’ point of view, offered another lens into society. They were “human” in a way that statistics could not capture. As we look today to numbers and big data as a privileged form of knowledge about our world, recovering the history of the SLHP offers an opportunity to analyze an earlier moment where there were animated debates about how and if numbers could help us understand each other during a time of great economic, cultural, and social turmoil. Looking back, we can see that our debates are not new but rather a part of a long history abouthowwe knowwhatwe know and the role of data, statistics, and point of view in shaping how we understand pressing social issues.

In aggregate,Layered Livesdemonstrates an entangled story about: how the life histories, as a new form of documentary evidence concerned with capturing authenticity, contested existing approaches to producing sociological knowledge and public memory; the role that gender, class, and race played in negotiating these new methods; and how this genre of social documentary helped to shape notions of what it meant to be an American and a Southerner during a time of political, social, and economic unrest. While we address these themes, there are many exciting directions to understand the SLHP, which readers can see by moving through exploratory interfaces or by analyzing theLife Histories Data Set. We invite readers to pose and answer questions of their own. We hope that by moving through this digital text, readers will see how our argument unfolds in new ways made possible by combining innovative methods with new affordances of the digital medium.

Situated Knowledges

As with the layers, rhetorical ecology also allows us to acknowledge and position ourselves. We bring together a range of theories, methods, and ways of knowing that shaped our training and areas of expertise. Courtney Rivard specializes in rhetoric and composition and explores the intersection of archival rhetorics and feminist studies. She is particularly interested in how digital protocols, such as categorization, indexing, and tagging practices, rhetorically shape notions of race, gender, and national belonging in archives. Lauren Tilton is trained in documentary studies and draws on digital methods to produce evidence and convey scholarly arguments about US culture and society. Taylor Arnold is trained in the field of data science. His work applies and develops corpus-based techniques to study how messages are communicated through texts and visual media. Together, we engage with the digital humanities to bring together our ways of approaching scholarship, from applying computational models to text data to close reading in the physical archives to study the history, methods, and cultural work of the Southern Life Histories Collection. Because this project is transdisciplinary, we delve further into how rhetorical studies, documentary studies, data science, and digital humanities shape this project.

Rhetorical Studies

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We begin with rhetorical studies, broadly conceived as “the study of producing discourses and interpreting how, when and why discourses are persuasive.”8Rhetoric is often figured in popular culture in a negative light as if it is not “real” and “authentic,” but only about persuading or convincing someone of something by any means possible. However, as Kenneth Burke, one of the most prominent rhetorical scholars of the 20th century, who not by coincidence lived and wrote during the same period of concern in our study, argues, “wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning,’ there is ‘persuasion.’”9For Burke rhetoric is the study of how meaning is produced, which necessarily requires persuasion; therefore, rhetoric is constitutive of producing the very notion of what is authentic.

Rhetorical studies offer a number of theories to understand how meaning is produced through written texts, performance, speeches, art, images, or any type of communication. These theories involve close analysis of how a rhetor (the agent of the rhetoric) produces rhetoric. For example, how does a rhetor establish their credibility or ethos? How does a rhetor constitute, invent, and frame the audience they aim to persuade? What is the situation or exigence that led to the creation of the rhetoric and the constraints that frame what is possible? How does the modality (digital, oratory, bodily, etc.) affect the rhetoric? These same questions that help to analyze how rhetoric is produced can also be used to craft rhetoric more effectively, which is why many scholars emphasize composition along with rhetoric.

While theories that focus on the rhetor, the audience, and the text are important, they cannot be analyzed in isolation because they each play a part in producing rhetoric, often in dynamic and systematic ways. For this reason, the theory of rhetorical ecology emerged in the 1980s to attend to how rhetoric was the result of “dynamic interlocking systems which structure the social activity of writing.”10We draw on this theory of rhetorical ecology to demonstrate the systems involved in producing the genre of life histories. As we show, life histories were the result of complex historical conditions, competition between different projects, conflicting ideologies held by different administrators, conceptions of an American audience, interpretive decisions by individual writers, perceptions of and by interviewees, and structures of power inherently linked to notions of race, gender, and class. Rhetorical ecology helps us attend to the impact of these interlocking systems on the production of life histories.

With the theory of rhetorical ecology, we also draw on feminist rhetorical historiography in our methodological approach. Gaining prominence in the 1990s, feminist rhetorical historiography emerged as a response to absences and silences within the subfield of the history of rhetorics. History of rhetorics is concerned both with the historical emergence of the study of rhetoric and applying rhetorical theory to historiographic methods. However, these histories and methods all too often reinscribe histories and power relations that center White male agents of rhetoric by privileging particular kinds of evidence. Many scholars questioned these approaches, resulting in a “critical shift from historical subjects to historical production itself.”11This shift brought attention to archival methods and archival structures, leading to studies concerned with analyzing how archives could not be understood “as a passive receptacle[s] for historical documents and their ‘truths,’ or a benign research space[s], but rather as a dynamic site[s] of rhetorical power.”12

Central to these studies were feminist rhetoricians concerned with developing new methods to recover voices that have been historically silenced.13Among these scholars is K.J. Rawson who has argued for methods that work to “queer the archive” by destabilizing “normative archival practices.”14Digital methods are often heralded as having such destabilizing possibilities. However, Graban cautions that digital methods must go beyond mere digitization to avoid digitizing “analogue desires” that “remain stuck in a notion of recovery that privileges cumulative advantage” at the expense of more complex histories.15She argues that combining archival metadata and data visualization with a critical feminist rhetorical perspective can offer alternatives to mere recovery work.

Layered Livestakes up this call to use digital methods to visualize archival metadata alongside close readings of archival material and computational text analysis. These visualizations offer new ways of seeing the SLHP archive that focus on how the intersections of race, gender, and class inform the emergence of the project and the composition of life histories. In so doing, our metadata visualizations reveal that White women were the most prolific writers in the project, recovering a history that has never been discussed before. However, their roles and relationship to the interviewees that they wrote about were complicated by power structures that they both resisted and perpetuated. Through close reading and computational text analysis, such complications come into view. White women were able to write the vast majority of life histories by using gendered assumptions about their “natural” ability as sympathetic listeners and accurate recorders of information to their advantage, while simultaneously supporting principles of whiteness that diminished the abilities of Black writers and presented a notion of Southern identity as following along a “color line” in which interviewees who were defined by their gaze as neither Black or White were not given much attention in the project.

Documentary Studies

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Next, we situate this project within documentary studies. A prominent area of concern is how documentary production shapes cultural, political, and social belonging in the United States. Specifically, scholars have demonstrated how documentary work is a tool of power.16Part of this power is produced through documentary claims to truth telling and capturing reality, theorized by medium such as film and photography by scholars including Bill Nichols and William Stott. As part of this work, scholars have identified the 1930s as the era that documentary emerged as a genre for representing social life and therefore a new and powerful category for cultural production. Scholars such as Jonathan Kahana, Paula Rabinowitz, and Trinh Minh-Ha have focused on the politics of representation, asking us to consider who is chosen as the subject of documentary and why, how they are represented, and who controls this documentary work.17These questions are central toLayered Livesand inform our analysis of the entangled relationship between medium, scope, representation, and power that shaped the SLHP.

At the same time, our work is part of a recent turn to consider how a narrow definition of documentary may be limiting how we understand the cultural and social work of documentary. This shift has been led by Sonnet Retman who argues that to understand the impact of documentary expression in the 1930s, we must consider how cultural expression does not often neatly fit into a single genre.18Drawing on the work of Wai Chee Dimock, she states that two hybrid genres developed during the era that challenged documentary’s claim to the real and authentic and offered a space for critique of the “folk,” an idea that was being used to define who was and was not an “authentic” member of the nation. Our work is a part of this shift to reassess the contours of documentary and the 1930s.19Jerrold Hirsch’sPortrait of Americais one of the only pieces of scholarship to study the SLHP as a unique initiative within the FWP.20The book celebrated the SLHP by situating it within a story of American pluralism. On the other hand, our work challenges this framing by comparing and contrasting how the project configured its goals in contestation rather than complementing other FWP projects and the larger ecosystem of social documentary. We also build off of Catherine Stewart’s analysis of the Ex-Slave Narrative Project inLong Past Slaverythat examines the writing process of the narratives to look more closely at the understudied Southern Life History Program. Like Stewart, who illuminates the agents in the creation of the ex-slave narratives, we also focus on the writing process of the life histories, but do so by centering rhetorical theory and documentary studies to look at how debates over documentary methods led to the life histories program.

Layered Livesexpands the debate about documentary work in the era. Rather than understanding the Southern Life History Program, and the larger Federal Writers’ Projects documentary projects, as a drive toward romantic nationalism and cultural pluralism, as historian Jerold Hirsch has argued, we focus on the debates, particularly over method, that caused FWP projects to define their scope along geographical, racialized, and gendered lines.21We track how efforts to document Americans through life histories became a site of active negotiation between three ways of representing social life—anthropology, folklore, and sociology—to forge a different kind of documentary work. Focused on the present rather than the past, lived experiences instead of folk tales, and qualitative over quantitative evidence, the writers listened to people describe their circ*mstances and then wrote their life histories. Building on research on the debates over social science knowledge, our project also historicizes arguments about the relationship between qualitative and qualitative research and thekindof data necessary to understand people’s lives.22This shows how different interviewers deployed different practices and how their practices impacted how Americans were documented. Since the FWP was about documenting America, it also became a site that determined who counted as a part of the nation. Looking closely at how people were represented reveals how communities were included or excluded.

Data Science

The field of data science also shaped our exploration of the rhetorical work of the SLHP. While identified as an independent field of research only within the past decade, core foundational ideas of data science were first formulated in the 1960s and 1970s by John Tukey. In his seminal workExploratory Data Analysis, Tukey stressed the need to “[look] at data to see what it seems to say.”23He argued that identifying new insights from data requires the use of data visualization techniques and a move away from emphases on models grounded in mathematical formalisms. Extending Tukey’s call to formulate hypotheses through graphical methods, scholarship by, among others, Jacques Bertin, Leland Wilkinson, William Cleveland, Nadieh Bremer, and Shirley Wu have argued that data visualizations can stand on their own as forms of knowledge creation and argumentation.24These ideas permeate the data analysis in our project, which centers graphical displays overlaid on a map and relatively simple tables and summary statistics.

Critical to data science is attention tohowdata is created and how this shapes which questions and areas of inquiry one can and cannot pursue. Central to our approach has been D’Iganzio and Klein’s call for data science to approach this work through the lens of data feminism, which thinks critically about the role of power, data, and categorization. We pair their approach with Jessica Marie Johnson’s call to pay attention to the history of quantification, specifically cautions about the enumeration of Black life.25In theMethods, we delve further into data construction. Our process is attuned to systems of power produced through data construction with attention to race and gender.26Along with shaping how we created the data, their theories and cautions shaped our approach to text analysis.

Drawing on existing text analysis methods, we further work on how computational text analysis can reveal characteristics about genre and theme.27We apply multiple forms of textual analysis to model a multimodal analysis of textual discourse. Topic modeling, particularly after collapsing noun phrases, shows the perpendicular structure of the themes and subjects at stake in the narratives.28Comparing phonetic edit distance to an English corpus, we isolate and analyze the use of dialect in the narratives.29Finally, by isolating particular parts of speech using document clustering, we explore patterns about the kinds of language evoked in the corpus.30In particular, we demonstrate how document clustering can disrupt computational evidence that risks reifying rather than identifying and disrupting problematic rhetorical practices in the SLHP. Our approach blends more traditional text analysis methods (i.e. topic modeling) with methods that are less common in digital humanities scholarship (i.e. document clustering), and demonstrates how expanding our computational approaches can facilitate rhetorical studies and documentary studies.

Digital Humanities

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Finally, the project is positioned within the digital humanities (DH). As an area that brings computational methods to bear on the humanities, DH shapes the methods, evidence, and form of scholarly communication. Turning primary sources into “humanities data” has been met with resistance, and, as Miriam Posner has stated, been “a necessary contradiction.”31Debates have ensued over whether computational methods can even produce the evidence necessary for humanities scholarship, with one of the most recent flashpoints being the dismissal of such methods by Nan Z. Da inCritical Inquiry.32We see our work as moving beyond this tired debate about if computational methods can be evidence to questions aboutwhichmethods andwhat kindsof evidence they produce. While “distant reading” approaches in digital humanities have been applied to many literary works, there is relatively minimal comparative analysis on archival sources and oral histories. Key to figuring out which methods are appropriate for which kind of primary sources is working with experts in computational methods. As Arnold and Tilton have argued in theDebates in the Digital Humanitiesseries, statistics is central to DH and why we wanted to not only draw on statistical methods but model how a trained statistician is central to DH scholarship.33We not only hope that this project demonstrates how collaboration across divisions such as “humanities,” “science,” and “social science” can lead to new scholarship, but also how the “technical” expert is central to this kind of work and should be credited accordingly, as a co-author.

We also draw on a long legacy of projects in the digital humanities that have made use of digital forms to convey scholarly knowledge such as early examples like University of Virginia’sValley of the Shadowto contemporary examples like University of Richmond’sRenewing Inequality.Where this project departs is the combination of substantial textual argumentation with archival evidence and interactive data visualizations. Rather than toggling between different pages, the project offers a clear, explicit textual interpretation with embedded images of the archival source alongside the computational interpretation of the data through a text analysis visualizer and an interactive map. The text, primary sources, and computational evidence is literally on the same screen. In so doing, we are also modeling a shift called for by the subfield of digital history. In the co-authored “Digital History and Argument,” over 25 scholars identified new approaches to historical argumentation made possible by digital forms and called for their recognition by the field.34Our project offers a blend of more traditional argumentation (i.e. text) with newer forms (i.e. interactive visualizations such as graphs and maps) in order to model how multiple forms of argumentation further scholarship. Moreover, we show how scholarship can make arguments (i.e. the layer) while leaving space for readers to explore the data and ask new questions (i.e. the interactive map and open access data).

Finally, we turn to our positionalities. As scholars trained and steeped in these respective fields, we brought together our areas of expertise to collaborate and co-create across disciplinary boundaries. This project has not always been easy. Three authors with substantially different training working together to refine the project and find a shared voice was a challenging task. Peer reviewers offered generous, supportive, and pointed feedback pushing us to weave our voices together into a single theoretical framework that was made stronger by the multiple strands of scholarship from rhetoric and composition, documentary studies, data science, and the digital humanities. We have worked to realize their feedback, even amid a global pandemic. There are inevitably analytical possibilities that we, as White scholars situated in the United States, have not explored that those with other kinds of training as well as affective, locational, and embodied ways of knowing would bring to such a project. All data is open access. All code is open source. We look forward to future scholarship that continues to push the boundaries of interdisciplinary, collaborative digital scholarship.

Layer 1: Motivation for the SLHP

Introduction

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During the 1920s and 1930s, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill became an epicenter of debates about how to create sociological knowledge by identifying and addressing the problems of the South.1As the institution of higher education aspired to become a national research university and an intellectual leader in the region, the opportunity to address the region’s cultural, economic, and social conditions was led by two increasingly prestigious institutional units: the University of North Carolina Press (UNC Press) and the Institute for Research in Social Sciences (IRSS). William “Bill” T. Couch, who took the reins of UNC Press in 1925 and became director in 1932, published work that did not shy away from the South’s problems, demonstrating that reflexive, critical scholarship could come from within the region. Regularly publishing work by acclaimed sociologist Howard Odum and the IRSS, Couch began to question if academic prose driven by statistics adequately communicated the challenges of the region to scholarly and popular audiences. He worried that it often failed to accurately represent the actual lives of the people being documented.

The stakes of the debate heightened with the Great Depression, which placed the American South under a microscope. The region’s economic precarity combined with a culture of segregation further cemented the region’s reputation as anti-modern, backward, and impervious to progress; questions about the region’s fitness for full inclusion and citizenship abounded.2How to assess and represent the challenges of the region became a central debate.3Two warring schools of intellectual thought framed the academic and literary representations of the South.4The Agrarians, based at Vanderbilt University, romanticized a return to White, rural, folk culture arguing sociological scholarship was the handmaiden of Northern intellectuals bent on the erosion of Southern traditional values. Howard Odum and his UNC-Chapel Hill colleagues, on the other hand, advocated for systematic, scientific studies of the region through fieldwork conducted by experts so that solutions to social problems could be identified. The evidence constructed a region that was distinct due to its regional culture but also a part of modernity and therefore the nation, earning them a reputation as advocates for “the New South.”

Couch and UNC Press offered another angle on the debate. Attuned to the literary marketplace, Couch understood that readers—who were primarily White, urban, affluent, and held significant social and political power in US society—were eager to learn about the region. UNC Press, he argued, should be at the center of releasing cutting-edge scholarship about the South, for the press and its authors were best positioned to produce academically rigorous intellectual work. They should not be “inoffensive” books or hyperbolic literature but ask difficult and challenging questions, he contended.5Rather, they should be books that offered a lens into the region, often aided by a sociological bent.

While Couch appreciated scholarship that offered sociological knowledge, especially that concerning the southern region, written for a broader public, he questioned the field’s quantitative turn in the early 20th century. He did not believe that faceless, generalized statistics in dense academic prose effectively communicated the conditions in the region. An ardent believer that the South had much to offer the nation, which would only improve if the region addressed their serious issues, he set out on a mission to find more ways to document and understand the region. The New Deal would open up an exciting opportunity to put ideas into action. This layer explores the larger historical context and academic debates in Chapel Hill that led to Couch’s idea of the Southern Life History Project (SLHP).

Welcome to Chapel Hill

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Paving Franklin Street was just one sign of a town on the rise in the 1920s. Chapel Hill was growing as the state’s flagship university expanded and approved over a million dollars in construction projects.6Half a million was designated for Graham Memorial Hall, a student union intended to serve as the center of student life. Named after the president of UNC during World War I, the building’s name and prominence signaled the university’s aspirations. Edward Kidder Graham had sought to transform UNC into a research university that, as he stated, “would emphasize the fact that research and classical culture rightly interpreted are as deeply and completely service as any vocational service.”7His emphasis on the pursuit of study and research in the liberal arts was shaped by contemporary debates about the goals of the modern university. UNC, he argued, should become a preeminent research university committed to molding students with a concern for the public good.8To realize these goals meant building the necessary infrastructure, and UNC had plans to expand southward from Franklin Street rapidly.

While the freshly paved street on which a generation new to car ownership drove Model T’s was a Southern booster’s dream, the main thoroughfare offered daily reminders of the social order.9UNC and Chapel Hill leaders’ aspirations were shaped by racialized and gendered understandings of who constituted the public. Segregation defined Southern life, and Chapel Hill was no exception. While African Americans had built and maintained a great deal of the campus since its creation in 1789 and were continually employed in domestic and labor-intensive work such as cooking and cleaning, they were denied entry into the classroom. In fact, the state would go as far as to offer scholarships for young Black men to attend institutions like the University of Michigan rather than desegregate.10Chapel Hill’s and the state’s flagship university’s aspirations and challenges were indicative of the era.11

The Southern Research University

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The 1920s heralded a cultural shift made possible by postwar economic prosperity, an expanding consumer culture, and increasing progressive social mores.12The accouterments of modernity such as cinemas and radios multiplied in urban spaces as millions of Americans moved from the countryside. New South boosters were also eager to advertise the region’s embrace of certain trappings of modernity, including participation in commercial markets in rural areas, small towns, and cities alike, a process that was well underway during the late 1800s.13Trains connected small towns across the South to a national and global economy, while the introduction of cars changed Southerners’ relationship to mobility. While eager to advertise certain kinds of modernity, White power brokers were less eager to advertise the Jim Crow laws designed to shore up segregation and maintain White supremacy, which became a distinguishing feature that earned the South a reputation for being exceptional. The calls for modernization were also echoed inside of Southern universities where intellectual elites argued that well-respected institutions of higher education were a sign of progress.14Efforts throughout the 1920s to raise the profile of UNC as a research university were part and parcel of modernization. Administrators and researchers shared the belief that those who actually resided in the region should have a say about its conditions.

UNC Press was the first university press established in the South, and just three years after its creation, Bill Couch took its reins. Over his next 20 years at the press, Couch transformed the publisher into one of the leading university presses in the nation, helping to fulfill the UNC administrators’ goal of establishing the state flagship as one of the top research universities in the South. Couch fulfilled the administration’s goal of scholarly research by dedicating the press’s focus on the social, economic, and intellectual well-being of the Southeast region. The way the press used its pages to publish research on the South reveals conflicts over who could publish, what counted as scholarly knowledge, and for whom to publish at UNC and throughout the region during the tumultuous times of the Great Depression and the reign of Jim Crow. In many ways, these conflicts of thought also played out in Couch’s own life.

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Couch spent the first 17 years in rural Virginia, where his father earned a living as a local Baptist preacher. Seeking financial stability, the family moved to Chapel Hill in 1917 when his father decided to turn in the collar for the plow. Young Couch worked on the family farm, which floundered, and then was briefly employed by the Southern Power Company before matriculating at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1920. However, his tenure was brief, and he joined the Army as World War I raged. He returned to UNC-Chapel Hill two and a half years later and became involved in the student publicationCarolina Magazine. Couch was still an undergraduate when he caught the attention of university librarian and UNC Press director Louis Round Wilson, thanks to his work as editor ofCarolina Magazine. Recognizing an opportunity to shape intellectual thought, Couch became acting director when Wilson became suddenly ill.15No small task for a 24-year-old.

Young, assertive, and constantly walking a fine line between boorish, arrogant, and visionary, Couch brought an intense interest in the region’s working class, shaped by his upbringing on a farm. More broadly, he was passionate about the future of the South, which required understanding its contemporary social conditions, an ideal project for a press charged with publishing cutting-edge scholarship on the region. This sociological interest, paired with a commitment to Southern liberalism, placed him directly in conversation and at times contestation with acclaimed scholar Howard W. Odum and his newly formed institute next door, the Institute for Research in Social Sciences.

A Center for Sociological Knowledge

Odum was indicative of the research aspirations of the university, yet his job title reflected its past: university President Harry W. Chase recruited him in 1920 as the Kenan Professor of Sociology. Odum’s appointment signaled an institution in flux as his research was at odds with William Kenan, the name behind this endowed chair. Born in North Carolina, Kenan was a Confederate Civil War veteran and served briefly on UNC’s Board of Trustees. He later became infamous for his participation in the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 in which White leaders in the Southern Democratic Party led a coup d’état against the local government that resulted in the murder of White and Black citizens and harkened in a repressive White supremacist government.16Odum’s progressive research combined with an endowed professorship named after this unapologetic White supremacist was emblematic of conflicting impulses within the university.

Born in Georgia, Odum received a BA from Emory College in 1904, an MA from the University of Mississippi in 1906, a PhD in psychology from Clark in 1909, and a PhD in sociology from Columbia University in 1910. He taught at the University of Georgia and then served as dean at Emory College from 1919 to 1920 before arriving at UNC.17His research agenda used scientific methods to study folklore and music of the South and was marked by a progressive approach to race relations. His progressive stance was largely informed by the friendships he made while conducting research with African American communities.18Odum was in a position of power as an endowed professor in charge of the newly formed Department of Sociology and of the School of Public Welfare, which would become known as the School of Social Work.

In 1924, Odum opened the Institute for Research in Social Science (IRSS), which would bring together and build the careers of some of the most important scholars of social life of the 20th century, including Arthur Raper and Rupert Vance. The creation of IRSS (which eventually would be renamed the Odum Institute in its founder’s honor) signified an important investment in scholarly inquiry about social relations in the South and helped to modernize the new South through intellectual thought that championed liberal ideas in politics and race relations.19

IRSS scholars published hundreds of books and articles, mostly through their journalSocial Forcesand the UNC Press, both of which Odum helped launch in 1922.20Odum and Couch recognized that their organizations were not only positioned to be local thought leaders but to shape how the nation understood the region. Moreover, IRSS’s funding was critical to the financial solvency of UNC Press and, consequently, made Odum a powerful voice in the direction of the university press, which often placed him in direct conflict with the fellow White Southerner almost two decades his junior. The stakes of their agreementsanddisagreements heightened as bureaucrats, intellectuals, and the broader public debated the future of the South during a time of economic, cultural, and social turmoil that severe global economic depression exacerbated.

The Great Depression: A Nation in Turmoil

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The financial crash on October 24, 1929, which became known as Black Thursday, had been decades in the making. While the economy grew after the depression of the 1890s and World War I, recurring economic panics following the Civil War served as regular reminders of the US banking system’s vulnerabilities.21Already feeling the impact of global agriculture markets as prices waxed and waned, conditions for agricultural workers only worsened. The nation’s history of settler colonialism resulted in US citizens pushing westward, colonizing native people’s lands, and pursuing agriculture on precarious ground.22Overfarming millions of acres of land and drought left their plows still, and by the 1930s millions of people were migrating in search of subsistence.

Despite the signs, the general sentiment of the Coolidge and the Hoover administrations was that laissez-faire economic policies were working. Government intervention in business and financial markets was curtailed as taxes were reduced, and isolationism was the proclaimed strategy for foreign policy, even as the US significantly meddled with and reshaped Latin America. Hoover planned to continue the course until Black Thursday reminded the nation that its financial institutions remained on precarious ground. Years of unsustainable speculative capital resulted in the crash of the stock market and an economic crisis that quickly moved across the Atlantic. The exigencies of agricultural markets, world war, and capitalism meant too little too late to prevent environmental and economic destruction.23By 1932, unemployment surpassed 12 million.24The ripple through the economy would leave almost one in four Americans unemployed. Millions of Americans were challenging Hoover’s approach to governance and looking to sign up for a different path.

Central to national debates about how to end the depression were questions about the role of the federal government and its ability to care for its citizens. By the time Roosevelt came into office in 1933, he was a seasoned veteran of US politics and attuned to the changing will of Americans. His election was built on his strong rebuke of 1920s laissez-faire policy and embrace of Progressive Era commitments such as the federal government’s active role in spurring, regulating, and reforming American labor and business. Roosevelt’s administration advocated for extensive federal intervention in the economy and providing social services to alleviate the effects of the depression. Such policies were possible because of a shift in the nation’s willingness to expand federal power if it meant relief and reform. Exactly how the government should intervene, which branches of the government had authority for which tasks, and which policies and reforms to implement and for whom occupied national debates. The expansion of federal regulatory power through an activist government that regulated the economy and society became a central tenet of his administration’s signature policies known collectively as the New Deal and its underlying political philosophy as New Deal liberalism. Intellectuals from academia, including Couch and Odum, were active participants.

The Great Depression: Problem of the South

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In the South, the Great Depression exacerbated an economy mired by exploitative agricultural and industrial capitalists who created poor working conditions, offered low wages, and used the logic of White supremacy to maintain power. Intellectuals, including Couch and Odum, argued over how to assess and understand the impact of global depression on the region and which paths would best alleviate the conditions, a debate informed by a fraught relationship between federal intervention and the region’s White leadership. Federal government leadership and Northern intellectuals alike understood the region as lagging behind the rest of the nation. Seen as impervious to change, the South came under a microscope as stereotypes abounded of an anti-modern, depraved, and uneducated region. The South’s economic woes, seen as exceptional and pervasive even by contemporary standards, combined with a culture of segregation enforced through Jim Crow laws and spectacular racial violence, left questions about the region’s fitness for full inclusion and citizenship.25

The Great Depression further animated regional debates about the character and future of the South among intellectuals residing in the region’s universities. The entanglement of the New Deal state and literary market with academics meant scholarship from academia impacted government policy and ideas about the region. Couch and Odum sought to position themselves at the center of these regional debates through the scholarship that they produced. While they argued for different approaches to understanding social conditions in the region, both were liberal progressives who were critical but still supportive of modernization. Neither was eager to romanticize Southern “tradition.” Their positioning placed them in debate with a powerful set of intellectuals based at another Southern university on the ascent, Vanderbilt University.

Southern Agrarians versus Regionalists

Questions about how to provide relief to and reform the South spurred a deep rift in academic and literary thought, provoking the intellectual community into two warring schools of thought: Southern Agrarians and Regionalists. Agrarians were best represented through Vanderbilt University academics John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. Their 1930 manifesto,I’ll Take My Stand,renounced modernization through industrial capitalism. “The younger southerners, who are being converted frequently to the industrial gospel, must come back to the support of the Southern tradition,” they wrote, adding that “they must be persuaded to look very critically at the advantages of becoming a ‘new South’ which will be only an undistinguished replica of the usual industrial community.”26Looking to save “traditional Southern life,” they advocated for a return to agrarian life and the “culture of the soil.” Such calls for a return to traditional values were made without any discussion of the institutionalized systems of slavery that shaped such “tradition.”

Southern Agrarians also felt that Northern progressive thought had infiltrated university halls in the South with their ideas about modernization through industrialization and consumerism. They particularly turned their scrutiny toward the emerging field of sociology. Agrarians argued that sociological scholarship, much of which was published by UNC Press, aided in the erosion of Southern traditional values. Davidson saw “the sociologist [as] the twentieth-century successor to the nineteenth-century abolitionist. A disturber of the peace and the status quo, he abhorred the concrete, the organic, the religious, and preferred the abstract, the theoretical, and the scientific. Indeed, so blinded by charts, tables and statistics was he that he could not see the flesh and blood individual.”27

As the poster child for sociology and an advocate of “the New South,” Howard Odum and his UNC-Chapel Hill colleagues became the Agrarians’ chief opponents and symbolized the regionalism school of thought.28Many of the “Chapel Hill Sociologists,” which they were labeled, may have grown up and worked in the South, but they were not reactionary romantics of the Old South like the Agrarians. While Odum and his colleagues saw great problems in the region, they advocated for systematic, scientific studies of the region so that solutions to social problems could be found, rather than calling for a return to tradition as did the Agrarians.

Though Odum is often referred to as the founder of this sociological approach of regionalism that centered scientific data to address social problems, his work along with his colleagues is directly indebted to W.E.B. Du Bois and the Atlanta School. Du Bois began working at the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory in 1897 at what is now known as Clark Atlanta University. Under Du Bois’s direction, the lab was the first to collect what was understood as objective, scholarly data about Black communities in the South.29Their pioneering sociological methods produced data that challenged racist pseudoscience representations of Black communities and suggested improvements.30Despite this much earlier and significant advance, Du Bois is rarely credited as the creator of modern American sociology, regional methods, or the sociology of the South.31

While Odum did not center Du Bois’s studies in his own work, he drew on many of his ideas, which guided the development of UNC’s Institute for Research in Social Science. Odum believed that addressing the many problems of the South began with better understanding its unique regional culture. He argued, “Cataloging the traits of the South was the first step toward merging the region with the rest of the nation while maintaining its distinctive culture.”32Therefore, his studies were dedicated to this endeavor of cataloging all types of Southern traits, including folklore, health, technology, and eating habits. His studies painted a dismal picture of an impoverished South in need of economic and cultural reform. To remedy these problems, Odum argued for adapting agricultural ways of life with industrial life to create a “‘new equilibrium between rural and urban’” in order to better integrate into the larger nation.33Additionally, he called for improving “race relations through education” but did not go as far as to call for an end to segregation.34

Couch and the Ecosystem of Publishing

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Amid this debate between Agrarians and Regionalists, Couch came into his intellectual own. While he was distressed over the portrayals of the region as backward and retrograde, Couch did not desire to romanticize or call for a return to “traditional Southern life” like the Southern Agrarians. He believed that romanticizing the region was as unproductive as vilifying the region, for neither helped to identify the very real issues that left millions in poverty nor the possibilities for reforms. He worried that such facile and tired stereotypes of the region risked characterizing the South as beyond reform and change. Instead, he argued that an emphasis on authenticity and realism would hold a mirror up to the South, forcing it to acknowledge the social conditions of the region, which included class animosity spurred by industrial capitalism, a social order maintained by racial violence, and economic conditions often producing poverty. Publishing cutting-edge work of scholars who were experts in assessing social conditions to reshape the debate and characterizations of the region became a raison d’être for Couch and UNC Press, helping to produce a cultural shift on two fronts. First, the press showed that Southerners themselves possessed a critical lens about the region, eventually publishing over 450 titles under Couch’s tutelage. Second, the press actively reshaped how the nation understood the region, rather than simply following or responding to others. The efforts were not just local or regional.

UNC Press participated in a larger growing ecosystem of commercial and university presses shaping how intellectuals, policymakers, and the reading public understood the South. The commercial book industry grew substantially in the 1920s and 1930s, led by some of the most prominent publishing houses such as Houghton, Macmillan, and Viking and magazines such as theNew York Times,Atlantic, andNation. Centered in New York City, the commercial publishing industry’s primary audience was the White, urban middle, and upper class. While sales slowed, book publishing actually maintained a solid footing during the 1930s. One area that caught the attention of publishers, critics, and readers was the South. The publishers noted consumers’—mostly bourgeois White consumers residing in urban communities—interest in the exotic and “Other” places and people outside of their social and cultural milieu. In many ways, such an interest helped spur the Southern Literary Renaissance.35

Importantly, the commercial book industry did not shy away from work that addressed issues in the South, much to the chagrin of the Agrarians who saw Southern presses as complicit in the erosion of Southern values. Agrarian champion Donald Davidson railed against the “great Northern offensive of the 1920s,” which began during the Harding administration and aimed to attack “Southern life and its characteristic institutions.” He argued that:

This attack [was] more abusive and unrelenting than anything the Southern states have experienced since the last Federal soldier was withdrawn from their soil. In the nineteen-twenties there was no single institution, like slavery, upon which attacks could be centered. They had a vaguer objective in the so-called backwardness, or “cultural lag,” of the South. The Northern Press, with all of the Southern Press that takes its cue from New York…unanimously agreed that the South [was] guilty of numerous crimes against progress.36

Picking up Davidson’s argument, George Tindall, a fellow agrarian, surmised that this great Northern offensive largely promulgated by publishers ultimately painted “an image of the benighted South, a savage South of racial hatred and religious fanaticism.”37

Entering the literary marketplace were books by scholars such as Howard Odum, who identified and addressed the South’s problems, novelists such as Erskine Caldwell and Grace Lumpkin, as well as magazine articles on the very topics these books discussed, such as mill workers’ labor struggles and the conditions of tenant farming.38As a result, the commercial press became a site where reformist messages that called for changes to oppressive conditions in the South, such as racial violence, poverty, and the industrial-capitalist order, took precedence over agrarian romanticism. These publishers were the precise Northern presses that the Agrarians railed against as they saw the presses as demonizing the South and its culture.

Publishing Scholarship about the South

While there had been fits and starts in the United States, the early 1900s saw the ascendency of university presses with the rise of the research university. Though commercial publishers were publishing more books about the region, they were still few and far between compared to the scholarly output of Southern academics, which UNC Press harnessed. By the 1930s, academic publishing through a university press was in vogue. Institutions like Johns Hopkins University argued that knowledge should not be limited to those who could participate in the daily life of the university but rather should be more accessible to the broader public.39One mechanism of dissemination was publishing. However, commercial publishers knew the audience for scholarly works was marginal, particularly regarding potential profits. On the other hand, university presses were nonprofits and had major institutions, some of which would become the most affluent nonprofits in the world by the 21st century, behind them.

When Couch took the reins of UNC Press, he was unamused with the university press landscape. Looking to court rather than shy away from contentious and controversial topics and ideas, Couch viewed other university presses as safe and cautious. “There is much in them which should be a warning and an example to us,” he stated, adding that “if the University Press, like Harvard or Yale, is to devote itself to bringing out nice inoffensive books—perfect examples of modern scholarship—it seems to me that the legislative gentlemen who protest at our expenditures have a real reason for their protests.”40If anything, Couch believed the press should be more critical to further rigorous intellectual thought about the region.41Publishing could be a form of intellectual activism, and playing it safe was a conservative stance that silenced rather than fostered intellectual inquiry.42Such a philosophy helped turn UNC Press into an intellectual leader known for publishing accessible, innovative, and often contentious scholarship, but put Couch regularly at odds with his board of directors and university leadership, including Howard Odum.43

While Howard Odum and Couch’s relationship soured over time, Couch valued the cutting-edge research on the social and economic problems of the South coming from the Institute for Research in Social Science. UNC Press became their publishing house, printing 31 books from the institute between 1924 and 1934.44Acclaimed sociologists Arthur Raper and Rupert Vance produced studies on areas including social relations, labor relations, government, and Southern history.45Arthur Raper’sThe Tragedy of Lynching(1933), for example, used case studies to illustrate the prevalence of lynching, describe how White Southerners justified this form of vigilante violence, and explain the cultural and economic impact of lynching on the region.46Reviewing the book in theJournal of Negro History, Rayford W. Logan offered praise for the book calling it “one of the most notable contributions to the literature about America’s greatest shame” and noted that such a book came from a Southern press. He wrote, “Of more than passing interest is the fact that a book so condemnatory of the South should be published by the University of North Carolina Press, although this is by no means the first time that this publishing house has brought out books that do not portray that section as the domicile of chivalry.”47Works like Raper’s garnered acclaim and ire for the IRSS and UNC Press.

Like Odum, Couch shared a concern for the region’s significant challenges. Odum, alongside university leadership, including President Harry W. Chase and prominent faculty such as Edwin Greenlaw, founded UNC Press with visions that the press would be the center of intellectual life in the region by addressing critical concerns. However, the rift between Odum and Couch began to grow as time passed. Complicated by the press’s initial financial dependency on the IRSS, Odum and Couch increasingly disagreed over audiences and what kinds of knowledge could reveal the region’s challenges. It did not help that Couch was disinterested in the quantitative turn underway in sociology, spurred by the field’s interest in securing a position as a science. Couch believed in communicating to a broader audience than academics, necessitating a strategy other than dense specialized prose or faceless statistics.48After all, he was earning a national reputation for publishing some of the most influential scholarship on the region because of his belief that books should be accessible to a range of audiences.49

An Opportunity

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Couch noticed an opportunity to intervene in the larger literary market by publishing works that could appeal to a broader reading public that had stoked the Southern Literary Renaissance. Readers and Southern writers were no longer solely wading in the violent and stale waters of Southern exceptionalism and Lost Cause romanticism. They were looking for fresh, realistic, and critical perspectives on Southern culture and society. Yet, Couch had developed reservations about the work produced as a part of the Southern Literary Renaissance. He was concerned that its focus on fiction did not fully capture the conditions of the South or the lived realities of its people. UNC Press, he reasoned, was positioned to reach the same audience with books that were grounded in rigorous scholarly inquiry written in inviting nonfiction prose.

With national reputations and success in their respective areas, the rift between Couch and Odum grew even deeper. While Couch was persuaded by sociology’s focus on social systems that led to societal problems, his skepticism of the very way sociology produced knowledge mounted. He understood the reliance on statistics rather than thick description as obfuscating the lived realities of people. However, he saw more promise in sociology’s method known as case history, which analyzed a single person’s life in detail, but that method, too, had its problems. Case history usually focused on people identified as deviant and left little room for the subject’s own assessment of their life. Moreover, regardless of the method, Couch believed that scholarship in sociology purposefully produced prose that was less accessible to a more general public, which represented a significant shortcoming in motivating the public to address identified social problems. Couch was troubled over how to effectively convey the social conditions of the region and the complexities of life in the South, when a new door opened.

Roosevelt’s administration engaged in an incredible expansion of federal power to bring about relief, reform, and recovery from the Great Depression. Cultural workers, including intellectuals and writers, would become part of the New Deal through a new agency called the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), established in 1935. Couch quickly rose through the ranks. The rise of the New Deal and the FWP shaped Couch’s efforts to remake sociological knowledge about the South by giving him and his colleagues an opportunity to produce a new method of documenting and writing that centered the people’s perspective. By 1936, a little over a year since its creation, the FWP offered another institutional structure, the federal government, alongside the university and UNC Press, to experiment and realize a new method at the intersection of literature and sociology for understanding the region.

Layer 2: Formation of the SLHP

Introduction

Debates emanating from Chapel Hill over how to understand, document, and represent the South took on new urgency as the effects of the Great Depression continued to ripple throughout the nation and the world. In most cases, the challenges were not new. Issues such as exploitative agricultural economies, industrialization, and unemployment were exacerbated but not new features of American society. The need to understand and alleviate these social issues took on new urgency with the Great Depression, a problem the Roosevelt Administration hoped to solve through the New Deal.

Against this backdrop emerged the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). This New Deal agency pursued documentary projects as part employment and part laudatory experiment in federal support of cultural work. They entered the fore over how to document and communicate people’s “real” conditions in the US.1Who should be documented, how they should be documented, and why they should be documented were key questions that animated Couch when he joined the Southeastern region of the FWP in 1936.2Shaped by emerging documentary practices that privileged folkways and institutional possibilities made possible by the vast bureaucratic infrastructure of the FWP, the documentation of “life histories” was Couch’s answer to the debate between Odum and other sociologists over how to best capture the real nature of Southern life.3

To accomplish this documentary project, Couch sent unemployed white-collar workers, hired as federal writers, across the Southeast region to interview fellow Southerners about their lives and thereby shape their own identity while communicating local and regional challenges. The ability to hear from Southerners in their own words, Couch argued, lent authority and authenticity to their claims about their conditions. Since garnering university support was a tall task, in part due to Odum’s skepticism about the project, Couch utilized his position in the FWP to launch the life histories project. By engaging in questions about how best to capture, document, and analyze social conditions, Couch, UNC, and the New Deal would shape what counted as sociological knowledge and the role of public institutions in the process.4

The New Deal

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As Couch and Odum debated how to assess and address the needs of the South, government officials in Washington were rapidly passing new legislation to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. With the support of his prominent advisors, known colloquially as the “Brain Trust,” Roosevelt paired his executive order power along with the legislative power of Congress to implement a series of policies that were, he stated, “a new deal for the American people.”5They reasoned that full recovery required support services that aided those struggling and laws that reformed the very systems that led to economic turmoil. What followed was a series of programs and regulations designed to offer relief while offering reforms that would lead to recovery.

The First New Deal (1933–1934) focused on providing immediate relief through banking and monetary reform. Along with reforms such as moving the United States dollar off the gold standard, the government began to regulate securities at the federal level and require disclosures that helped assess the health of the banks, such as gains and losses. Relief was significantly directed at agriculture and providing aid to farmers. The Farm Security Administration paid farmers to put away their plows to raise agriculture prices. At the same time, infrastructure projects like the Rural Electrification Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority were designed to modernize rural life and create jobs. Developing further relief programs, the Second New Deal (1935–1936) focused on American workers—creating jobs, providing social security, and improving labor relations. The federal government served as the nation’s largest employer, hiring in sectors as disparate as highway construction and theater performance. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), founded in May 1935, led the way by employing millions of mostly White Americans to labor on public works. As such, the federal government demonstrated the nation’s strength as it led the recovery.

While the WPA is often most remembered for its public works such as roads and dams, white-collar workers were also in need of work, especially writers, artists, and other cultural workers who began advocating for relief, including the creation of unions.6For example, the Author’s League, established in 1917, joined forces with the Unemployed Writers’ Association (UWA), a new organization founded in January 1934 in response to the depression, to lobby Congress to develop a national plan to employ writers. Frustrated by what they saw as partial gains, a subset of members of the UWA became the Writers’ Union.7Other writers picketed in the streets to be included in the WPA.8To what degree such unions directly impacted government policies remains an open question. Still, there is no denying that organizing helped bring attention to the plight of cultural workers.9

At the same time, there were bureaucrats who valued cultural workers’ labor; some argued that all types of workers deserved access to federal resources, while others recognized the cultural power of harnessing cultural work. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, supported such efforts because artists needed to live, too.10Others argued that writers were able to highlight and therefore celebrate American life during a crisis of confidence in the nation.11Whether driven by providing equal opportunity for employment or using art to celebrate national pride, bureaucrats came together to support employing cultural workers.

The Founding of the WPA

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Among these savvy and empathetic bureaucrats who recognized cultural workers as deserving support was one of Roosevelt’s trusted New Deal leaders, Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) from 1933 to 1935. His philosophy toward economic relief was to match the skills of those on relief with work opportunities that fit their skill sets, so he ordered surveys to assess the occupations of relief recipients. Among the ranks were white-collar workers, including writers and artists, who were left out of the state-run relief programs that equated work with manual labor.12An artist laying piling for a building was as much of a mismatch as a construction worker painting a mural in a city hall. Rather, he reasoned, employment opportunities should reflect the occupations of those on relief. He scoured his network to find successful models for national-level cultural worker programs.

Conditions changed in August 1934 when Hopkins’s former college classmate, Hugh Harlan, joined the Newspapers Writers’ Project for Los Angeles County. Professional writers were hired to write histories, conduct sociological studies, and craft reports. Over half of the writers left for full-time employment, considered a resounding success. FERA leaders Jake Baker and Arthur “Tex” Goldschmidt used the program’s success as well as ideas from advocacy groups, such as the Writers’ Union, to outline potential national programs within FERA that included commissioning projects for public institutions, hiring Black writers, interviewing ex-slaves in Ohio, and documenting America’s folklore, which was understood to be vanishing.13

When Baker asked Henry Alsberg to join FERA in mid-1934 as supervisor of reports and records, he, too, liked the idea of a writer’s project.14Alsberg had matriculated through elite schools in New York City, including Columbia, which he entered at 15 years old and stayed for law school. Alsberg was among many Columbia graduates who entered the ranks of New Deal leadership, but his path was not a clear one into government service. After deciding that neither law nor academia was for him, he became a foreign correspondent and returned stateside to New York City. A writer and supporter of theater, he circulated in leftist circles and counted among his friends Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, and Issac Don Levine. While accounts of Alsberg’s manner suggest his personality was more bohemian than bureaucratic, he enjoyed great respect from colleagues who had ascended into powerful roles within the New Deal state.15Once he joined FERA, he was able to shape policy and direct resources, which he did by focusing his attention on how the government could support cultural workers, particularly writers. He would soon count Couch among his colleagues and confidants and lend his support to collecting the Southern Life Histories Project.

The WPA Sets-Up Federal #1

In 1935, FERA was replaced with two new federal agencies—the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Social Security Administration. Hopkins was tapped to lead the WPA in 1935 and brought with him his care for cultural workers; such a commitment was important because the WPA had appropriated over $4.8 billion ($90 billion in 2019): 6.7 percent of the nation’s GDP.16WPA focused on employment, which marked a shift in New Deal policy from funding relief rolls to providing steady jobs with wages established by the government. Like FERA, the focus was on public works, particularly infrastructure such as buildings and roads. However, with Hopkins at the helm, the WPA quickly sought to add programs for white-collar workers and procured hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for these efforts. The monies were sent to the WPA over other agencies, such as Public Works Administration, due to the creation of Federal Project Number One (Federal #1).

Under the Works Progress Administration, Federal #1 employed over 40,000 creatives in art, music, acting, and writing under five projects: Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project, Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), and the Historical Records Survey. The Historical Records Survey began as a part of the FWP but became a separate project in 1939 as the FWP came under increased scrutiny. Having only a small percentage of WPA employees—only 40,000 of the 8.5 million who worked for the WPA—the cultural impact of Federal #1 was anything but insignificant.17Scholars agree that the effort was among the largest and most influential government-led and -administered efforts to support and shape cultural production in the United States.18Thanks to the support of Alsberg, the life histories project would flourish under the FWP and provide, from Couch’s point of view, needed autonomy from UNC and Odum.

Creating the Documentary Decade

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While the structural conditions of the New Deal enabled Couch to find a home for the Southern Life History Project within Federal #1, these formations were also shaped by particular cultural conditions. Labeled by scholars as the “documentary decade,” the 1930s was when cultural workers experimented with documentary representation.19Documentary came in many forms, including aurally over the radio and writing and images in books, newspapers, exhibitions, and films. Documentary enjoyed claims that it accurately represented a reality that gave it political and cultural salience. Listeners could tune into radio documentaries to hear from people in their own words, while readers could turn the pages of a documentary book for thick descriptions that conveyed actuality.20The indexicality of photography and film lent images a claim to the real that gave documentary authority and power.21Documentary—as a genre, form, and idea—was understood as a powerful representation of reality during the period.22

Documentary’s ascent was largely due to the necessities of the era. Questions abounded about how to understand and communicate the effects of the Great Depression. In areas such as mass media and the federal government, cultural workers looked for methods to make visible and authentically represent contemporary conditions. The need to communicate the toll of the depression led to documentary expression in forms such as film, photography, performance, and writing. One prominent area was the literary market. The publishing industry enjoyed the success of documentary books likeYou Have Seen Their Facesby Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White.23However, it was not only the belief in documentary’s ability to assess and render visible the effects of the Great Depression that elevated its status, but also its privileged position for rendering truthful depictions of actuality that could “authentically” document daily life. The Southern Life History Project would draw on the cultural power of documentary in the 1930s.

The Power of Social Documentary

“Social documentary,” in particular, caught the imagination of Americans, making it a prominent genre and cultural form that enjoyed legitimacy and authority. While exact definitions of social documentary remain an open debate, the concept in the 1930s meant work that focused on documenting social conditions.24This idea was shaped by over 40 years of social documentary photography best known through the work of people like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, known for images of New York City tenements and of child labor in factories, respectively. Moreover, cultural workers believed that emphasizing the everyday hardships that Americans experienced during the Great Depression as authentic and true had the power to reveal the roots of the social problems that caused these harsh conditions. Such an approach could effect meaningful and significant social change.25Couch shared these commitments by positioning life histories as a form that could document the challenges of life in the South directly through the voices of those impacted, with the added benefit of helping policymakers and scholars identify necessary reforms. The federal government’s embrace of documentary allowed for this configuration of life histories to flourish.

The belief in the power of social documentary strongly impacted New Deal agencies, which embraced the documentary impulse. Photographers were employed in departments such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and National Youth Administration.26The Farm Security Administration’s Historic Division, for example, was initially charged with documenting the need for and success of New Deal relief services as a project; it collected hundreds of thousands of photographs and became one of the most famous documentary photography projects of the 20th century.27Government agencies sponsored documentary films such as Pere Lorentz’sThe Plough That Broke the Plainsfor the Resettlement Administration.28The Federal Writers’ Project embrace of what would be called the Southern Life History Project (SLHP) followed in line with such projects, but in new ways that challenged collection methods and writing genres.

The Federal Writers’ Project

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Although smaller than its counterparts in Federal #1, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was established on July 27, 1935, under the direction of Henry Alsberg. The project’s main goal was to employ white-collar workers such as historians, librarians, and writers to produce cultural products, including tourist guide books, often with a focus on the unique traits of the nation.29Project directors understood that they were able to shape ideas about American culture and belonging, so they set out to create a national culture that embraced pluralism.30Writers documented everyday life across the nation and included some of the most prominent authors of the 20th century, such as Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Studs Terkel. While the FWP was under constant scrutiny from conservatives, the project garnered praise from cultural influencers. As one writer for theNew Republicwrote, within the New Deal programs, the FWP may be “‘the most influential and valuable of them all.’”31

Paradoxically, it was the financial and institutional flux of the FWP rather than stability that made the SLHP possible. The nexus of its struggles was with the American Guide Series, which became the raison d’être of the agency and one of its most famous projects. Premised on the mobility provided by newly affordable automobiles and the success of guidebooks in Europe, FWP administrators reasoned that carefully researched and written guides could inspire Americans to “See America” by enticing them to explore the interesting stories and beautiful vistas that were in their own backyard.32For a nation fractured by the failures of the Great Depression, the Guidebooks became a site to celebrate the state and regional differences that made up America. Each book comprised a part of a symbolic national library, which collectively provided a portrait of a nation.33Such guides were intended to celebrate a new pluralistic vision of America while helping the economy recover through consumerism.

Officially launched in 1936, the hopeful promise of the project caused it to quickly expand to include plans for books about regions and cities with over 400 volumes, many of which featured descriptive essays on topics such as history, labor, and social habits as well as tours designed to be taken by automobile. The FWP administration believed that the magnitude of research needed to complete the Guidebooks required a tiered approach. City offices were created to research local history and culture, state bureaus coordinated the local efforts and served as editors, and the central headquarters in Washington, DC, oversaw the whole project. While state directors could suggest projects, all initiatives and goals had to be approved by the administrators in the nation’s capital. This multitiered structure grew quickly, employing over 6,000 people within the first year. However, the system also created tension among the different stakeholders at each level who often disagreed over who was best fit to determine what constituted local culture and how to represent it: an institutional challenge the SLHP would have to navigate.

It was in these conflicts over authentic culture and representation that the intended audience of the Guidebooks became clear: middle- and upper-class White Americans who had the funds to travel to “see America.” The suggested tours and discussion of local cultures in the Guidebooks often used stories of “local color” to exoticize immigrants and African Americans, as well as erasing how people of color could (and could not) travel through these American routes—a testament to the culture of segregation of the era. The Negro Motorist Green Book, created in 1936 by Victor H. Green & Company, brings the racialized lens and audience in stark relief.

African Americans used these “Green Books” not as a celebration of American pluralism but as savvy strategies to navigate violent terrains of whiteness to move safely throughout the United States.34The erasure and exoticizing of race and culture in the Guidebooks became a dominant trope due in large part to the reliance on local White writers and the exclusion of African American writers, which was often a source of tension among local offices, especially in the South, and at the central headquarters in Washington, DC, which housed the FWP’s Office of Negro Affairs.35The audience identified by the American Guide Series would mostly go unquestioned in the SLHP; however, what the SLHP would not embrace was a celebratory tale of American progress and pluralism given the economic systems of inequality that shaped Southern life.36

Launching the SLHP

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The opportunity to create the SLHP came during the reorganization of state bureaus under regional offices in 1937. The FWP sought to streamline the reporting hierarchy to expedite the completion of the Guidebooks and to reduce the ever-growing number of conflicts between state-level workers and Washington. FWP officials were particularly keen on speeding up the process to get the Guidebooks to print as there was growing discontent by many politicians over the costs of such New Deal projects. It was in this reshuffling that Henry Alsberg brought Couch into the project.

Couch’s editorial prowess and vast network of acclaimed writers and scholars quickly gained him recognition from Washington, especially from Alsberg. Because of his far-reaching knowledge of the Tar Heel state’s culture and history as director of UNC Press, Couch was called on to consult on North Carolina–focused projects, ultimately leading to his position as the associate director of the North Carolina Writers Project. With the reorganization of the FWP, Couch moved into a central leadership position as the regional director of the Southeast states, including Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, at the bequest of Alsberg.37With one foot in the federal government and one foot in academia, as the director of the South’s most prominent press, Couch was in a position to pursue a new approach to documenting social lives. His approach helped to move the Southeast region of the FWP away from the American Guide Series, which used the genre of travel guides to create authorial expertise about place and culture, to what he saw as a new literary genre. He would come to call this genre “life histories” as they relied on Southerners’ own stories about their lives to portray ideas about the culture of the South.

While Couch shepherded the Guidebooks with great care in his new role, his passion was identifying and solving the problems of the American South, which was not the goal of Guidebooks that aimed to celebrate and entice readers to celebrate America through leisure and consumerism. Instead, Couch was interested in intervening in debates over how to capture and document social life that emerged from sociology’s use of numbers and statistics often procured through surveys; folklore’s privileging of firsthand stories; anthropology’s method of ethnography; and the increasingly broad category of “social documentary” used by artists and authors. Couch questioned how fields such as sociology reduced social conditions to statistics and thereby squandered an opportunity to share people’s experiences through narrative storytelling written for a broader reading public.38

He was also critical of folklore’s romanticization of the quotidian at the expense of investigations of larger structural social issues, a process that he saw as often reducing people’s lives to nostalgia and quaint folkways that reified the anti-modern and simple-minded stereotypes of the region. While he was persuaded by the descriptive writing that ethnography used to document a subject’s surroundings, he felt this method privileged the voice of the scholar over the research subject. In line with social documentarians, he argued that new methods were needed to accurately illustrate people’s lived realities, and for him, this meant combining academic concepts with literary expression to identify the conditions of the South in order to assess how to address the region’s challenges. Therefore, Couch quickly began to use his position and political capital to advocate for the creation of just such a new project in the FWP.

“Somehow they must be given representation, somehow they must be given voice and allowed to speak, in their essential character,” Couch argued. If they could speak, he reasoned, communities could help reshape how the nation understood them. In order to capture the voice of the people in their own words, he proposed that the FWP develop a new method of social documentation called “life histories” that could then be used to document the voices of Southerners. He believed that such stories would be of great interest to a general readership already primed by the literary marketplace to purchase stories about the South. Unlike the Southern Literary Renaissance, though, life histories could paint a richer and more nuanced picture of Southern life that, Couch hoped, could spark the type of social change he saw as necessary to address the issues challenging the region.

According to Couch, these stories would offer “a human point of view” through written narratives that revealed the interviewee as a “living person who has a past and present” rather than reduced to a few data points in a series of statistics that treated “subjects as abstractions” as often practiced by Institute for Research in Social Sciences (IRSS) scholars and the quantitative School of Sociology.39The life histories could then be published by UNC Press, just like the North Carolina Guidebook. “It is clear to anyone who has had experience in presenting materials to the reading public, namely the publisher or editor of a newspaper or the head of a publishing firm, that material of this kind will be of interest to the public and will be read if it is made available in good form,” Couch wrote with confidence.40

Life Histories

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While Couch’s relationship with Odum had soured by 1938, in large part due to intellectual differences, he did not categorically dismiss the social sciences.41Rather, Couch believed in the goals of the field, but not the methods in which to document social conditions. While often based on mixed methods such as case studies, interviews, and social surveys, the broad generalizations published by sociologists overlooked, according to critics, an opportunity to capture social truths about a community through the vividness and intimacy of individual stories. In order to seize such an opportunity, Couch argued “life histories” should not just be data for social scientific generalizations about communities but a way of knowing communities that would be available to the broader public.

He drew inspiration for the life histories from Rupert Vance, who began as Odum’s doctoral student and moved to a faculty position in the IRSS alongside Odum. InHuman Factors in Cotton Culture: A Study in the Social Geography of the American South,Vance argued that “the warmth of emotional interest in the South has as far as possible been restrained by an appeal to the cold and impartial fact. It must be admitted, however, that the great human nexus surrounding cotton culture is too intricate to be set forth adequately by statistics and cases.”42Vance used a case studies approach to counter the flattening of cultural complexity produced through statistical generalizations that reduced people to averages and (stereo)types. To create such “emotional interest,” Vance wrote detailed, third-person stories about a number of his research subjects that were then used to argue about the ways that “cotton culture” structured Southern society.

One case study above the others captured Couch’s imagination, which, interestingly, Vance did not conduct himself.43Vance adapted journalist Ben Dixon MacNeil’s interview with an “ordinary poor white tenant,” published in theRaleigh News and Observeron September 25, 1921, into a case study under the pseudonym “John Smith.” In his book, Vance argued that the interview was an “unusual type of feature story” for a newspaper and that an article written by a nonsociologist made “a vivid presentation of one human factor in cotton.”44However, the story was seen as exceptional by Vance as it was unusual for those without sociological training to create the type of story that could be considered evidence in a sociological study. Classifying the story as exceptional provided Couch with further evidence that the sociological gaze was too abstract and distant to accurately and intimately document the lives of everyday people, particularly the working class.45Nevertheless, the value of the story to Vance proved to Couch that an individual’s history and contemporary conditions—written with nonacademic prose by persons with no sociological training—were of value to academia. Writers from other fields such as reporting, like MacNeil, were a better fit to write for a broader public.

Couch used John Smith’s case study as an archetype, rather than as exceptional, for the SLHP. In outlining the new project to FWP writers, he explained that “no one has attempted to collect such material purely for its human interest, purely for the value of accurate portrayals of individual lives.”46His attention to accuracy in portrayal led Couch to call this new type of methodological writing “life histories” as opposed to “case studies” or “case histories.” While case studies and case histories were common qualitative methods in sociology, life histories were not widely used except among the Chicago School of Sociology. Couch disliked case studies and histories because they often created a composite view or a vague abstraction of people rather than focusing on a single person’s life. On the other hand, life histories did focus on a single individual, but did so only to document deviance, which Couch believed was a significant shortcoming. He explained,

Life histories have had a partial use heretofore for special purposes in sociology and social work. In sociology, the use has been restricted usually to segments of persons’ lives used to illustrate particular problems, such as juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, and marital frictions. In no case, however, has the method been applied to representatives of the great body of people, allowing each person to tell his own storyas it appears to him,including all those details which while deemed non-essential for sociological generalizations, nevertheless, portray in the realest sense the nature and quality of a man’s living…While not important for social diagnosis, these discarded details may well be the ingredients that color the man’s life as an individual. In this sense, life histories are what the social worker hears before he begins to select what he deems relevant and necessary.47

Therefore, Couch aimed to reconfigure life histories in three important ways. First, FWP life histories did not focus on the deviant or maladjusted, but rather “representatives of the great body of people.”48Second, life histories should center the perspective of the interviewee subject, allowing that person to define what was important in their own life. Third, a life history was not to be a 300-page report but constructed to attract and keep the attention of the more general public interested in understanding how people lived.

Central to this conception was that federal writers, who were not trained sociologists or social workers, should collect the life histories. Rather than creating life histories to prove or disprove a particular point, which is what he understood as Vance’s primary goal, writers were instructed to capture “a human point of view corresponding closely with the point of view of the journalist,” Couch wrote.49As journalists, the writers were to simply report back what they heard through informal interviews. From memory, the writer would then write a narrative that included the person’s oral history along with a description of their current conditions.50As one set of instructions stated, “In order for the interview to be successful, you should put at ease the person with whom you are talking and let him ramble on. Then you should hurry home and make your notes.”51Because of this method of careful listening and privileging of the interviewees’ voices, life histories served as a predecessor of a method that would become known as “oral history.” However, in the writing style Couch encouraged, which instructed writers to occupy the gaze of a journalist to document compelling stories primarily featuring the interviewee’s voice, the life histories truly became unique. We delve further into the writing style and the rhetorical implications inLayer 4.

Asking writers to report back what they heard did not mean that the writers let the interviewee “ramble” without guidance. The life history’s primary distribution mode was to be books by topics including broad categories such as Southern life and more specific topics such as mill workers. Moreover, interviewers were given questionnaires that covered topics such as family and labor, which were to be treated as a general guide and not a checklist so that interviewers could respond to the natural direction of the conversations. The books and the questionnaire’s sociological bent informed the themes covered.

Privileging Work in Life Histories

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Couch’s ambitions for the SLHP were extensive as he desired to forge a new genre while offering a picture of the South. In a letter to Alsberg outlining his plans, Couch wrote that material similar to Vance’s case histories “ought to be collected from every Southern state, from all types of tenants, sharecroppers, share renters, and renters, and ought to include all the most important types of farming.”52Along with sociologists, he and the SLHP employees were joining a wealth of cultural workers, from journalists such as Jonathan Daniels, writers such as Erskine Caldwell, and photographers such as Marion Post Wolcott, concerned during the documentary decade with depicting the rural Southern (and most often White) working class by capturing their “authentic” and “real” conditions.53While photographers from the acclaimed Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography unit used cameras, Couch called the life histories “word pictures” and joined academics and journalists who relied on the pen, typewriter, and printing press. With the SLHP, Couch added the FWP among the institutions placing a microscope over the region.

Steeped in current debates over what to document and how, Couch quickly expanded the scope to other significant economic sectors, including mill workers, lumberers, miners, fishermen, and service occupations, and topics such as eating and drinking habits, health and disease, and recreational facilities.54His extensive list of topics represented the areas of social life that he and a plethora of researchers on the region, many of whom were published by UNC Press, saw as the greatest issues in need of remedy. Sharing the decade’s concern with working-class (and mostly White) labor, Couch’s particular focus was documenting the lives of workers in the South by occupation, which emphasized the centrality of labor and positioned subjectivity as based on work. Such positioning provided the SLHP with a much-needed niche among the many documentary projects in the FWP asLayer 3will discuss in much greater detail and worked against tired stereotypes characterizing residents of the South as lazy, idle, and unproductive.

Such stereotypes were fueled by President Roosevelt’s declaration in July 1938 that “the South presents right now the nation’s No.1 economic problem—the nation’s problem, not merely the South’s.”55Primarily a series of statistics mined from scholarship by researchers such as Odum and Vance, theReport of Economic Conditions of the Southgarnered national attention, further amplifying efforts by politicians and intellectuals to increase the South’s economic vitality to ensure national economic recovery. Moreover, a focus on work and occupations also reflected the major preoccupation of the New Deal—putting America back to work and building an ecosystem of benefits to care for workers and the unemployed alike.

In addition to countering stereotypes, Couch believed that accurate stories about these problems would constitute an important step for Southerners themselves to address the issues they faced. He argued that President Roosevelt and the New Deal “can do little for us if we refuse to do anything. It is in our interest to know in detail all the important truths, pleasant and unpleasant about ourselves and our land; and Southerners who attempt to obscure these truths are doing themselves and the South the greatest possible damage.”56For Couch, life histories would present Southerners and the nation with precisely such important truths.

While Couch was focused on telling “the important truths” of the South, it was very much a story based in whiteness with little critical investigation of the profound impact of slavery and segregation on non-White Southerners. For example, despite his concern with new documentary methods, he never took up the significant work undertaken by Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and James Agee, who posed pointed questions about positionality and privilege in documentary practices.57This lack of critical reflection about the relationship between race, gender, and power permeated the structure of the SLHP from hiring decisions, interviewing practices, and in the writing and editing of the life histories themselves, which we address further inLayer 3andLayer 4. Nonetheless, the SLHP believed the pursuit of more accurate, authentic documents would not only benefit the South, but would be a new method of documentation.

Claims to Authenticity

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Concerns about authenticity, truth, and accessibility were at the forefront of the life histories method. Conveying the region’s truths meant forging an authentic and accessible practice and form. The challenge was how to accurately “portray individual lives” with “emotional interest” while allowing the person “to speak, in their essential character” to reveal “important truths” about Southern society and culture through writing.58By attending to these critical issues, Couch and his colleagues hoped to lend authority, credibility, and legitimacy to the published life histories.

The process began with hiring writers and not academics. Among those hired included creative writers, journalists, secretaries, and educators, with emphasis placed on hiring people who were from the region. Unlike the distant observation often privileged by the social sciences, the proximity of the writers to local communities was seen as an asset because they were tied into local networks and attuned to local history, customs, and politics. Their local knowledge was a resource rather than a hindrance. The hiring practices would also be steeped in ideas of feminized labor and make space for White women writers, which we address further inLayer 3.

Once hired, writers were assigned topics and then charged with identifying interviewees, conducting the interview, writing the life history, and then editing based on feedback from staff in their state office and Couch. Much of the framing about how to conduct and write the life histories came from conversations between Couch and those he saw as the most skilled writers. In one such back-and-forth between Bernice Harris, who would become one of the most prolific life history writers, and Couch, he explained,

You may use your own judgement as to when to write your stories. You should not wait long enough to let details become vague and to get your stories mixed. I believe it is best not to wait long after you have collected material to write each story, but this is a matter on which I think it is best for you to use your own judgement. The one thing to remember here is that we do not want composite pictures. We do not want you to take the characteristics of several persons and put these together into one imaginary person.We want the stories to be photographic inaccuracy but, as you know, a good photographer is one who decides what is important and photographs that rather than trying to photograph everything[emphasis ours].59

Couch’s directions to Harris and the other writers belie a significant question underlying the project: How could authenticity be demonstrated through writing alone? Photographers working for the Department of Agriculture and Farm Security Administration used the camera lens to demonstrate authenticity through the supposed truth represented in photographs.60Folklorists documented songs and music with audio equipment, allowing people to hear proof of authenticity. However, federal writers did not have cameras or audio equipment, which was too expensive and cumbersome to use at the scale of the project. Nor was it necessary as they believed that the life histories could reveal truths through words, which represented a significant contribution to a decade bent on documenting the real.

This question about how to both create and demonstrate authenticity as well as what the form and specific methods of a life history looked like became areas of debate among Couch, SLHP administrators, and writers. While Couch had larger ideas about the potential of life histories as a genre of documentation that could give insight into people’s lived experience in new ways that extended beyond the South, he had to contend with competing projects in the FWP vying for limited resources as well as the desires of state administrators and writers in the South. This complicated constellation of people and forces contributed to what became over 1,200 life histories in the SLHP before it was forced to dismantle at the end of 1939.Layer 3now turns to an exploration of this process of negotiation over the new genre of a life history using mapping techniques that visualize the collection at scale.

Layer 3: Defining Life Histories and Qualified Writers

Introduction

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The Southern Life History Project (SLHP) emerged at a turning point in the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). With the flagship project of the American Guide Series guidebooks well underway, FWP administrators sought new projects. FWP Director Henry Alsberg and his Washington team were particularly interested in projects that promoted a pluralistic vision of the US. As a result, the FWP launched several new initiatives, including Social-Ethnic Studies, the Folklore Project, and the Ex-Slave Narrative Project.1The Social-Ethnic surveys were designed to understand the acculturation process of foreign “others” residing in the US. On the other hand, the Folklore Project drew on anthropological ideals to document beliefs and customs that were thought to be unique to American culture and in danger of fading away in the rush to modernize the nation. In a similar vein to the Folklore Project, the Ex-Slave Narrative Project sought to document the experiences of formerly enslaved Americans before those memories were lost.

Amid these new documentary efforts, William Couch, now director of the FWP’s Southeast Region, lobbied to add the life histories project to this list. Couch received approval from Alsberg in October 1938. In a letter to all state directors, Alsberg offered his enthusiastic support for the project and its potential to produce a large amount of material to aid in studying the current conditions in the American South.2Through the end of 1939, the SLHP collected and wrote over 1,200 life histories, an impressive feat given the fact that the actual methods of collection and writing conventions were not established at the onset.

Mapping the locationsof the interviews tells a complicated story about the reach and limitation of these life histories, provoking questions that have not been previously explored in relation to the SLHP: Why do the life histories tend to clump together in specific areas? Why are interviews of people from common professions spread out over the region? Why do most writers only collect interviews in a small area? Why were most of the life histories written by women? Why were there only seven Black writers? Why were the vast majority of interviewees identified as White, a small amount identified as Black, and almost no other races represented in the collection of life histories? Analyzing the complicated rhetorical ecosystem in which the life histories were produced helps to address these questions. Therefore this layer proceeds by moving back and forth between the map and archival evidence, linked throughout the text, to analyze the rhetorical exigence or circ*mstances that allowed for the creation of the SLHP. We begin with mapping out the ecosystem of FWP work, noting the “competing” and “complementary” projects within the larger organization and how the field of sociology and sociological thinking shaped the scope of the SLHP. We then move to unpack how the ethos of writers was established to create notions of who was best qualified to perform the interviewing, writing, and editing of the life histories. Together, these interrelated factors shaped the SLHP’s version of the American South as defined through occupation and against a racialized Black/White binary.

An Ecosystem of Documentary

AsLayer 1andLayer 2demonstrate, the FWP emerged with the desire to create a pluralistic version of American identity. Jerrold Hirsch describes the FWP as both “ideological and reformist,”3operating within a discourse that attempted to “reconcile romantic nationalism with cultural pluralism—two isms that seem diametrically opposed.”4These FWP programs aimed to “unite Americans, individuals, and groups with conflicting interests, while ignoring issues that divided them, and therefore the project also created a conservative myth that pointed to a harmonious future without indicating how a change from current circ*mstances to a better future could be achieved.”5

Such a vision of a harmonious future was constructed by relying on the documentation of an American past that sought to include voices that had previously been excluded from a version of American identity that saw its origin as exclusively Anglo-Saxon. These documentary efforts focused, as Retman explains, on displaying “the vernacular traditions of historically marginalized groups to tell a story of national fortitude and exceptionalism.”6Of particular interest were groups who, as Carado describes, were “‘foreign in a domestic sense’” who were accorded a racially and temporally liminal status, “subject to an ‘inclusionary form of exclusion,’ positioned both inside and outside the national imagination as ‘original’ peoples.”7

The SLHP vied for resources against other FWP projects that already claimed to focus on such exceptional groups. The Folklore Project was concerned with documenting an organic past by focusing on the stories and folkways of “Native Americans, African Americans, and poor rural Whites.”8The Ex-Slave Narrative Project worked to incorporate and in many ways move past slavery by capturing the histories of formerly enslaved individuals in such a way as to paint slavery as banal paternalism, rather than dwelling in “the forms of forms of violence and domination”9that constituted chattel slavery as well as the everyday acts of resistance. Additionally, the Social-Ethnic Studies analyzed how the cultures of European immigrants contributed to the pluralistic notion of American identity.

Shaped by FWP’s institutional ecosystem as well as their own ideological commitments, Couch and other SLHP administrators crafted the South by emphasizing poor Whites and African Americans as native Southerners, common rather than exceptional. In this way, the SLHP carved out space for itself by excluding Native American and ethnic communities as well as downplaying the significance of stories that focused on slavery from formerly enslaved individuals as the purview of the other FWP projects. This focus on mostly poor Whites and African Americans along “the color line” crafted a notion of Southern identity that didn’t include ethnic communities and Native Amerians.10These decisions were informed by Southern segregation, which, as Grace Hale describes, made a “new collective white identity across lines of gender and class and a new regional distinctiveness.” However, this whiteness that was constructed against blackness was “always contingent, always fragile, always uncertain.”11Fragile yet dominant, as we also demonstrate in our discussion of creating the data (see Methods), the Black/White binary served as a powerful racial configuration for the SLHP that provided a way for the project to distinguish itself, a distinction that played into White supremacist logic.

Social-Ethnic Studies and Race

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The map of interviews is faceted to reveal that most SLHP interviewees were situated along a Black/White binary in which other racialized and ethnic groups are largely invisible. In total, 891 of the interviewswere conducted with White interviewees and 271 with Black interviewees. Also included were a small number of other racialized groups, which would be considered ethnic categories by contemporary terms. These include 9 Cuban interviewees, 50 Greek interviewees, 1 Spaniard, and 1 Chinese interviewee.12Moreover, the location of these racial and ethnic groups is also interesting. While White and Black interviewees seem to spread out across each state in the Southeast region, some ethnic groups are largely located in specific areas. For example, all of the Cuban interviewees are located in Hillsborough County, Florida. This striking pattern raises the questions of why the SLHP decided to classify racial categories in this way and why the project largely ignored the many other racial, ethnic, and indigenous groups who lived in the area. To understand how these racialized results occurred, one must begin by unpacking how and why the project distinguished its mission from Social-Ethnic Studies, a competing project within the FWP.

The Social-Ethnic Studies Project began shortly before the SLHP and was led by Dr. Morton W. Royse. Royse earned his PhD from Columbia and studied under John Dewey. His early research on ethnic cultures focused on European minoritized communities. He went on to work with the Worker’s Education Bureau of America and then served as head of a teacher training institute in Puerto Rico.13Royse largely rejected the idea of the “melting pot,” preferring to think of the country as a “‘composite of immigrants.’”14He argued “the Polish, Irish, Greek, or French population in traditionally white Anglo-Saxon Protestant New England or elsewhere ‘is American culture, not merely a contributor to American culture…their culture is contemporary American culture as truly as is the culture of Iowa-American farmers or Appalachian-American hill-billies.’”15These convictions greatly influenced the direction of Social-Ethnic Studies as Royse positioned the project as providing evidence of the multiethnic and multicultural nature of the United States, which FWP administrators argued should be seen as a national strength.16He explained that the project’s goal was to embrace “the history and role of nationality groups in modern industrial society…to present a composite picture of America,” while taking care “not to overstress the separateness and peculiarities of a group. The aim was to show how the group functions in the life of the community…and how it contributes to cultural diversity.”17

To accomplish this aim, the Social-Ethnic Studies Project focused on documenting “the life of ethnic groups in various communities, including their cultural backgrounds and activities” through “intensive studies of single groups, cross-sectional studies of whole communities, and extensive studies of larger areas.”18Moreover, while field workers were encouraged to use their community affiliation to gain entrance into the communities of study, the tenor of the project was scholarly and decidedly social scientific. In the “Manual for Social-Ethnic Studies,” Royse directs field workers to collect “field data, including selected interviews, personal histories, and documentary material” as well as fully cooperate with “consultants drawn from the ranks of State writers, historians, folklorists, anthropologists, sociologists, economists, etc.”19

SLHP administrators used the Social-Ethnic Studies’ focus on data collection of entire ethnic communities and embraced the scholarly community as their primary audience as a way to strongly distinguish their project from the studies. Rather than quantitative social survey data, SLHP collected qualitative stories of individuals from their own point of view, focusing on “common” Southerners. SLHP writers documented the interviewee’s articulation of their own experiences, not writing about them. Therefore, the type of data the SLHP collected, Couch argued, was unique because it came from the perspective of the interviewees themselves.

The SLHP also saw a key difference in the type of interviewees they selected. Deviating from Royse’s argument that immigrant culture was part and parcel of American culture, SLHP administrators viewed the Social-Ethnic Studies’ purpose as documenting the unique and unusual aspects of American society and culture, rather than the “common” American. North Carolina State Director Bjorkman explained to his writers that these other projects “deal with communities of an exceptional type that deviate in their origins and customs from the more common types of American life.”20In contrast, the SLHP was to focus on these “common types,” or as Couch put it, “the kind of life that is lived by the majority of people in the South.”21

This decision to focus on “common types” functioned as a signifier to the almost exclusively White SLHP staff to select interviewees along a color line that marked the segregated South as Black and White. Bernice Harris, one of the first writers on the SLHP project, picked up on this cue, asking for clarification in a letter to Couch, “Are the subjects to be white only? There are so many interesting colored share-croppers. ‘Ghent,’ the Negro section here, has some social importance and much human interest.”22Couch replied, “You should collect stories about both whites and Negroes. Pay not attention whatever to racial lines in the collection of your material, except that in stories about Negroes it should be made clear that the subjects are Negroes.”23This exchange between Harris and Couch illustrates that there was at first some doubt in Harris’ mind if “common” included African American interviewees, demonstrating how whiteness functions as the standard and neutral state. Couch’s reply emphasizes that the life histories are to cross the color line, a line seen as a Black/White binary in which blackness must be marked.

To mark and organize these common types, SLHP administrators instructed writers to document demographic information relating to the interviewee. This information constitutes important metadata for each interviewee that worked to mark which common type the person’s life history spoke to. In a memorandum to all state directors, Assistant Regional Director Walter Cutter states, “It is requested that hereafter the following heading be placed on all stories:24

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (30)

By instructing writers to collect specific metadata as a heading begins to frame the entire interview within these categories. The interviewee’s name is to be read with their race, followed by their location and occupation. Therefore, before the location in the South is demonstrated or the specific occupation, race is marked as a signifier of the interviewee’s name. Moreover, the writer is given three possible racial categories: “white,” “Negro,” or “other.”25The use of a capital letter in the instructions further indicates the way that blackness was marked as a definitive category and whiteness was a capacious default. This categorization inscribes a Black/White binary onto the racialized system in the South. Anyone whose racial categorization did not fall into this binary was grouped as “other,” thereby erasing ethnic and indigenous communities that did not fall within this binary.26They were literally othered.

This framing of Southern identity through a Black/White binary supports the distinction between the SLHP and Social-Ethnic Studies. SLHP administrators effectively encouraged writers to avoid interviewing subjects from different ethnic, indigenous, or other racial communities as that was considered the purview of Social-Ethnic Studies. Understanding the efforts that the SLHP made to distinguish itself from the Social-Ethnic Studies helps to explain why the data revealed in the map shows an absence of communities from diverse racial, ethnic, and indigenous communities. However, close readings of these life histories reveal that many of the life histories that were not marked as Black or “other” did, in fact, discuss immigration either through the interviewee’s own experiences or that of their parents. While the interviewees discussed their relationship to different ethnic and racial communities, writers did not mark them as such because they were read as White. As historian Matthew Jacobson argues, “In racial matters above all else, the eye that sees is ‘a means of perception conditioned by the tradition in which its possessor has been reared.’”27Therefore, such decisions among the almost exclusively White SLHP staff reflected racialized ideals at the time that Jacobson describes as a period in which “whiteness was reconsolidated: the late nineteenth century’s probationary white groups were now remade and granted the scientific stamp of authenticity as the unitary Caucasian race—an earlier era’s Celts, Slavs, Hebrews, Iberics, and Saracens, among others, had become the Caucasians so familiar to our own visual economy and racial lexicon.”28In other words, groups that were once labeled as ethnic were increasingly understood as “white” and enjoying the cultural, social, and political benefits of whiteness.

While powerful, this reconsolidated understanding of whiteness was nonetheless unstable and fragile,29which can be seen with the inclusion of the 50 Greek interviewees[map]that stand out in contrast to the general lack of marking of ethnicity. While these 50 interviewees were specifically marked as “Greek,” there were seven life histories that included stories of Greek immigration and heritage that were not given any ethnic signifier, allowing the default norm of White to stand in for race. Part of the reason behind the inclusion of so many marked Greek interviewees is a result of the fact that those who were marked as Greek were part of a Greek Study sponsored by the Federation of Learned Greeks and the Greek Orthodox Church in America originally under the auspices of Royse and the Social-Ethnic Project, and was later thought to present interesting “personal” histories that could be included as life histories.30The way in which some interviewees from Greek ancestry were included as part of the Social-Ethnic Study on Greeks and others were included as life histories of White interviewees underscores the fluidity of whiteness during this time period. Moreover, the fact that the vast majority of the interviewees were actually collected as part of the Social-Ethnic Studies demonstrates the emphasis on collecting “common types” for the SLHP signaled and reaffirmed the equation of South as being defined along “the color line” of Black and White, in which all those not able to fit within the binary were grouped together and dismissed as “other.”

Folklore and a Focus on Occupation

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (31)

Mapping the occupationsassociated with the life histories reveals a core set of professions that are captured across the American South. Together there are over 200 farmers, over 80 mill and textile workers, and nearly 60 housewives. Along with these most common trades, there are dozens of interviews with cooks, fishermen, and preachers. Mixed in with these large categories are one-off stories showing the wide range of professions available in the region, such as life histories from one peanut vendor, an embalmer, a preacher, and even a self-proclaimed “loan shark.”31It is clear from the map that there was an intentional decision to find interviewees that showed the depth and range of occupations across the entire region. The SLHP’s focus on economic conditions is in large part a response to its relationship to the FWP’s Folklore Project.

The Folklore Project of the FWP was launched in 1936 and was initially led by John Lomax. The unit focused on the collection of oral material such as songs, stories, and dialect.32The project saw folklore as consisting of ideas and customs transmitted by communities by word of mouth. Unlike other modes of expression, such as newspapers and books, folklore was seen to be outside of academic and commercial modes of dissemination.33The SLHP initially had chosen to distinguish itself from the Folklore Project by focusing on documenting an individual’s history that led to their contemporary circ*mstances rather than focusing on stories from the past. This distinction, however, became insufficient when the Folklore Project was reorganized under the direction of Benjamin Botkin in early 1938.

As a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma and trained in English literature departments, Botkin brought “a literary sensibility” to the study of folklore and refused the traditional configuration of folklore studies as just an approach to preserving the past.34Shaped by the field of anthropology, he viewed folklore as also an ongoing process in the here and now that offered insights into contemporary life rather than a field defined by the search for “pure, uncontaminated lore” as traditional folklorists often did.35Folklore, in other words, was also responding to and offering insights into how communities were navigating the present, from the economic impact of the Great Depression to the effects of industrialization to questions about local, regional, and national identity.36They were not just documenting stories to understand past beliefs, norms, and values but instead providing a lens into contemporary culture. Guided by the belief that every group had folklore, the project also supported FWP officials’ effort to document and circulate an indigenous culture, which could serve as the evidence of national identity at a time when faith in the nation was fragile.37

The expanded scope of the Folklore Project was met with approval from FWP administrators, who understood the work of the Folklore Project and the Social-Ethnic Studies as complementary. In fact, the FWP hoped that the same field workers would collect material for both the Folklore Project and Social-Ethnic Studies. As the “Manual on Social-Ethnic Studies” explained, “The Social-Ethnic studies deal with the whole life of a group or community, including cultural backgrounds and activities: the folklore studies deal with a body of lore in relation to the life of a group or community.”38Folklore was understood as demonstrating how cultural traditions and beliefs were built and handed down over generations. Capturing the lore of these groups, which included significant attention to poor White communities, African Americans, and Native Americans helped to enforce the notion of American folkness rooted in a pluralistic past.

To accomplish their goals, the Folklore Project sent field workers to collect “personal stories” from individuals. To capture folklore, Botkin believed field workers should begin by asking informants about their personal histories. When interviews progressed well, these individual stories would expand to capture the experiences, histories, and even fantasies of entire communities. By engaging directly in the process of telling and retelling these stories, interviewees were uniquely positioned to witness and capture entire folk histories.39Asking for personal histories was an avenue for collecting folklore. The person’s history offered a frame for understanding the context that created and circulated a piece of folklore. These materials were envisioned both to document as well as be mined for folk culture.

Botkin’s use of personal histories to gain insight into folklore meant that Couch had to be clear about how the SLHP documented unique and valuable information. To do this, Couch made two important moves in framing the project. First, he positioned the project as focusing on the South’s occupation sectors by drawing on the national concern that the South was not sufficiently progressing with economic reforms. Second, Couch drew on sociology, despite his frustrations with the field. He believed that he could take a common method in the field known as “case studies” and transform them into readable stories published in the form of books for a reading public, which meant a primarily White affluent audience.40The focus onwhatandhowbecame key to arguments about the purpose and novelty of the SLHP.

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (32)

To distinguish Botkin’s use of personal histories to gain insight into folklore from the SLHP, Couch used a sociological frame to argue that life histories were concerned with documenting social structures such as education, family, and health rather than cultures such as beliefs, ideas, and values. Yet, like Botkin and the field of sociology from which he adapted his method, he believed the individual stories, what he called “word pictures,” could be put together to draw a composite album of a social group. Given the constraints also shaped by their relationship to the Social-Ethnic Studies as well as national concerns about the state of the South, the SLHP focused on “common types” in the region organized by occupational sectors.41

By focusing the scope of the project on occupational types, Couch believed that the project would be able to address the source of the social problems in the South. As discussed inLayer 1, President Roosevelt defined the South as “economic problem #1,” which exemplified how the South was thought of as having social problems that both led to the Great Depression and prevented the region from recovering more quickly. While Roosevelt’s framing suggests that it was the social issues that led to economic problems, many Southern progressives, especially the Regionalists in Chapel Hill, as well as progressives in national offices in the FWP saw the causation as flowing in the opposite direction: economic problems caused the social issues in the South. The proposal of capturing people’s life histories from specific occupational sectors was thought to be one way to gain insight into the common problems faced by these workers. In discussing the value of the life histories, Couch explains, “This material makes clearer than ever before the problems which have been faced in this region, and illuminates, almost startlingly, the human factors and interests involved. It seems to me that knowledge of such material is basic to any real understanding of our problems and people.”42

This emphasis on the economic systems that cause social issues falls in line with a sociological framework as opposed to Folklore Project’s focus on recording cultural forms drawn from anthropological approaches. However, rather than a broad representation of all different social types and classes across occupational sectors, other SLHP administrators crafted a much narrower frame by emphasizing the need to document what they called “common” and “typical” workers. Eudora Richardson, state director of Virginia, similarly instructed her writers,

Try to interview workers who may be considered typical, such as a man who packed up his family and belongings and came from a small farm, hoping to earn a better living in the industry; a former share-cropper who wants more “cash money” from his mill job; a “floater” or transient worker from another industrial section; a believer in union organizations; an opponent of unions; a leader among women workers; a worker who is looked on as a spokesman for the employer point of view; local persons who now have their first industrial job.43

Richardson equates a broader interest in occupation with specific types of workers. This equation is significant as these instructions tell writers how to define Southern workers through the “typical” types worthy of documenting. These typical Southern workers are positioned as occupying a working-class primarily coming from either agriculture or industry with a keen desire to work despite economic and market forces subverting their efforts to gain employment.

To argue that these were typical stories across the American South, the SLHP needed to collect similar stories from people all across the region. This goal is the primary reason that interviews from various professions, most notably farmers and industrial labor, are seen across the region as the map demonstrates[map]. However, one can also note a large number of outliers, including occupations such as embalmer and preacher. With the project’s prioritization with the FWP, the scope expanded to include more occupations, which helped paint a broader picture of the region. Even with the expanded focus, though, documenting the “typical” version of each specific type of worker remained the goal. So, the SLHP collected several life histories to find the best example. Taken together, the rhetoric of “common” Southerners from “typical types” of occupations signaled the race and class of the interviewees that writers were encouraged to select for life histories.

Ex-Slave Narratives

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (33)

While the focus on common Southerners in typical occupations marked the SLHP as distinct from the Social-Ethnic Studies program and the Folklore Project, another site of negotiation over the scope of the SLHP was with the Ex-Slave Narrative Project. SLHP administrators also worked to distinguish its goals from the quickly growing project. Drawing boundaries with this project again evidenced the role of whiteness in shaping the types of histories that warranted collection.

In a memorandum to all state directors discussing the important projects that the directors needed to focus on in the upcoming year of 1939, Alsberg writes, “In addition to ethnic group and folklore studies, there will be a number of projects carried on covering Negro life throughout the country, Negro folklore, etc.” Among these projects included the “collection of stories of ex-slaves. About 2,500 of these have already been collected. Eventually, these ex-slave stories will be compiled, classified and used for a publication containing a critical analysis of the material. Dr.Botkin and Professor Sterling Brown will be in charge of this collection.”44

Partitioning Black folklore apart from the rest of the American folklore project, together with grouping folklore and history, demonstrates a common move within Jim Crow logic that segregated and othered Black history and experiences.45The project began “partly as an anthropological salvage project to record and document black history and culture before parts of it disappeared,” as historian Catherine Stewart argues, that was inspired by autobiographical stories from formerly enslaved peoples collected by the FWP office in Florida.46

Similar to the other documentary projects, administrators had competing notions of the scope and methods of the project. Sterling Brown, a renowned poet and Howard University professor who directed the Office of Negro Affairs in the FWP, was a leading figure in the project.47Brown desired to use his position to give voice to the immense contribution of African Americans to the nation and address harmful racialized stereotypes.48As such, he was often in conflict with White administrators and writers who presented racist, caricatured, and flattened representations of Black interviewees in order to appeal to White readers’ expectations of what they understood to be “authentic” narratives.49Among these administrators included John Lomax, who was another leader involved in documenting the histories of formerly enslaved individuals.50Lomax was a musicologist interested in collecting folk songs, particularly those from African Americans. Brown frequently challenged Lomax’s framing of the project and particularly the interviewee questions which focused on daily life alongside folk songs and superstitious practices.51Brown urged for a fuller and more complete list of questions in which interviewees were allowed to speak for themselves. These conflicts highlight the significant role that this project played in documenting the legacies of slavery and the critical role Black communities played in the nation.52

Brown also levied pointed critiques of the SLHP for the overwhelming whiteness of the project from staff to writers to the people whose life histories were documented. Often perfunctory, the inclusion of Black voices extended to their role as interviewees, but not writers, as the map demonstrates. Despite the significance of stories of enslavement from interviewees on understanding Southern identity, Couch was not interested in collecting such material. In a letter to state directors, Couch wrote, “In the life histories the emphasis is on the present and the past is treated only to throw light on the present.Ex-slave stories that relate mainly to the past will not be acceptable as life histories. If they are brought up to the present through consideration of their full life experiences, including their children and grandchildren and their present mode of living, then they may be acceptable as life histories. However,it is extremely doubtful whether concentration on any particular group of this kind will be very fruitful[emphasis ours].”53With this framing, Couch positioned the experiences of enslavement of interviewees as not relevant, clearly discouraging writers from asking questions about their experiences during slavery. The results of this decision can be seen in a mere 13 life histories from formerly enslaved individuals.54By distinguishing the SLHP from the Ex-Slave Narrative Project, Couch crafted a notion of Southern identity that was largely devoid of the profound experiences of enslavement that were, in reality, inextricably weaved into the very notion of the South, and America. The SLHP, except for a few writers, would try to avoid the wake of slavery.55

Sociology and Life History Configurations

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (34)

Whereas the map of occupations illustrates the goal of capturing a core set of professions from all across the region, the map showing where individual writers captured life historiesprovides a different pattern. Each writer, with very few exceptions, only conducted life histories in a narrow geographic region. The map shows, for example, W. O. Saunders’s focus on the North Carolina coast, W. W. Dixon’s work near Columbia, South Carolina, and Barbara Berry Dorsey’s collection of life histories near St. Petersburg, Florida. In most cases, the regions of focus for each writer also corresponded to where a writer lived. Writers constructed life histories within their own geographic communities. Whereas the focus on occupations was spurred by the desire to distinguish the SLHP from the Folklore Project’s anthropological questions, the desire to have local writers can be understood as a desire to differentiate life histories from those prevailing methods that dominated sociology.

As for the larger field of sociology, Couch looked past the work of Du Bois and the Atlanta School to center his arguments in relation to the Chicago and Chapel Hill schools.56By the 1930s, certain schools of sociology had canonized works such as Florian Znaniecki and William I. Thomas’sThe Polish Peasant in Europe and America(1918). They were credited with the shift from a philosophical to a scientific approach grounded in empiricism because of their use of “human documents,” which included introducing a new form of qualitative data that they called a life history. Works such as Clifford Shaw’sThe Jack-Roller(1930) further popularized empirical American sociology and the life history method.57The life history method became a popular form of evidence for case studies, which were conducted on a person or particular group by a social worker or sociologist. The collection of histories became associated with White women’s labor while White male academics used them to formulate new sociological theories, a gendered labor ideology that influenced SLHP hiring practices. Interestingly though, Couch seemed to have been unfamiliar with the use of the termlife historyamong the Chicago sociologists. His letters indicate a genuine belief that the term was original to the SLHP. His unfamiliarity with the termlife historyin other areas is unsurprising as the concept of collecting an individual’s personal history was defined by various terms.

By the mid-1930s, collecting personal histories was a common method in sociology, primarily associated with social work and the emerging field of criminology.58“So closely related are these various kinds of case studies that it is impossible, for all practical purposes, to draw a clear-cut distinction between a case study, a case history, and a life history of an individual,” wrote UNC sociology professor Katherine Jocher in 1928 forSocial Forces. The slippage between terms in the field meant that the method, and debates over the method, were often under the more popular terms ofcase historiesandcase studies. This was true for Rupert Vance, Couch’s primary interlocutor, and from whom he drew inspiration for the life histories as discussed in detail inLayer 2.

To capture stories of “typical” Southern workers, Couch and SLHP administrators found sociology’s case studies intriguing. However, Couch did not think the increasingly favored statistical and data-driven approaches in sociology could motivate a general readership to learn about the social problems in the South or social problems in general. They abstracted not only the people but also the problems and missed an opportunity to persuade people into action. Instead, he saw promise in the case study approach, specifically the method of life histories, if this method could be repurposed for a popular audience and to focus on common types rather than those defined as deviant.59

Case studies “are technically written for a technical audience” and “restricted usually to segments of persons’ lives used to illustrate particular problems, such as problems of juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, and marital frictions,” he wrote.60Instead, Couch argued for a different purpose and reader. Rather than focusing on “deviant” segments of the population, he was interested in “representatives of the great body of people” in which each person would tell “his own storyas it appears to himincluding all those details which while deemed non-essential for sociological generalizations, nevertheless, portray in the realest sense the nature and quality of a man’s living” [underline original].61

Additionally, Couch objected to the assumption within the discipline that “only sociologists can get case histories that are worth getting.”62Instead, he believed that nonacademic writers would be better able to collect information from subjects because they are more closely related to the subjects’ situations, especially writers from the South. Moreover, they would not have the disciplinary trappings of sociology, so they would be more open to relating the life history as the interviewee told it. Couch explains, “The approach to this subject by the workers on the Federal Writers’ Project will be from a human point of view corresponding closely with the point of view of the journalist, except that certain simple techniques will be established and followed to ensure the greatest possible accuracy in the histories that are collected.”

The entanglement with sociology was driven largely because of the initial purpose of the SLHP: to understand a sociological problem through empirical data. Yet, the kind of empirical data desired was not quantitative but qualitative. As the field of sociology desired authority through becoming a quantitative social science, the SLHP collected sociological data but through individualstoriesfrom the perspective of theindividuals themselvesthat were meant to be read in aggregate to shed light on the social conditions of a region. While Couch’s ambitions for the SLHP far exceeded the immediate social issues of the region, for he hoped this “new literary genre” would animate other domains and find yet unknown purposes, the immediate concerns about the economic and, therefore, social health of the region deeply shaped the genre information.63

As a result, the project became focused on two primary aims. One was to document the region in a particular configuration—through a Black/White binary categorized by occupation. The second was to forge a new literary genre for sociological knowledge for a broader public. In this case, they identified their primary audience as an affluent White audience beyond the academy, for their social and cultural power in US society made them powerful voices that shaped US social policy. To reach this audience, women writers became central.

Feminized Labor

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (35)

Like other growing disciplines in the early 20th century, sociology was influenced by gendered and racialized ideas of expertise and work. As mostly White male professors residing in institutions of higher education worked to solidify sociology as social science and as an academic discipline, they were joined by White women forging approaches to social services across the nation. The settlement movement emerging at the turn of the 20th century ushered in a female-led sphere dedicated to social work among low-income communities. Often founded and staffed by women, settlement homes opened across the United States in primarily urban spaces functioning as community centers offering social services. While each settlement was shaped by the ideological bent of the founders and the needs of their specific communities, an often shared task was to acculturate lower-income communities into White, middle-class, and often Christian, values. They joined a larger racialized cultural and social logic that sought to mold groups into whiteness.64These new social welfare organizations participated in a larger conversation about social services amid the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, and immigration. Underway was the development of a new professional class with the emergence of the social worker.65

By the early 1910s, structures were in place for social work education and professional organizations. The social work career path was positioned as primarily White women’s work due to the impact of the settlement movement and the centrality of case studies to the methodology of the field of social work. White women capitalized on their work with settlement homes to carve out key roles for themselves in the expansion of these social professions as long as they operated within the gendered cultural logic of the era.66In areas of social life where women and children were central, such as family social work, White women were able to develop and formalize their expertise as they focused on families and supported women and children through settlement homes.67

The development of the field of social work in the 1920s and 1930s further cemented individual- (as opposed to community-) centered approaches, in-person interviewing, and case histories as social work conducted by women. Amid heated debates over the educational requirements and the necessary amount of education that would define the profession, the consolidating curricular focus on the “social casework treatment model” as well as individual and family-centered models reified ideas about women and their role in society.68Women were understood to be best for this job because they were central to shaping, managing, and supporting the family and were perceived to have natural attributes amenable to effective interpersonal communication. In other words, social work was an extension of women’s domesticity.69Therefore women were seen as ideal social workers to perform on-the-ground interviewing and working with individuals and families, while men should pursue the more academic and scholarly aspects of the field.70Such logic led to a system in which women worked in communities interviewing and identifying treatments as social workers, and men like Thomas and Znaniecki drew on the case study method to theorize ideas such as social deviance as sociologists.

The configuration of women as ideal collectors of case studies likely influenced the labor practices involved in collecting the life histories in the SLHP even though Couch did not directly engage with the field. Despite the fact that UNC opened a School of Social Work in 1920 that quickly became a leader in the field, Couch almost never mentioned the school in his correspondences about SLHP hiring to Washington. This omission likely resulted from the fact that Couch wanted to distinguish life histories from case histories. Couch was concerned that those trained in sociological approaches—specifically the case history approach, which was a part of formal social work training—filtered out important information because they “treated their subjects as abstractions.”71Instead, the interviewees in life histories needed to speak for themselves through rich and well-developed stories that obtained a mark of literary excellence. This concern helps explain why Couch always positioned those gathering life histories as writers, insisting that they mark themselves as such on the life histories, rather than field workers as other projects like the Social-Ethnic Studies did. Yet, Couch and other SLHP administrators relied on gendered assumptions about women’s abilities to connect, ask questions, listen, and then write down the stories, the same rhetorical logic that motivated the field of social work. Such assumptions are evidenced when examining the data concerning who were the most prolific writers in the SLHP.

A Focus on White Women Writers

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Looking at the map of women writersand men writersshows that a significant amount of the life histories were written by women. In total, women made up slightly over half of the writing staff and produced over 60 percent of the recorded life histories. A large portion of the interviews was written by a small number of writers. There were 30 writers who wrote 10 or more life histories. Together, those 30 writers wrote 677 life histories, slightly over half of the collection. Within this group of the most prolific writers, 11 were men, among which only one identified as Black (Robert McKinney), and 19 were White women. These 19 women wrote nearly 40 percent of the life histories. This small group of White women was responsible for shaping much of the collection, a fact that no study of the SLHP has ever revealed.

Why were White women able to gain such a prominent position as writers in the SLHP? The key role of women writers in the project is particularly striking for a time when women were largely excluded from the workplace and had only been given the right to vote a mere two decades earlier. Two notable causes pushed the SLHP to use women writers so prolifically. First, gendered notions that associated women with the domestic sphere led to the idea that they were better able to gain access to interviewees within their homes and to put them at ease while sharing their stories, traits that also led women to occupy central positions in social work. Second, women were seen as good communicators and recorders of information, the same gendered thinking that led them to be favored for stenographer and secretary positions.72

While SLHP administrators framed the purpose of the life histories as providing an opportunity for the “people [to] speak for themselves,” it was never intended for the histories to be unmediated replications of the exact words of the interviewees as one might expect of oral history transcripts today.73Instead, the SLHP writers and the editorial supervisors were responsible for turning the raw material from the interviewee into a life history with “literary excellence” that would be more “readable.”74To achieve such literary excellence, Couch began the project by mandating that state directors secure “the best qualified writers.”75State directors scoffed at such a directive because of the WPA requirement that 90 percent of writers be certified relief workers, arguing that good writers “are few and far between.”76The state director of Virginia, Eudora Richardson, went as far as to state, “There is no use deluding ourselves. There is not a relief worker on our staff that can produce a life story that is worth publishing.”77

Couch was generally quite frustrated with this complaint from state directors, seeing the problem of securing good writers as a result of the hiring practice. He wrote, “I am practically certain relief rolls contain many persons who can write, that individuals frequently do not know their own abilities, that officials consulting applicants for relief know little about discovering abilities, and that the failure to get on the project persons who can write is a consequence of the application of naive, primitive social work techniques.”78Additionally, he argued that “I have found that if I take a little time to look around I can locate persons already certified or who can be certified who are able to do really valuable work.”79

Couch’s approach of “looking around” for those who were able to do “really valuable work” as well as helping workers find their own abilities seemed to be aimed at opening up the project to new writers that had previously been ignored. However, the actual hiring processes relied on raced and gendered notions of who was best qualified to capture stories of interviewees and who possessed necessary writing skills. These raced and gendered practices can be seen in the way that SLHP administrators especially selected a handful of White women for non-relief positions, the same female writers who would become the most prolific writers during the life of the project. Among these women were the two writers who wrote more life histories than any other writer: Bernice Harris with 85 life histories and Ida Moore with 51 life histories. At the same time, how FWP administrators treated Harris and Moore in contrast to less prolific writers such as Nellie Gray Toler offers insight into how gendered notions could open doors as well as close them.

A Closer Look: Harris, Moore, and Toler

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Harris, an aspiring playwright and novelist, was recruited by Couch after he reviewed her novelPurslanefor publication at UNC Press. Harris had taken summer classes at UNC in English as well as from Professor Frederick Koch, founder of the Carolina Playmakers.80In a letter trying to recruit her to the project, Couch wrote, “We want you to get stories of tenant farmers and small farm owners … There are several reasons for my thinking of you in connection with this work. First, I believe you can do it better than anyone else I can find and that the stories you write will be authentic and interesting. Second, I am extremely anxious for you to do more writing of the kind you have done in your volume of plays and in Purslane.”81Purslanewas loosely based on Harris’s childhood in Mt. Moriah, North Carolina, and detailed the life of a small rural community. Couch felt that her descriptions of these rural communities were much richer and authentic than other representations of the rural South, such as those by Erskine Caldwell.

Couch’s desire to hire Harris because of her ability to write “authentic and interesting” stories was also rooted in her connections with farming communities in her town of Seaboard, North Carolina. He believed that she could use these connections to gain access to people willing to give their life histories. Because her husband owned and operated a cotton gin, Harris knew many people in the farming community. Together with her connections in the community, Harris believed that she was well positioned to put people at ease. She explained that together with the many economic problems in the region was “the need of the lonely and forgotten to tellallto a sympathetic listener”.82

Harris’s description of herself as a sympathetic listener, evoking her emotive abilities, reveals how she deployed gendered assumptions that see women as more “naturally” emotional, as a means of establishing her ethos, or credibility, as a uniquely capable interviewer. As many scholars of feminist rhetorics demonstrate, ethos does not dwell only in the speaker (or rhetor), but rather also with the audience. Establishing credibility and trust often requires understanding and appealing to the beliefs of the audience.83For the SLHP, the ethos was tied to the degree to which the writer understood the interviewee and their positionality, including their community. Harris’s credibility then emerges from her positionality as a woman able to be a sympathetic listener among her own community.

What is not said here, what is visibly invisible, is the way her whiteness is simultaneously used to give her the permission and ability to move freely among her town, as well as across the state of North Carolina, to acquire interviews from both Black and White residents. In total, Harris wrote interviews with 95 people, of which 27 were from White women, 36 were from White men, 18 were from Black women, and 12 were from Black men.84Black writers were not afforded this same freedom of movement and access to different racialized communities as consequences for crossing into segregated White-only spaces had violent and potentially lethal results. Therefore, it was the interrelation of Harris’s whiteness, gender, as well as her middle-class connections that positioned her as a sympathetic listener, which, together with her writing skills, led her to acquire more interviews than any other writer in the SLHP.

In addition to gendered ideas about women as more sympathetic listeners, White women were also positioned as less threatening and thus more likely to gain entrance into communities thought to be resistant to interviews. Ida Moore’s early work on interviews with mill workers demonstrated how she used this assumption to her advantage. Couch hired Ida Moore in May 1938 as one of the first people to work on the life histories project in the position of a noncertified, nonsecurity worker. In a letter advocating for her hire, he wrote, “We have in hand at present in typescript a novel of hers which has been read by about one-half dozen persons, all of whom have recommended it highly…Miss Moore has had two years of college work, has taught school, and has learned much in the last ten years from having to forage for a living for herself and several brothers and sisters. Of the persons whom I know, who are available for this job, I consider her the best.”85

Couch established Moore’s ethos by referring to her role as a teacher, her college education, the existence of a manuscript as evidence of her writing skill, her lower-class roots, and her resourcefulness. Together with these specifically stated skills, Couch used Moore’s gender, race, and class to task her with what he and others thought would be some of the most difficult communities to interview, those from the industrial mills that were spreading across North Carolina. These mills were known for harsh working conditions and overbearing managerial systems that frowned upon outsiders asking questions. According to Couch, many argued that “‘the effort to get stories from people living in textile mill villages would arouse suspicion and that any person attempting to get material would very likely be rejected. It was also said that the people would not talk.’”86However, Moore “proved the job could be done” by collecting more than 28 life histories from mill workers.

Contrary to any difficulty, Moore describes the ease with which she enters towns, homes, and lives in the life histories she wrote. She is welcomed into living rooms, invited to share meals with families who don’t have much food, and asked to sit in chairs that are positioned within a few feet of people’s beds in their one-room homes.87Moore is afforded access to these intimate spaces of the home in large part because of her gender and race. As feminist rhetorician Jessica Enoch explains, “Gender, especially when it is animated by class, culture, race, sexuality, and ability, conditions where a person is able to go, the spaces that can be occupied, and the kinds of knowledge and credibility that can be cultivated within that space”88In this case, Moore uses the interrelation of her gender, race, class, and rhetorical purpose to gain entrance into the lives of the interviewees.

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How Moore accessed an interview with Frank Martin demonstrates how she used her positionality to gain access. In fact, the way in which she gained entrance to the Martin home in order to reveal a poignant story was so important that it was used to create a radio documentary. One interviewee describes Moore to her husband, encouraging him to talk to Moore. Here is the “writer-lady I tole I had the conversation with las week. She is writing up people in this county so’s the rest of the world can know how we lives. She would like, as I said, for you to be in her book.”89While class and race are certainly signaled with the written dialect Moore chose to use in this life history asLayer 4will discuss in more detail, this figurine of Moore as a “writer-lady” emphasizes her gender as tied to her profession to demonstrate her ethos, establishing her credibility as someone worth talking to. Within the intimacy of the home, the dominion of women, Moore used her gender and the unmarked ability of her whiteness to position herself as a professional writer knowledgeable about the struggles of home life to put interviewees at ease and encourage them to share their life histories to someone who was otherwise a stranger.90Leaning into such gendered and raced assumptions to establish a professional ethos was the same rhetorical move that White women performed to position themselves as experts in the growing field of social work. Moore did such a good job showing that life histories could be collected from what was considered one of the hardest to reach communities that she wrote the manual on life histories, which was sent to all writers and administrators in the SLHP.

While Couch and other SLHP administrators in North Carolina looked to White women as lead writers who could savvily use their positionality to gain access to communities to write compelling life histories, their assumptions were not shared throughout the SLHP. Other key state administrators relied rather on problematic ideas of women as less capable than men. Most notably, James Aswell and William McDaniel in Tennessee took a significantly different approach to their writers as they felt virtually none of them were capable of writing. Complaining of the incompetence of the writers, Aswell wrote Couch,

We are handicapped by having no field workers who can write or know what to look for. I have to tear down each thing that comes in, reassemble it, and then send it back with detailed instructions for expansion…When the piece is returned (with blanks that we furnish filled out with physical description of the interviewed and the neighborhood), then the thing has to be cut, the dialogue made natural and often more material sent for to fill up the cracks in the continuity…The field workers themselves are often half-illiterates. While this has its obvious advantages, the disadvantages are also pretty heavy.91

Despite the extremely condescending tone and opaque meaning of why it would be advantageous to have half-illiterates as field workers, Aswell and McDaniel did see some promise in three White female writers, Nellie Gray Toler, Della Yoe, and Ruth Clark, who ultimately were the three most prolific writers in Tennessee. However, the promise that was seen was mostly in the women’s ability to connect with the community and record information rather than their writing which they admonished with such elite and sexist critique.

Writing about Nellie Gray Toler, Aswell explained, “We’ve had a special problem in getting out these life histories. Some of the ‘writers’ could not write. Take Toler, for example. Her sole virtue is facility with shorthand. Most of her papers come to us in such a jumbled mess that at first reading, nobody on earth could make head nor tail of them. It is only after the most painstaking delving and cutting that sense begins to emerge.”92While with less malevolence, McDaniel made a similar backhanded compliment of Toler in a letter to Couch about the process of life history collection in Tennessee, “Though she is no writer, she is no doubt our most valuable field worker. She is able and willing to do efficiently anything we ask.”93In the same letter, he gives “praise” to Ruth Clark, explaining that her “greatest attribute is that she is one of the people. She shares their views, religion and mode of living, and through that gets into her stories the essence of their community life.”94

In both of these examples, Aswell and McDaniel downplay, if not outrightly denigrate, the writing abilities of Toler and Clark, instead positioning their usefulness as a matter of their willingness to record as well as connect to the communities that they were interviewing. Such painfully gendered notions of professional writing likely resulted from similar rhetorical moves made within the field of social work as well as the growing equation of clerical work with women’s work. This view saw clerical work as the “routinized and deskilled” recording of material that was already intellectually composed, leading to the understanding that the act of “writing,” as Solberg explains, was split into the “head” work of male executives and the “hand” work of female clerical workers.”95This formulation of writing devalues the “bodily labor of writing” and the expertise needed to navigate complex social environments to acquire interviewees and choose relevant information to document.96It flattens the writing process to the final end product, erasing its composite parts and the labor performed by the White female writers.

Though Couch took a different approach to administer life histories than McDaniel, Aswell, and other SLHP supervisors, White women played a central role in the SLHP. Women occupied these roles because of the gendered assumptions about their supposed superior abilities to listen and their demure position, which then allowed them to put interviewees at ease. Certain writers even used those assumptions to create space for their writing and approach to life histories, such as Bernice Harris and Muriel Wolff, two of the most prolific writers.97While White women writers seized this opportunity to contribute to the SLHP, their Black female counterparts were denied. In fact, Black writers were systematically excluded from the project, even as efforts were still made to capture the life histories of Black interviewees. However, the ways in which blackness was represented often corresponded to Jim Crow characterizations expected by a White audience, whichLayer 4demonstrates.

The Marginalization of Black Writers

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (39)

Looking at the maps of Black writersand White writersreveals that White writers wrote the vast majority of life histories. In total, 159 of the writers were White, 7 were Black, and there was 1 Chinese American writer who wrote a single life history.98Of this disproportionately small group of Black writers was Robert McKinney, who wrote 17 life histories, which was twice as many as any of the other Black writers. McKinney was a graduate of Xavier University of New Orleans and collected the stories of residents of the Crescent City. As a member of an integrated unit, McKinney and his colleagues within the Louisiana FWP demonstrated that hiring and creating the institutional structures that included a wide range of perspectives was possible. The data and work in Louisiana bring into relief racist ideologies that guided the life histories project in the other Southern states, despite advocacy from colleagues within the FWP.

To increase Black representation in the ranks of the FWP, in 1936 Alsberg created the Office of Negro Affairs led by Sterling Brown and state and local offices known as Negro Working Units.99Yet these units were segregated and often required workers to depend on Historically Black Colleges to find office space as they were forbidden to work in the same space as White colleagues. Brown worked hard to advocate for the inclusion of Black writers in all FWP initiatives.100However, he consistently met resistance by White administrators. These administrators argued that they were unable to hire Black writers because of the requirements of segregation, the lack of writing skill, and the unwillingness of the Washington office to provide adequate resources for hiring.

Couch and the other SLHP administrators relied on structures of segregation, together with racialized rhetoric defining writing skill and objectivity to veil their racist hiring practices. When asked to explain why more Black writers had not been hired, Edwin Bjorkman wrote to the office of Negro Affairs that not a single Black person had been hired in North Carolina because “the resources of the Writers’ Project ‘have not permitted the setting up of separate establishments, which would be required for such employment.’”101Again relying on the argument of scarcity in resources that also effectively blamed Black writers, in a separate letter referencing his inability to hire Black writers, Bjorkman stated,

Efforts to do better in this respect have failed on account of the impossibility of finding members of that race capable of qualification for the project while certified on relief. The few employed have invariably had to be dropped after a short time because they did nothing at all…With a very small percentage of non-relief workers allowed to the project, and with such positions absolutely needed for the filling of directive and supervisory positions, it has been impossible to place any negroes in this class.102

Following the almost exact same line of logic while also appealing to White supremacist sensibilities, Alabama state director Myrtle Miles stated, “‘Members of the race who are fortunate enough to have [Tuskegee] Institute training are not on relief,’ ‘it would be unwise to give a Negro this job…There is considerable racial sensitiveness in Tuskegee and vicinity.’”103According to this logic, there were not enough skilled Black writers who qualified for relief. Those who were skilled writers did not qualify for relief, and the respective state offices were not willing to expend limited resources on hiring non-relief Black writers.

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Couch echoed the argument of the inability to find Black writers but did so by appealing to the rhetoric of colorblindness. Writing to Alsberg, he explained,

Since taking on the job of Regional Director, I have found it necessary to spend a large part of my time working on the problem of improving the quality of personnel on state staff. I have not recommended or approved anyone for any non-relief position without first having definite evidence in the form of printed manuscript material as to his ability to write. I have held to this in dealing with white persons and I do not believe I should discriminate for or against Negros in this particular. There are no non-relief vacancies in North Carolina or on the Regional staff at the present time. On the Regional staff I have employed only those persons that I think have exceptional talent. Nothing would delight me more than to discover a Negro with exceptional writing talent, legally resident in the states with which I deal, and desiring to work on the Writers’ Project…I shall appreciate greatly any evidence that anyone can give me in locating Negros who are qualified for work on the Writers’ Project in this region.104

Couch’s argument to Alsberg assumed that there were not any good Black writers who qualified for relief and instead focused on the idea of hiring into the few allotted non-relief positions. In this case, he relied on racist structures of evidence that purport a type of objectivity and colorblindness to conclude that no Black writers could provide “evidence in the form of printed manuscript material” of “exceptional talent.” Such reliance on printed manuscripts did not take into account inequalities in access to presses or higher education, not to mention his opaque definition of what constituted “exceptional talent.”

Moreover, while Couch seemed to lament the fact that no one was helping him locate qualified Black writers, Irma Neal Henry, consultant on Negro Affairs in North Carolina, was continually writing him with names and resumes of candidates with a college education and considerable writing experience.105One candidate included Dr. Edward Farrison, who had a PhD in English from Ohio State University and was an English and public speaking professor at Bennett College for 12 years.106Additionally, he had published in several scholarly journals, includingThe Journal of Negro HistoryandThe Crisis. Despite the exceptional qualifications of Farrison, Couch claimed that while there were a number of jobs in which Farrison could “be very useful,” he did “not see any chance to increase the salaried staff.” In other words, there were no paid positions available for Farrison; however, Couch alluded to the fact that there may be a nonpaid position available as he had worked with others who offered their assistance “on a voluntary, non-salary basis.”107Therefore, even when Couch was presented with an extremely qualified Black candidate, he was not willing to make a non-relief position available but would consider using his unpaid labor, something most could not afford to give, not to mention the insult provided by such a suggestion.

When one of the few Black writers were assigned life histories, they were always given African Americans to interview, and their work was continually critiqued as lacking objectivity. In a letter to Couch, Georgia FWP State Director Samuel Tupper wrote, “We have found it very difficult to get good stories written by Negroes about Negroes. The difficulty seems to me that educated Negroes wish to make themselves and their race appear to have a good advantage and they think this can be done by talking in stilted language about things of no interest or importance.”108Couch seized on this criticism by Tupper that Black writers could not write objectively by immediately writing one of his favorite state directors, William McDaniel, asking him to give “a detailed account of your experience with the Negro writers of life histories” and “any general criticisms of the stories submitted by these writers. I wish you would please state what these criticisms were and what efforts you made to have them corrected.”109Couch’s intention was to compare McDaniel’s response with those from other state directors. The quickness and intensity with which Couch responded to criticism of one writer demonstrated how racialized thinking informed all writing produced by Black writers. Suddenly, all Black writers were clumped together, losing all individuality, such that all of their writing was seen through a lens of blackness that was equated with a lack of skill and objectivity.

Such thinking was endemic to the nearly all-White administration of the FWP. FWP staff often questioned whether Black employees of the FWP together with Black informants could be objective, citing their “Negro bias.”110Uncritical of the racist logic that undergirded their critique, these White staff members understood themselves as capable of objectivity, again allowing for whiteness to be synonymous with neutrality.111Such an assumption that Black writers could not allow Black interviewees to speak for themselves was representative of criticism faced by almost all Black writers at the time. Citing Bill Andrews, Stewart explained that “African American autobiography emerged as a genre that relied heavily on rhetorical strategies in order to prove that the black narrator was a purveyor of truth—a truth-teller.”112That the SLHP practiced this racialized thinking that questioned the objectivity of Black writers and interviewees while seeking authentic and real stories demonstrated how neutrality was always already equated with whiteness within the project.

In the end, Couch declared, “In the past two months I have spent several hours writing letters and having conferences over the matter of Negro employment on the North Carolina staff and the Regional staff. I feel that this time has been wasted … I do not feel that it is wise for me to spend time getting information about the qualifications of persons that might be employed unless there is a definite prospect of vacancies in which they might be used.”113While Couch seemed to blame the Washington office for lack of vacancies, it was clear that he was rarely willing to advocate for Black writers to occupy such non-relief positions. Moreover, Couch’s argument about wasting his time was quite poignant given the fact that at the same time he was writing this, he was also berating the state directors for not “looking around” the community for writers who qualify for relief and approaching their personnel with the necessary “enthusiasm and understanding” necessary to discover the “the abilities of persons on their staffs.”114Such a contradiction evidences the underlying racialized logic about which writers were worthy of the time necessary to help them discover their own abilities and allot non-relief positions to those with exceptional talent. This logic aimed to position White writers as more qualified to document and write life histories while disqualifying Black writers from working on the project.

A Complex Ecosystem

Within the complex documentary ecosystem of the FWP, Couch and his fellow administrators carved out a space for the SLHP by creating a version of the life history method that was distinct from other sociological approaches. For the SLHP, life histories were written for a generalized audience by writers who were not trained academics. Most importantly, the FWP life history did not focus on exceptional but rather common workers throughout the South. The interviewees were supposed to give their own perspectives of their lives. The democratic ethos of the project resonated well with the larger FWP concerned with documenting real life as Americans lived it.

However, how the SLHP distinguished life histories from its rival projects in the FWP—the Social-Ethnic Studies, the Folklore Project, and the Ex-Slave Narratives—alongside competing methods from the world of sociology shaped who could be represented and who could do the work of documenting. They focused on the “typical” person, rather than ethnic communities, and their lived experiences in the present, rather than folklore or the past. Concerns about the region’s economic conditions resulted in a focus on labor. Shaped by Jim Crow logic, the common workers were grouped along a Black/White binary. As a result, other ethnic and indigenous communities were seen as outside the scope of the SLHP. This Black/White binary was also reproduced when the SLHP hired writers. Assumptions about White women’s natural abilities alongside their role in society created space for White women to take control of the pen and typewriter. AsLayer 4discusses, the project’s purpose and the positionality of the writers necessarily shaped the content and form of the life histories.

Layer 4: Rhetorical Strategies and Representation

Introduction

A memorandum sent to Southern state offices on October 27, 1938, provided explicit feedback on an early collection of the life histories, explaining that “while these sketches are remarkably good for field reports, a few show a tendency toward overwriting. The most effective stories are those simply told—where the characters speak for themselves, with small assistance from the interviewer.”1This editorial directive of letting “the characters speak for themselves” constituted the ethos of life histories and set it apart from other types of documentary writing. Sociology produced numeric summaries and case studies from the researcher’s point of view, while literature tended to construct composite characters emanating from stereotypes, Couch argued. In contrast, life histories were positioned as stories that better captured the interviewee’s actual voice and therefore were more real, authentic, and accurate. However, the question of how to create these stories was very much up for debate as writers and editors grappled over how to write a short, coherent, and engaging story of a person’s life that was in their own words.

In a little over one year, the Southern Life History Project (SLHP) would negotiate the final form of a life history. At the heart of this undertaking was a series of questions, including how to convey that the story told was authentic and in the interviewees’ own words. This provoked questions such as how the writer and interviewee’s subjectivity should factor into the life history, leading to decisions about content, structure, and modes of representation to formalize the method. As a result, Couch, SLHP editors, and writers negotiated a set of practices and strategies that they believed produced a more authentic, legitimate, and insightful form of documentation. They came to understand themselves as creating “human documents” through “word pictures” that documented people’s stories. To create these human documents, they used a series of strategies that were understood as observational and therefore objective rather than as making arguments or judgments about society. They were to be the empirical data that could be mined and put together to reveal new aspects of American society.

In this layer, we analyze the form of the life histories as written documents. The socially constituted systems they produced involved a dynamic network of players: writers, interviewees, editors, directors, and the Washington FWP office. Each of these contributed their own influences over the form of the life histories. By investigating the draft, edited, and final written documents produced within these systems, we identify how the SLHP sought to position the interviewees as authentic and real. This was achieved by using strategies such as beginning with descriptions of the home space to set the scene of the interview, privileging first-person point of view and quotations, and implementing written dialect to represent stereotypical notions of blackness. The strategies positioned the writer as present and often explicitly welcomed to bear witness to the person’s story. The writer acted as a scribe, documenting the person’s story in their own words and style of speech. These features were designed to convey to the reader that they were hearing an interviewee’s actual voice, which gave the life history credibility. The SLHP hoped these features would motivate readers to identify and empathize with people in their life histories.

Our digitized collection of life histories serves as a rich data source for investigating the forms and functions of the written records produced by the SLHP.2Computational methods are used to augment and assist in a close reading of individual life histories. In this layer, we use two text-analysis techniques to help identify patterns within the collection of life histories. Following the terminology in corpus linguistics, each life history will be referred to as a “document.” Topic models are used to identify “topics”—groups of words that tend to occur together within the same documents. Document clustering is used to find groups of documents that tend to use a similar collection of words. Together, these techniques allow us to organize the lexicon of words and collections of documents in semantically meaningful ways that help identify and understand how a close reading of an individual life history relates to large-scale patterns. Further details of these techniques and how they were applied to the collection are given in the Methods section. Links to topics and clusters of interest are included throughout the layer.

Understanding through ‘Human Documents’

As discussed inLayer 3, the SLHP was able to carve out a unique place in the ecosystem of documentary projects in the FWP by positioning the project as concerned with capturing the life histories of “typical” Southerners from an array of occupational sectors, thereby distinguishing it from the Social-Ethnic and Folklore projects. Unlike the Social-Ethnic Studies, the SLHP was not interested in documenting people’s stories from what they defined as ethnic communities, but instead “typical” Americans, which came to be understood as those individuals who SLHP administrators and staff could identify as either Black or White. Moreover, the SLHP was careful to distinguish itself from the Folklore Project, viewing folklore as concerned with capturing fading artifacts of culture passed down orally from generation to generation, indebted to concepts in anthropology. Instead, the SLHP redefined the qualitative method of life histories from sociology. Life histories had been used in sociology primarily to document those deemed too deviant as a way for researchers to understand how such delinquency was produced.3Couch felt that such a focus on deviance missed life histories’ true potential to serve as “human documents.”

The SLHP’s investment was less about proving that life histories were more or less scientific than other methods but rather a better way to understand and communicate the human condition. It was grounded in literature and documentary strategies rather than social science and written for a nonacademic audience. Humancentric documents in the form of accessible, well-written stories were better positioned for understanding American communities, economic structures, and everyday life, they argued. In this way, Couch believed that life histories could reveal the “more significant aspects of the whole life experience, including memories of ancestry, writtenfrom the standpoint of the individual himself.”4Ideally, readers would respond as Georgia FWP State Director Samuel Tupper did to Annie Rose’s life history of Fannie Hopkins, “You have given the story a very human quality, and after reading it, I felt that I really had seen the woman.”5

For the SLHP, understanding people meant visiting, talking, and listening to individuals who, through their words, created in aggregate a more holistic picture of an aspect of society such as the economy, education, and political beliefs. Numerical summaries could never get at this complexity, for they obscured and removed the kind of evidence that, to the SLHP, was more legitimate, the actual words of people. The indexical approach mirrored the truth claims of photography. Like a photographer, the writer had to frame the scene and then record the light with their pen rather than a shutter. The image they created was to be, as SLHP administrators consistently repeated, a “word picture.” Despite the strong belief in the necessity of creating a “word picture,” SLHP administrators did not have a clear understanding of the particular conventions involved other than the importance of demonstrating authenticity, which became the central concern behind discussions over the form of the life history.

Instructions to Writers

Because Couch and the other SLHP administrators did not have a clear understanding of the specific conventions and structure of life histories, the instructions given to the writers were both vague and contradictory. Writers were given a rough outline of topics to cover, including family, education, income, attitudes toward work and life, religion and morals, medical needs, diet, and the use of their time. The topic models indicate writers did use the outlines as a guide. Many of the topics center on particular professions, one of the dominant subjects in the questions. For example,Topic 1focuses on factories,Topic 3on mills and barber shops,Topic 5on insurance offices,Topic 14on education, andTopic 15on the law. These topics emerge because individual life histories tend to spend a significant portion of the interview discussing topics related to occupations and local industries. However, the instructions that accompanied this document stated, “It is not desired that each life history or story follow this outline in a rigid manner … [the writer] may follow the whole outline or limit himself to a part of it.”6As suggested by a lack of topics related to other questions, such as religion and morals, writers would also follow their interests.

When it came to the point of view, “it is immaterial whether the stories are written in the first, second or third person.”7Additionally, the instructions stated to avoid generalities and the expression of judgment. Instead, the writer “must try to discover the real feelings of the person consulted and must record this feeling regardless of his own attitude toward it.” Above all, the writer should strive for “accuracy, human interest, social importance, [and] literary excellence.”8These instructions left significant room for interpretation, and as a result, writers initially sent in a wide variety of stories, many of which Couch deemed inadequate. Therefore, he looked to a few writers such as Ida Moore to create models that could be emulated and began, in conversation with writers and editors, to narrow the possibilities and formalize the composition of a life history.

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Moore’s life history of Mary Rumbley, a White woman and former mill worker from Burlington, North Carolina, became the primary example.9While there are several life histories that share little in common with the conventions from Rumbley’s life history, text analysis methods that read the entire SLHP collection at scale reveal common trends that most of the stories used to create the genre of the life history, including setting the scene of the encounter between the writer and interviewee followed by significant use of block quotes to center the words of the interviewee. Together, these strategies were designed to realize a “method of writing life histories from the viewpoint of the person concerned” that fulfilled the goal of “life histories as a method of revealing people,” which Couch called for.10

No Space Like Home

How to open a life history was an immediate challenge. While some of the life histories opened with the interviewee’s words, others began with a description of the writer and how they came to share space with the interviewee. Given that writers were documenting another person’s life history, not themselves, one might think that including the writer in the story would have been frowned upon. After all, these were to be word pictures from the interviewee’s words. However, editors believed that by indicating that the writer and interviewee(s) were occupying the same space in which the interviewer was a mere recorder of information, the life histories could better solidify their claims to accuracy and authenticity and, therefore, as a way of knowing.11

The writers indicated their presence while simultaneously cueing the reader into the interviewee’s lived experience by setting the scene of the interview. As Assistant Regional Director Walter Cutter wrote to Bernice Harris:

We are trying to portray the lives of real people for other real people to read and consider. To do this, the person concerned should speak as much as possible, and the description of places, i.e., grounds, houses, rooms, and furnishing, should usually be restricted to that amount which will be sufficient to “set” the scene and be absorbed naturally into the plan of the story. When there are two or three pages of description, before a single voice is heard, something of the vitality of the story as a human experience is lost.12

Accordingly, writers began to dedicate the first few paragraphs to describe how they came to be in the interviewee’s presence. It was not uncommon for a life history to start with a writer walking up to a home, greeting an interviewee on a porch who then invites them inside, or finds the person and walks through the porch to the interior. Once inside, the writers described the conditions often in the form of an inventory of rooms and their objects. They list features on the exterior such as the porch and gardens and in the interior such as items in the home’s living room and kitchen. Indicating welcomed access, proximity, and intimacy established that the writer was a reliable narrator and observer. Subsequently, once the initial scene of the interview was set in the introduction, the writers would quickly get out of the way of the interview, falling into the background to allow the interviewee’s voice to dominate the remainder of the document. For example, this approach came to be seen in Moore’s life history of Rumbley. Moore recounts her initial encounter with Rumbley, describes the home space, and notes the physical appearance of Rumbley within the first two pages as a way to set the scene. She then only occasionally asks a question to maintain narrative clarity, allowing Rumbley’s story to take center stage.

In this way, Moore and her fellow writers drew on the cultural and social values and beliefs of certain spaces in early 20th-century culture, especially the domestic sphere, to make claims to intimacy while making social and economic class signals. By the 1930s, the home was understood as a private space where an invitation was required to enter. It was also a feminized space associated with female labor as well as intimacy.13Attuned to the home’s cultural and social connotations, writers were encouraged to conduct interviews inside people’s houses. The ability to enter the home—a place associated with the personal and private—indicated that the writer was getting one step closer to the person’s interior world. Moreover, describing the home was a way to signal race and class to an imagined audience understood as possessing White middle-class sensibilities, a point that will be discussed in more detail below.

Conducting interviews in people’s homes also offered the possibility of putting interviewees at ease so that they would be more comfortable to give genuine answers. A primary way of organizing whom to interview was by occupation. Asking a mill worker questions about their job in front of their manager was a recipe for disaster. As Virginia Writers’ Project Director Eudora Richardson wrote to writer Mary S. Venable, “Under no circ*mstances should you call on people in the place of employment or approach the officials of an industry. In every case, you should reach the men and women in their homes.”14Together with these cultural and practical reasons, conducting the interviews in people’s homes demonstrated authenticity, access, and intimacy through admittance to the interior space of the home.

Given women’s claims (or relegation) to the domestic sphere and therefore to access this space, a writer in a women’s body became an asset rather than a hindrance. As demonstrated inLayer 3, White women writers were not only hired but produced a significant amount of life histories, often interviewing people from the communities they knew well. It was not only ideas about intimacy, access, and space that shaped their hiring but a trait that they believed lent truthfulness to the life history. Sharing space, particularly domestic space, bolstered claims that the writer could access a more authentic and informative life history. White women writers, primarily from the middle class, enjoyed access to their job in the SLHP because of the gendered and racialized assumptions that undergirded the life history method.

Point of View and Proximity

While setting the scene was viewed as an important move to signal the interview’s authenticity and cue the reader into notions of race and class, it was not initially clear how to establish the writer’s presence while making sure they didn’t take over the whole frame. Central to establishing the writer’s presence was the question of whose point of view the opening scene should be from.15As writers and editors worked together to standardize the form, they settled on the use of first-person when setting the scene, as is the case with Rumbley’s life history. Moore writes, “Iwent to see Mary the other morning, a brisk October morning it was, and Mary was dropping a piece of coal on the fire whenIopened the door in response to her ‘Come in”’[emphasis ours]. This initial scene is from Moore’s point of view as she describes her first encounter with Rumbley, which began the interview.

By usingIto represent the writer at the beginning of the life history, the writer proved they were actually inhabiting the space with the person they were interviewing, in turn, lending authenticity to the story that followed. Often, they even went to great lengths to prove that they were not only allowed in the space but welcomed. Therefore, the use of first-person narrative worked to convey the intimacy between the writer and interviewee as well as the reader and the interviewee. By setting the scene and using first-person, the reader is asked to identify with the writer through the use ofIand join them in bearing witness to the interviewee’s life history. These conventions relied on the spatial and affective intimacy of the home, similar to how anthropological discourse dominant at the time signaled a sense ofbeing thereandoccupying spacewith the community being studied as a source of authority and authenticity.16Therefore, by setting the scene, the writer often made the reader feel like they were now in the room with the interviewee. Together, the writer and reader could listen to the interviewee recount their life history.

Description without Judgment

Because the writer was setting the scene to introduce the person recounting their life history, editors and writers also negotiated how present the writer should be in this initial prose. Writers and editors struggled over which authorial voice and perspective to privilege in the life histories. Therefore, a key part of editing the life histories was finding a balance between setting the scene and making sure the writer’s presence did not dominate the scene by introducing the writer’s feelings and judgments.

Since the writer was supposed to be positioned as an observer simply documenting the interviewee’s life, their attitudes and beliefs were not supposed to emerge. A strategy became a focus on description. The lists of features, reproduced in the topic models and document clusters, reveal the approach.Topic 6serves as a particularly good example of this language, with all of its strongest associated words focusing on common areas and objects within a house: “kitchen,” “yard,” “living room,” and “porch.” The words indicate a focus on describing items at the location of the interview.

Moore makes precisely this move-in Rumbley’s life history, noting,

Above her mantel, there hangs a framed family record. It is a picture containing garlands of roses, an open hook, and two centrally placed ovals bearing the words Father, Mother … The room in which we sat had not been difficult to straighten. It contained an iron bed, an old Singer sewing machine, a small walnut table and the two rocking chairs before the fire. Sweeping must have been the most difficult job she had to perform because the floor was old and splintery. Many bright colored pictures, most of them calendars, were nailed to the dingy gray walls.17

Many others followed suit, such as writer Ina Hawkes, who described approaching Fannie Busbin’s farm in Georgia: “A little farther around the house I saw a large scuppernong vine covering the arbor and loaded with scuppernongs. There were many trees in the yards and the pear and pecan trees were full of fruit, but the apple and peach tree, had just about stopped bearing fruit for the season, I picked a handful of scuppernongs and continued on around the house.”18Setting the scene situated the writer as a keen observer and therefore able to indexically document what they saw and heard.

Another feature of the writing that editors homed in on was words that they deemed too judgmental or opinionated. An aim was for the reader to draw their own conclusions from the interviews; reducing language that suggested an opinion or judgment, often in the form of adjectives, was a priority. The use of words such as “disreputable” or “forlorn” was frowned upon, for they were seen as introducing opinions and judgments that disrupted the writer’s position as an intimate but nonetheless objective observer and got in the way of the interviewee’s ability to tell their story on their terms. Couch was continually frustrated with the Alabama FWP’s life histories and their leadership, leading him to give direct and explicit instructions about using opinions. Couch wrote a letter to Alabama State Director Myrtle Miles offering feedback on the life histories sent to him in Chapel Hill. Irritated by the inclusion of opinions through the expression of the writer’s feelings, he wrote,

The terms “disreputable” and “forlorn” are emotive terms expressing feeling, and as used in this sentence, they express the feeling of the author. Now it happens that one of the first principles of this work is that the author is to keep his feelings out of the stories. His task is to try to get the people on paper as they see themselves, to them to tell their own story in their own words as much as possible, and to suppress his own feelings and attitudes.19

The writer, according to Couch, was to leave their feelings and attitudes out of the story. The writer was a vehicle, like a camera, for documenting another person’s life history by which the reader could then draw conclusions. To drive the point home, he continued:

This kind of statement should not be made. The author should give his description and let the reader draw his conclusions as to whether the place described is a slum or not. In the next sentence I have to object to the “rude” shack “crouched low.” These terms are terribly hackneyed. The author will find that if he will talk to the people living in such a community, they will give him out of their own mouths description fresh, interesting, vivid, and far more to the point than anything he can get by “crouching” and “sprawling.”20

Looking at the text analysis also reveals the emphasis on reducing the writer’s attitudes when setting the scene. The clustering of primarily nouns and verbs in the theme visualizer further indicates how adjectives were less prevalent. Consider, for example,Topic 14, which focuses on teaching and education. The most prominent words in the topic include nouns describing the people and places involved in the education domain: “teacher,” “college,” “service,” and “book.” The other most strongly associated words with the topic include active verbs such as “teach,” “become,” “study,” and “attend.” None of the top 20 words associated with the topic are adjectives or adverbs. Similarly,Topic 10centers on farming. It is most associated with nouns such as “acre,” “crop,” “tobacco,” “mule,” and “horse”; as with the education topic, affective adjectives and adverbs describing farm life are not prominent in the topic. Similar patterns appear across the other topics identified by both topic models.

Editors also sought to reduce literary flourishes that they understood as challenging the observational stance of the writer. Citing Jack Kytle’s life history of Bob Curtis, Couch wrote, “The general introduction on page 1 gives information that is needed, and it conveys this information very well, but for our purpose such passages as this would be better if the information were given without the use of figures of speech. We wish to avoid the appearance of attempting to be literary.”21Using literary techniques risked centering the writer’s voice and authority by establishing their writing style in the document. By instead focusing on lists of features on the exterior and material culture on the interior, the life histories drew focus on the interviewee. Writers could then convey “authentic” messages about class and lifestyle, from which the reader could draw a picture in their mind of the person’s living conditions and thereby develop their own interpretations.

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Along with attention to language, overuse of language also risked undermining the writer’s position as simply an observer reporting the facts who enabled the interviewee to speak for themselves. Often editors cut down the opening section. Editors constantly charged writers with “overwriting.” They worried that the writers were either too focused on themselves, thereby shifting the authorial voice, or overly interpreting the interviewees’ thoughts and feelings. For example, as mentioned earlier, an editorial report on life histories from a North Carolina mill village stated, “While these sketches are remarkably good for field reports, a few show a tendency towards overwriting. The most effective stories are those simply told.”22The report went on to add that “the other sketches, where the research worker is neither described nor introduced, are better.”23A constant theme became that the writing should focus on creating word pictures to effectively convey that the reader was hearing the authentic voice of the interviewee.

While the form of the life histories tried to assert claims of neutral observation, racialized logic still permeated. Writers’ and editors’ editorial decisions were not evenly applied. One area where racialized decision-making becomes pronounced is the set of interviews with people working in agriculture or related service sectors, particularly how they used adjectives when setting the scene and describing the home. DocumentCluster 5,Cluster 6,Cluster 7, andCluster 8contain life histories related to agricultural work.24The interviews in documentCluster 5,Cluster 6, andCluster 7are predominantly from White interviewees, with no more than 19 percent of the interviews taken from Black interviewees. The most strongly associated words for these clusters are concrete nouns describing household objects, such as “bedroom,” “kitchen,” “yard,” “stove,” and “porch.”

In contrast, documentCluster 8consists of a nearly even split between White and Black interviewees (48 percent vs.52 percent). The most strongly associated words in this cluster include words such as “dirty” and “dingy.” The use of disparaging adjectives used to describe White and Black homes’ interiors extends to the exterior, but primarily with Black interviewees. Writers regularly set the stage by describing the homes as “dilapidated”25and with “rickety” steps or pillars,26immediately situating the interviewee as residing in poverty. The descriptions framed the interviewee as unable to maintain their home, which risked playing into problematic racialized stereotypes. As a result, editorial decisions when setting the scene were applied through racialized and classed gazes.

Shifting Authorial Voice with Block Quotes

Following the setting of the scene, the reader joins the writer to listen to the life history. To suggest that the words are exactly those of the interviewee, they are in the form of a series of block quotes. Often, the block quotes are uninterrupted. Because the writer does not disrupt the interviewee, the story seemingly flows from the interviewee as a whole, from start to finish. As a result, the reader feels like they are listening to an unmediated and complete life history.

Using first-person narratives in the life histories furthered claims to documenting an authentic story. Although Edwin Bjorkman wrote to fellow FWP administrator George Andrews, along with writers Mary Northrop, Sidney Jones, Harriet Corley, and W. O. Saunders, that accurately documenting the life history did “not mean that the stories necessarily must be told in the first person,” it was often the case.27By suggesting that the document exactly recounts the interviewee’s words in first-person block quotes, the life histories drew on the power of autobiography and biography.28The writer figuratively (and physically) sets the scene like a biographer to introduce the main character, the interviewee. The person inhabiting the first-person point of view then switches to the interviewee as they recount their life story in an autobiographical style. This narrative strategy seeks to eliminate the possibility that the reader is reading anything but the person’s narration of their own story in their own words through quote after quote after quote.

While block quotes denote authenticity, the reality behind how the quotes were obtained is quite murky, given that writers did not have recording equipment, instead relying on their notes and memory. This situation created such difficulty that many writers balked at the long block quotes when reading Rumbley’s story as the example they were supposed to follow. For example, after reading the life history aloud to his writers, Chalmers Murray, a district supervisor in South Carolina, explained that:

Several of the workers objected to the long dialogue—or rather the long monologue—saying that it would have been utterly impossible for the author to remember page after page of conversation. I told them that they were not to take too literally the directions about giving a verbatim account of the interview. This cannot be done unless one took stenographic notes or used a dictaphone. If the person interviewed does not speak out of character in the story or is not grossly misquoted, there is little to worry about, in my opinion. Probably nothing in the way of an interview would ever be published if the verbatim recording were required.29

Therefore, block quotes became a strategy to convince the reader that the writer indexically documented the interviewee’s exact words and that the interviewee was literally speaking for themselves, despite the liberties that were taken in creating such quotations. Block quotes were, then, a fundamental compositional element of the word pictures. They offered to give voice to people in a way that other documentary practices such as photography could not. Yet, word pictures composed of block quotes came with the challenge of how exactly to represent the voice of interviewees.

Dialect as Authenticity

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Writers used dialect to bolster claims that the life history was theactualvoice of the interviewee. Dialect is a common narrative device used to situate a person within a particular geography or positionality, such as social class, ethnicity, race, and gender. Using dialect to represent how a person spoke was designed to persuade the reader that the story was accurately recorded, a powerful technique when combined with block quotes.30

With the use of written dialect, the SLHP entered a complicated realm. On the one hand, writing all the interviews in “standard English” could make them easier to read for one of their major audiences, the White middle- and upper-class readers who supported the literary market. On the other hand, claims to authenticity and accuracy could be bolstered, administrators argued, if the life histories read like people spoke. At a minimum, leaders like Alsberg thought dialect would make the stories a bit more dynamic and therefore engage potential readers. He wrote, “They might be useful for our racial group and folklore work in other parts of the country. I think a little more of the flavor of the local dialect will make the stories more readable, and that there should be considerably more contrast, light and dark, in the telling.”31

Dialect is a prominent feature in the life histories. For example,Topic 13andTopic 16aggregate around two different geographies.Topic 13includes interviews by a plethora of writers in Alabama and South Carolina.Topic 16focuses on interviews conducted by Robert McKinney in New Orleans.32For each of these topics, the most prominent words are all forms of dialect. For example, “git,” “jest,” “reckon,” “hit,” “wuz,” “git,” “wid,” and “fer” being among the most dominant terms.

Assigned to the New Orleans office, McKinney was one of the, if not the first, Black writers hired as a part of FWP in Louisiana but was not a member of the Black unit.33The graduate of Xavier University joined an integrated unit with Hazel Breaux, Margaret Fisher Dalrymple, and others.34His access to Black communities in New Orleans was seen as an asset by State Director Lyle Saxon.35The efforts to capture slight distinctions in ways of speaking are indicated by the slight differences in the use of dialect. For example, McKinney works to capture the dropping of “g” in the back of verbs such as “morning” and “living” and “a” in “again.” The careful attention to certain kinds of linguistic features suggests the use of dialect by a local writer attuned to the nuances of local speech. To a reader from the community, the nuances of dialect could further signal, particularly to a reader from the same community, that the voice, and therefore story they are reading, is accurate and authentic. However, the challenge with using dialect was that the intended audience was not the person interviewed nor often even a member of the community in which the interviewee resided but primarily White middle-class reading publics, including academics and bureaucrats.

The text analysis brings the racialized use of dialect into stark contrast. The challenge, then, is that written dialect can undermine people’s voices because of how written English functions socially and culturally. “Standard” English is unquestioned and seen as normal, whereas dialect, signaled through the spelling of words, is often linked to a series of assumptions about difference, which are often shaped by race and class. An effort to respell a word to reflect how a person pronounced it is often interpreted as a misspelling in the text and is therefore associated with being uneducated or, at minimum, different from the norm.36

An even stronger dialect signal can be found in the document clustering model that does not remove dialect terms. The last eight document clusters, 25–32 (Cluster 25,Cluster 26,Cluster 27,Cluster 28,Cluster 29,Cluster 30,Cluster 31,Cluster 32) are all dominated by the usage of dialect. Looking at the proportion of Black interviewees in these clusters shows that the dialect was used to indicate race and class. Document clustersCluster 28,Cluster 29,Cluster 30,Cluster 31, andCluster 32all consist of at least 57 percent Black interviews, while they only made up about one-quarter of the life histories collected. Interestingly, the use of dialect does not show strong clustering by specific location or writer. The example of McKinney’s work clustering further demonstrates how attention to local speech patterns was obfuscated in favor of a more general, standardized “Southern” dialect, most commonly applied to Black interviewees’ voices. Given the racist ideologies bolstered by a culture of segregation that situated Black citizens as less than their White counterparts, dialect could also function as a strategy that furthered racist and White supremacist ideologies.

In the life histories, dialect was not applied evenly. Dialect is so prominent in the life histories of Black interviewees that, if not removed, almost all of the Black interviews will group together based on dialect in the topic model. The fact that the dialect words co-locate and become the most significant “topics” of Black interviewees illuminates how computational text analysis methods can limit our analysis at best and replicate racialized and racist ways of knowing at worst. Primarily defining and exploring Black interviews by dialect risks recreating the same process as the SLHP in a computational and digital form. While the topic model offers insight into the interviews and racialized formal strategies, one risk is only computational reading with the grain and not against it. Because writers used dialect to mark race, a risk is that topic modeling and document clustering reinscribes the racialized logic of SLHP. A risk is reproducing a form of computational color blindness, a problematic racist ideology in and of itself. As a result, the models were adjusted (see Methods) to reveal subjects in the interviews beyond just dialect. To further explore, see the Themes Interface that also includes the topic models and document clusters where dialect is not removed.

Obscuring the Role of the Writer

Like the introduction, where the writer sets the scene, editors were concerned about the writer’s presence throughout the rest of the story as the interviewee recounted their life history through mainly block quotes. As Tennessee State Director William McDaniel wrote to Couch, “You will notice that we are not writing the life histories in any prescribed form. Usually, the type of story dictates the best manner in which to tell it. We have told this in the first person, though the third person has been used in most of the others. We are keeping the interviewer out of them all as much as possible since his presence in most cases has no constructive significance.”37

Disrupting the voice of the interviewee was deeply frowned upon. Constantly frustrated by the life histories coming from Alabama, Couch did not temper his criticism. Getting specific, he wrote,

In this paragraph how does the author know that Nora is embarrassed by being in the same classes with children … how does he know Beatrice has “accepted her father’s philosophy of life. She is interested only in finding a man,” etc. The author should be extremely careful how he makes statements like these. If Nora and Beatrice said things which made him come to these conclusions, he should repeat in his story what Nora and Beatrice said and let the reader draw conclusions. If he drew his conclusions from statements made by Bob or Christine, he should quote them.38

In other words, the writer should make sure to position such judgments as emanating from the interviewee by including them in the block quotes. They should not be in the words of the writer.

Editorial notes across the life histories indicate a significant amount of time was spent removing the writer and forefronting the interviewee. The way that the life histories were written—specifically the use of block quotes and dialect—were intended to suggest that the reader was listening to the interviewee’s story in their exact words. They were simply telling their story with the writer as a scribe. As a result, one could read the topics in the Theme Interface they address as an indicator of the features of social life that the interviewees found important, for example, the topic model and document cluster focus on areas such as education, employment, foodways, and the law. However, another way to read these themes is as an indicator of the intentionality of the decisions made for the subjects of the life histories. Several themes map onto the questions and themes that writers were told to explore in the instructions.

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Yet, the life history form obscured the role of questionnaires and conversation in shaping the interviewee’s story as the writer omitted the specific questions that they asked the interviewee. For example, certain writers used questionnaires modeled from the instructions that explicitly asked about areas such as food and education. In contrast, certain writers pursued their own themes, such as Rose Shepard, who asked questions that allowed White interviewees in Jacksonville to obscure the horrors of chattel slavery through Lost Cause romanticism and celebrate settler colonialism. Many of these interviews are contained inCluster 14(with dialect). Rather than represent that back-and-forth through dialogue, the writers used block quotes that obfuscated the role such prompts had in shaping the story. The aim was to reify their claims that the story was original to the interviewee and not biased or shaped by the writer. By not indicating the role of conversation and questions in shaping the interviewee’s story through block quotes, the form obscured the writer and FWP’s authorial influence at large.

All of these strategies were in the service of producing a life history that created a word picture focused on the interviewee. Through setting the scene, the reader entered space with the interviewee. Through block quotes, the reader heard directly, and ideally without interruption, from the interviewee. Dialect made the sounds of the physical interview come to life through the written word. How to end the life history became the final challenge.

Closing a Life History

The question of how to close the life history was largely answered by the unit’s most prolific writers. Some writers, particularly Bernice Harris, ended the life history with the words of the interviewee.39While occasionally there was a short description to close the scene followed by a quote from the interviewee, the more common approach was to use block quotes until the end. The authorial voice remained with the interviewee, who literally had the last word.

When writers shifted their authorial voice back to themselves by returning to their presence in the scene, editors worked to minimize or remove the writer. This often came in the form of a few sentences where the writer described leaving the location. Like a play, they were exiting the scene. The approach recentered the writer and disrupted the interviewee’s voice, and therefore risked undermining the work of the life history. If the pages of block quotes were meant to lull the reader into a sense that they were next to the interviewer reading the exact words, and therefore an unadulterated story of the person’s life, then returning to the presence of the writer risked reminding the reader that a layer of interpretation sat between them and the interviewee. A return to the writer also risked recentering them as the main character, thereby hatching doubts about who the story was really about: Was the life history a story about a writer meeting and interviewing a person or a document of the interviewee’s story? The SLHP editors made it clear that the goal was the latter.

To assert the claim that the reader was listening to the person in their own words, revisers edited the life histories to let the interviewee have the last word. For example, the edits of Gertha Couric’s interview “A Day on the Farm” were mostly minor except for the final marks. The editor marked out the final paragraph that brought the interview back to Couric. She had written, “Soon after this Gorman came for me, thus ending a day with the two little ladies, who for fifty years, have held down a ‘man-sized’ job without complaint.”40The edits appear to actually be those of Couch himself, who with the same penmanship wrote, “Excellent WC.” Even if not Couch, the document demonstrates his approval of the interview as exemplary, which a review of notes on other life histories and his comments in his papers reveals was uncommon. However, the ending that returned to Couric needed to be cut.

Another example further highlights the importance of the interviewee’s voice as the last one the reader heard. In an interview called “Life in a Shrimping and Oyster Shucking Camp,” the writer Ida B. Prine ends with a three-paragraph description of the camp. The last line then reads, “Amid such surroundings, these people were very cheerful, and were delighted to have visitors.”41Couch was anything but delighted and commented in the document that this approach was a “Bad ending.”42As both examples demonstrate, SLHP editors and writers agreed that the interview should end with the authorial voice of the interviewee.

These Are Our Lives, the only book published of the life histories during the era, further asserts the final form of the life history as ending with the interviewee’s voice. With a few exceptions, life histories quickly moved into block quotes indicating the authorial shift to the interviewee and did not switch back to the writer. They end in the room with the interviewee to convey their authenticity through the intimacy of not only being in the room with the interviewee but hearing their voice last. The first and only book published of life histories offers insight into the form the SLHP settled on and the reader’s understanding of the success of centering the interviewee’s story.

An Argument Published

Throughout 1938 and 1939, the SLHP formalized the form of a life history. In a few paragraphs, the writer sets the scene. With the writer in the interviewee’s physical presence, the writer turned the authorial voice-over to the interviewee, who told their story. The shift in authorial voice was indicated by the use of first-person and block quotes. In one block quote after another, the interviewee often began with the beginning of their life and moved to the present, uninterrupted. The reader was positioned as having joined the writer to bear witness to the exact words, literally quoted, from the interviewee. The life history then ended with the interviewee getting the last word. The form was designed to make sure the life histories came from the viewpoint of the person telling their story, an important shift in perspective that allowed individuals to speak and be heard.

Each document was a single person’s life history, but they weren’t designed to be read in isolation. Couch argued that building, selecting, and organizing life histories into a collection was a critical way that the life histories produced knowledge. “Until after a large amount of material has been collected and studied, it is not possible to know what is most important, most typical, or how stories should be classified and published in order to give the most faithful representation,” wrote Couch.43The technology of the book, therefore, became a strategy for how life histories created knowledge.

How the life histories were organized and therefore read became another defining feature. The life histories were intended to be read in aggregate. The insights they revealed were designed to be produced through repetition, by reading one story after another to paint a “word picture” through “human documents” of society. As Couch wrote in the Preface toThese Are Our Lives(TAOL), “The idea is to get life histories which are readable and faithful representations of living persons, and which, taken together, will give a fair picture of the structure and working of society.”44

As a result, the SLHP directly entered debates about sociological knowledge. The book’s form was also an implicit critique of prominent sociologists, who believed that quantitative data was at the heart of producing a fair picture of society. As a part of their efforts to fortify their claims to a science, prominent sociologists amplified calls to prioritize quantitative analysis. For example, the case method advocates argued that the qualitative data that comprised a case study, such as life histories, should be turned into quantitative data. Quantitative methods could then be used to identify and classify patterns in social behavior that could identify social types and social laws.45These methods were seen as more objective and less biased. Much of this work was driven by sociologists invested in social work, particularly the study of deviance that led to the field of criminology. TAOL joined growing critiques that quantitative data was the way to glean insights about social conditions. Rather, the process of reading individual stories in aggregate—one after another—allowed the reader also to identify patterns. Qualitative data in the form of life histories, in other words, could shed light on social structures and society. Accordingly, the SLHP planned a series of books on topics such as mill village life and oil workers, though TAOL was the only book published. It was not that the literary marketplace didn’t respond positively to the book; in fact the first print quickly sold out. Rather, larger political issues and the onset of World War II disrupted these larger publishing plans.

Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (45)

While readers waited for a second printing, reviewers were not always as enamored though they were generally convinced of the method. They were persuaded by the form’s claims of being the authentic, accurate voice of the people interviewed. As a reviewer in theArkansas Democratwrote,

“These Are Our Lives” is a new adventure in literature … Here are true stories of whites and negroes of sharecroppers, farm laborers, landowners, mill and factory workers, persons engaged in service occupations, persons on relief. These are their own stories because they are related in their own language, a language so faithfully transcribed that as you read you feel you are listening as the subjects narrate their experiences, their successes and failures, their hopes and ambitions, their fears and sorrows.46

The United Kingdom-basedSunday Mirrormagazine section wrote:

Today, Americans are meeting Americans as never before in the history of the country. These United States have had their internal troubles, their bitter sectional differences—but today the farmer knows his security depends on the well-being of industrial centers; the mill worker knows that his food supply depends on the success of the planter.

One way that Americans have been able to learn who their neighbors are, how they get along is, by the factual reporting of the life histories of living, average Americans.

One of the outstanding examples of such reporting is the recent publication of the Federal Writers’ Project book, “These Are Our Lives,” presenting the stories of Southern Americans in their own words, written from the standpoint of the individuals themselves.47

As theSunday Mirror’sreview of TAOL demonstrates, the conventions ultimately used to shape the life histories position the content as the interviewee’s true words. The form, in aggregate, could then shed light on social truths about society. “The method of writing life histories from the viewpoint of the person concerned is a new device,” wrote Couch. “It will depend for its final justification on whether the mass of readers is enabled to gain such insight into the lives of other people as will lead to fresh appreciation and understanding. If this purpose is realized, the validity of the method is vindicated.”48The SLHP may not have been often validated by their sociology colleagues in Chapel Hill or Chicago, but their primary audience read with appreciation and understanding.

Conclusion

In May of 1939, the Southern Life History Project (SLHP) published,These Are Our Lives, a collection of 35 life histories, under UNC Press. The release of this book came only ten months after the SLHP began collecting interviews. The book garnered considerable interest and favorable reviews. As a local UNC radio host stated over the air, “These [life histories], when taken together, should give a fair picture of the structure and workings of Southern society.”1Life histories were beginning to intervene in the depiction of the region deemed “economic problem #1.” The book also offered a successful example of why the FWP should even exist, prompting ideas for similar books on different industries in the South and other regions in the US. In the works were books on topics such as oil workers, farm labor, and small-town life proposed by FWP administrators and their interlocutors. Couch expressed excitement and affirmation even as the institutional challenges mounted amidst growing political controversy.

State directors reassigned writers from other projects to the SLHP, and life histories flowed into the state offices. While there was great excitement over expanding the life histories project, the larger FWP was under scrutiny by Congress, especially the Dies Committee, with charges from frivolous spending to ineptitude to even the promotion of communistic ideals. These growing charges combined with the imminent threat of war led to the reorganization of the FWP and the end of the SLHP with Couch’s resignation in November 1939. The end of the SLHP highlights both the promise and the problems with the life history documentary form.

Couch mounted a significant campaign before the official release ofThese Are Our Livesto gather reviews for the book by sending preview copies to countless scholars, news outlets, politicians, and other notable community figures. In these letters, he largely began with an explanation of the unique method of life histories, its relevance for understanding the South, and the request for feedback. For example, he wrote the following to Dr.Douglas Freeman of theRichmond News-Inquirer:

This book is of an unusual nature. In fact, it is so unusual I am much worried about the kind of reception and attention it may get from reviewers. Most books about the South have been written from other books, from census reports, from conferences with influential people. Whenever tenant farmers and day laborers have been consulted, they have been consulted with questionnaires in hand and with reference to particular problems of one kind or another. No one has ever thought that the great body of the people might have their own ideas about their lives and that their own stories might be worth telling from their own point of view.2

Couch’s letter shows the ways in which the method and content were entangled. Spurred by bureaucrats, academics, documentarians, and politicians, the drive to better represent, and therefore understand, the region spurred debates over not onlywhatbuthowto document. Couch, like many of his colleagues, cared deeply for the South—as an identity, culture, and society—and its success while keenly aware of the region’s challenges. Dissatisfied with the current options, Couch argued that understanding the South necessitated a different method and mode of representation as outlined inLayer 1.

The SLHP was not only publishing books about a region but also offering, they argued, a new way to more authentically and accurately document a person’s history. An approach and method that would make space for the person interviewed “to speak, in their essential character,” Couch stated.3AsLayer 2demonstrates, life histories were designed to offer a lens into the challenges from the people whose everyday lives were shaped by social forces. The method, they also hoped, solved problems with other forms of social documentary. They did not generalize people into nameless statistics or focus on deviance and maladjustment through case histories like sociologists and social workers. Rather, they wanted to create “human documents” from “a human point of view.” They did not want numerical and theoretical abstractions that categorized people into types and groups but instead “accurate portrayals of individual lives.”4Spoken words, not numbers, offered a better way to understand people’s lives, the SLHP argued.

By positioning life histories as offering a new method of documentation distinct from sociology, the SLHP carved out a unique space for itself to exist within the complicated ecosystem of documentary projects in the FWP, most notably distinguishing its mission from the Folklore Project, Social-Ethnic Studies, and the Ex-Slave Narratives. Mapping the occupationsassociated with the life histories reveals a core set of professions captured by the SLHP. The foregrounding of those from the farming, mill, and textile industries was done to highlight the current economic conditions of “typical” Southern workers to distance the project from the Folklore Project’s attention to the customs and traditions of fading generations. The SLHP also distinguished itself from Social-Ethnic Studies that focused on the acculturation process of immigrant communities in the US by capturing life histories of “common types of American life.” As signaled by the map of interviewees, “common types” functioned as a euphemism for collecting life histories along “the color line” in which interviewees not read as either Black or White by writers were rendered “uncommon” and “other,” thus not meriting inclusion in the project. While the SLHP emphasized the collection of life histories from African Americans, Couch and other leaders emphasized the importance of only documenting information relating to current conditions rather than the past, and most notably slavery. With this emphasis on the present, the SLHP distinguished itself from the Ex-Slave Narrative project, thereby effectively downplaying histories of enslavement from the project. Taken together, the decisions constructed a unique niche for the SLHP among other FWP initiatives and constructed a particular notion of Southern identity that was palatable for a White, middle-class readership participating in the literary marketplace.5

The response to how people understood the lives represented inThese Are Our Livessheds further insight into the intended audience of the life histories. Robert Register of theGreensboro Daily Newswrote, “In ‘These Are Our Lives’, they speak. Simply, unaffectedly, in their own language, our neighbors, and our neighbors’ neighbors, and the folk who crowd the Saturday streets, tell their life histories. Some we recognize as old acquaintances, and some we see for the first time. Having heard their stories, we keep with us an intense awareness of their poignant existence.”6Registering the use of “our neighbors” signals that the people represented in the book are fellow Southerners, but at the same time, they are not like him. They are instead neighbors who he would not have otherwise seen, let alone noticed their “poignant existence.” While those from the North did not necessarily position those represented in theThese Are Our Livesas neighbors, there was a similar distancing from their own positionality asTimemagazine explained, the book “gives the South its most pungent picture of common life.”7In both cases, the lives represented inThese Are Our Liveswere different from the intended readership. Readers and reviewers occupied the White middle class while the majority of the life histories in the book were from “the humbler folk in the South.”8

The SLHP also was reconfiguringwhoa writer was. They sought writers who could produce clear and easy-to-read prose, unencumbered by academic and especially sociological goals. They did not want people who had been disciplined into the dense and often convoluted prose of academia but rather could write only what they saw and heard. The move was often an unwelcome challenge to notions of expertise, particularly from those with advanced degrees and residing in institutions of higher education. This conception of a good writer resulted in expanding who could be a social documentarian, which came to include creative writers, reporters, and secretaries.

The expansion of the idea of a qualified writer was also built on critical assumptions about distance and interpersonal connection. As the Map Interface andLayer 3show, it was the writer’s very proximity to the people they were interviewing rather than distance that facilitated a more human document. Often, the writers were members of the communities they interviewed, not “outsiders” who were new to the intricacies of Southern society. Their intimacy was an asset for they were understood as having unique access to people and attuned to nuances that might be missed by an outsider. In this way, the life histories challenged a core precept of sociological methods. This was not an objective, distanced encounter, but an encounter and document made possible because of their intimacy.

Moreover, this need to establish an intimate connection to conduct a good interview opened up a unique space for some women writers. The map of writersshows that a small group of White women were responsible for shaping much of the collection, while Black writers, both men and women, were systematically excluded. This imbalance was due to gendered and raced assumptions that informed SLHP administrators’ ideas of who constituted the most qualified writer able to conduct “real” and authentic interviews often taking place in people’s homes. SLHP leaders drew on social and cultural ideas that associated women with the domestic sphere and social work. Women were believed to be predisposed to listen and connect with people due to their “natural” familial instincts, an asset to the life history method. Like the field of social work, the SLHP understood interviewing and documenting as women’s work. The confluence of assumptions left space for women to conduct, document, and craft life histories.

These gendered assumptions did not extend to Black women. SLHP administrators, who were exclusively White, systematically excluded Black writers by relying on segregationist logic that stipulated that White and Black writers could not work in the same office space.9Additionally, they argued that there were not enough skilled Black writers who qualified for relief. The result of this racialized logic positioned White writers as more qualified to document and write life histories while disqualifying Black writers from working on the project.

The group of writers chosen to work on the SLHP, together with editors and administrators, greatly informed the writing conventions used in producing the life histories as revealed inLayer 4. Because the goal was not publications and reports for scholars and government officials but a more general reading public, the SLHP composed the life histories attuned to writing styles and strategies that captured their desired audience. They needed enough literary flair to be interesting to read and set the scene while not so overwhelming as to obscure the authorial voice of the interviewee. In order to gain and keep the attention of readers, these “word pictures,” as they were often described, had to entice but not be so complex and dense as to overwhelm and isolate their intended audience.

Reviewers were largely impressed by the methods used to create these “word pictures,” noting that the language and form of the life history demonstrated its authenticity. TheCharlotte Observerwrote, “Here in these pages the people speak for themselves … After reading this book it is not possible to doubt the authenticity of the stories.”10Writers, editors, and SLHP administrators were pleased with such reviews as there was great debate among them about exactly how to create such a sense of authenticity, given the fact the life histories were not direct transcriptions of interviews. Instead, writers and editors employed a number of rhetorical strategies to create this sense that the reader is listening to a real narration. Such strategies are revealed through text analysis methods used inLayer 4.

The first strategy involved setting the scene of the interview by beginning the life history with a description of the home space, noting the presence of the writer as they entered the interviewee’s home, while also describing the conditions of the home, quickly situating the class positionality of the interviewee for the reader. After the scene was set, the writer moved to the background allowing the interviewee’s life to take center stage through the use of a continuation of long block quotes written in the first person from the perspective of the interviewee.

While these block quotes seemingly indicate the precise and accurate words of the interviewee, they were, in fact, much more mediated. Writers did not have recording equipment and instead relied on shorthand notes they took during the interview, though they were encouraged to limit such notes in order to put the interviewee at ease. As a result, the writer would often run home and write down everything to capture the essence of the interview.11Such a practice often allowed writers to express judgment concerning the conditions and behavior of the interviewee, but by positioning such ideas as coming from the interviewee themselves. The use of long block quotes then obscured the sometimes heavy hand of the writer in shaping the life history.

Additionally, writers often implemented written dialect to demonstrate that the words in the life history were theactual voiceof the interviewee. However, this rhetorical device was used unevenly. It dominated the life histories of Black interviewees but was implemented much more selectively for White interviewees, as seen in the document clustering models 25–32. Such uneven use of written dialect demonstrates the way in which it was used to signal the otherness and inferiority of Black interviewees, thereby conforming to the racist ideologies of segregation and White supremacy.

The issues of representation and authenticity at the heart of decisions that led to the form of life histories are ones that did not come easy. Debates over these issues were never higher than when the SLHP staff had to decide whether to allow photographs of interviewees to accompany excerpts of the life histories in a special articleLifemagazine proposed to publish in the run-up to the release ofThese Are Our Lives.Lifemagazine editors agreed to publish a sizable story on the life histories, but only if they could photograph interviewees from the project. A number of SLHP administrators felt that photographs posed a danger to the project.

First, photographs undermined the very premise of life histories. As SLHP editor Walter Cutter wrote, the purpose was “that the stories have desirable qualities of universality. But the minute pictures appear and concrete particularization is given, this quality of universality to some extent disappears. Whereas with the written account alone people are impelled to think of the larger group represented by the subject, with pictures they may think simply of individuals who are interesting, but numerically unimportant.”12Therefore, the “word pictures” produced by the life histories only worked because readers could imagine so many different faces to represent the life in the story. However, an actual photograph would nullify that possibility and thereby the emotional force of the life history.

Additionally, others worried that the anonymity of the interviews would be undone by the use of photography. Editors had decided to change the real names of the interviewees in the book to protect their identity, and “some stories [were] obtained without the subjects knowing the stories would be printed and as others were assured that they would receive no publicity.”13Therefore, taking photographs of these interviewees might cause them to protest the use of their stories or prevent others from giving their life histories as they knew they might be published with their portrait. Such outcomes would endanger the possibility of acquiring accurate life histories in the future as interviewees might change their stories, knowing they would be read by a national readership. These points of concern among SLHP staff brought up questions about how to collect accurate and impactful stories. Should subjects be told that their story will be published or promised anonymity? Would subjects change their accounts if they knew their identity and story would be published? Does identifying a single “real” person change a reader’s understanding of the applicability of their story to a larger public? Such questions resonate with documentary and scholarly efforts today.

Ultimately, Couch and Alsberg decided that the possibility of getting so much publicity outweighed any negative outcomes. However, in many ways, the debate became moot as a few months after theLifestory was published, the FWP began to unravel. Cries of communism and government overspending became too loud. Alsberg was dismissed from his post in August of 1939, which meant the end of support for the SLHP. Under new leadership, the FWP reorganized. The project was no longer led by the federal government but state-driven. Each state needed to decide if they wanted a Writers’ Project and procure state-level sponsors for the office, such as the governor of the state or president of a state university. The office was also responsible for acquiring at least 25 percent of its budget from local contributions. The role of positions such as regional director of the FWP was in flux as power and authority were redistributed to the state level.

With increased state-level control, regional and national initiatives were increasingly difficult to coordinate. State offices turned their attention to procuring support or disbanding. The change also came as the federal government retooled for world war. The fight against fascism meant millions of new jobs, and postwar capitalism meant the economy roared, at least for a burgeoning and quickly growing White middle class.14Couch remained for a few more months but was increasingly mired in administrative obstacles as the FWP reorganized, making it impossible for him to get any substantive work done, ultimately leading to his resignation. The SLHP came to a halt by the end of 1939. The documentary decade waned as social concerns shifted toward world war.

While the project as an institutionalized effort would shutter, the aspirations continued. Efforts to capture a person’s life in their own words would lead to the development of the oral history method in which the SLHP can be seen as an antecedent. At the heart of the debate over how to let people speak for themselves is a debate over how best to document, analyze, and communicate the complexities of social life. Embedded within such debates are also struggles over what counts as data, evidence, and ways of knowing. As we look to our current moment, where debates about the opportunities and limits of quantification and the nature of data continue, the questions and answers posed by social documentarians in the 1930s have a renewed prescience. The history of the Southern Life History Project can shed light on the debates over the documentary modes of today. The SLHP promised a new method of documentation that centered the voice of the people but did so without fully interrogating how it produced problematic issues of representation that revealed how racialized, gendered, and classed lenses filter whose story was worthy of collection and who was most qualified to capture it. The problems and promises that shaped the SLHP still shape how we capture and share stories today.

Endnotes

Introduction

  1. Susan Rubenstein DeMasi,Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal’s Federal Writer’s Project(McFarland and Co., 2016), 200–202.
  2. William Terry Couch, ed.,These Are Our Lives(University of North Carolina Press, 1939), x–xi.
  3. Marilyn M. Cooper, “The Ecology of Writing,”College English48, no. 4 (1986): 364–75; Nathan Shepley, “Rhetorical-Ecological Links in Composition History,”Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture, February 28, 2013,[link]; Jenny Edbauer, “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies,”Rhetoric Society Quarterly35, no. 4 (2005): 5–24; Rachel C. Jackson, “Locating Oklahoma: Critical Regionalism and Transrhetorical Analysis in the Composition Classroom,”College Composition and Communication66, no. 2 (2014): 301.
  4. For example, see David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris,Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives(Indiana University Press, 2015); Todd Pressner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities(Harvard University Press, 2014); Richard White, “What Is Spatial History?” Spatial History Lab, Working Paper, February 1, 2010; Ted Underwood, “A Genealogy of Distant Reading,”Digital Humanities Quarterly11, no. 2 (2017). For more about the role of the digital humanities, see theMethods.
  5. Jerrold Hirsch,Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project(University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Wendy Griswold,American Guides: The Federal Writers’ Project and the Casting of American Culture(University of Chicago Press, 2016); Jerre Mangione,The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project, 1935–1943(Syracuse University Press, 1996); Catherine A. Stewart,Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project(University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Monty Noam Penkower,The Federal Writers’ Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts(University of Illinois Press, 1977).
  6. Lynn Moss Sanders,Howard W. Odum’s Folklore Odyssey: Transformation to Tolerance through African American Folk Studies(University of Georgia Press, 2003); Paula Rabinowitz,They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary(London: Verso, 1994); Sonnet H. Retman,Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression(Duke University Press, 2011); Stewart,Long Past Slavery.
  7. Ann Banks, Leonard Rapport, and Federal Writers’ Project, eds.First-Person America, 1st ed. (Knopf, distributed by Random House, 1980).
  8. William M. Keith and Christian O. Lundberg,The Essential Guide to Rhetoric, 1st ed. (St. Martin’s, 2008), 4.
  9. Burke,A Rhetoric of Motives, 172.
  10. Cooper, “The Ecology of Writing,” 368.
  11. Charles E. Morris III and K. J. Rawson, “Queer Archives/Archival Queers,” inTheorizing Histories of Rhetoric, ed. Michelle Ballif (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013), 74.
  12. Charles E. Morris, “The Archival Turn in Rhetorical Studies; Or, the Archive’s Rhetorical (Re) Turn,”Rhetoric & Public Affairs9, no. 1 (2006): 115.
  13. Michelle Ballif,Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric(Southern Illinois University Press, 2013); Royster, Kirsch, and Bizzell,Feminist Rhetorical Practices(Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
  14. K. J. Rawson, “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.”Rhetoric Society Quarterly48, no. 4 (2017): 1–25. See also, VanHaitsma, “Between Archival Absence and Information Abundance: Reconstructing Sallie Holley’s Abolitionist Rhetoric through Digital Surrogates and Metadata,”Quarterly Journal of Speech106, no. 1 (2020): 25–47.
  15. Tarez Samra Graban, “Ripple Effects: Toward a Topos of Deployment for Feminist Historiography in Rhetoric and Composition,” inNetworking Humanities: From Within and Without the University, ed. Jeff Rice and Brian McNely (Parlor Press, 2018), 107.
  16. Grace Elizabeth Hale,Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 18901940(Vintage, 2010); Scott L. Matthews,Capturing the South: Imagining America’s Most Documented Region(UNC Press Books, 2018); Laura Wexler,Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of US Imperialism(UNC Press Books, 2000).
  17. Trinh T. Minh-Ha, “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning,”Theorizing Documentary1 (1993): 90–107; Jonathan Kahana,Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary(Columbia University Press, 2008); Rabinowitz,They Must Be Represented.
  18. Retman,Real Folks.
  19. Wai-Chee Dimock,Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time(Princeton University Press, 2006).
  20. While Hirsch is the only author to focus a majority of his book on the history of the Southern Life History Project (SLHP), other scholars have reprinted collections of life history, included life histories as evidence in historical writing, and briefly written about the SLHP as part of the larger FWP. See: Christine Bold,The WPA Guides: Mapping America(University Press of Mississippi, 1999); James Brown,Up before Daylight: Life Histories from the Alabama Writers’ Project, 1938-1939(University of Alabama Press, 1997); Daniel Fox, “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project,”American Quarterly13, no. 1 (1961): 3–19; Patricia Gantt, “Wanting to know about my life”: Oral histories from the federal writers’ project,”Text and Performance Quarterly20, no. 3 (2000): 307-311.; Mangione.The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project, 1935–1943; Nancy Martin-Perdue and Charles Purdue,Talk about Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression(University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Monty Noam Penkower,The Federal Writers’ Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts(University of Illinois Press, 1977); Sara Rutkowski,Literary Legacies of the Federal Writers’ Project: Voices of the Depression in the American Postwar Era(Springer, 2017); Tom Terrill and Jerrold Hirsch, editors,Such as Us: Southern Voices of the Thirties(University of North Carolina Press, 1978).
  21. Hirsch,Portrait of America, 3.
  22. Dorothy Ross,The Origins of American Social Science, vol. 19 (Cambridge University Press, 1992); Mark C. Smith,Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918–1941(Duke University Press, 1994); Alice O’Connor,Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century US History, vol. 59 (Princeton University Press, 2009).↩︎
  23. John Tukey,Exploratory Data Analysis(Addison-Wesley, 1977).
  24. Jacques Bertin,Sémiologie Graphique. Les diagrammes, les réseaux, les cartes(Gauthier-Villars, 1967); Leland Wilkinson,The Grammar of Graphics(Springer, 1999); William Cleveland,Visualizing Data(Hobart Press, 1993); Nadieh Bremer and Shirley Wu,Data Sketches: A Journey of Imagination, Exploration, and Beautiful Data Visualizations(CRC Press, 2021).
  25. Caterine D’Iganzio and Lauren Klein,Data Feminsism(MIT Press, 2020); Jessica Marie Johnson, “Markup BodiesBlack [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads,”Social Text36, no. 4 (137) (2018): 57–79.
  26. Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont,Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and the Digital Humanities(University of Minnesota Press, 2019); Miriam Posner, “Humanities Data: A Necessary Contradiction—Miriam Posner’s Blog,” accessed October 16, 2019,[link].
  27. Matthew Jockers,Macroanalysis, (University of Illinois, 2013); Lisa Rhody, “Topic Model Data for Topic Modeling and Figurative Language,”Journal of Digital Humanities2 no. 1. Ted Underwood,Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change(University of Chicago Press, 2019).
  28. Aditya Joshi, Vinita Sharma, and Pushpak Bhattacharyya, “Harnessing Context Incongruity for Sarcasm Detection,” inProceedings of the 53rd Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics and the 7th International Joint Conference on Natural Language Processing (Volume 2: Short Papers), 2015, 757–62.
  29. Cynthia G. Clopper and Ellen Dossey, “Phonetic Convergence and Divergence in the American Midwest,”Journal of the Acoustical Society of America145, no. 3 (2019): 1930–31.
  30. Alessio Leoncini et al., “Semantic Models for Style-Based Text Clustering,” in2011 IEEE Fifth International Conference on Semantic Computing.
  31. Miriam Posner, “Humanities Data: A Necessary Contradiction,” Harvard Purdue Data Management. June 17, 2015,[link]
  32. Nan Z. Da, “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies,”Critical Inquiry45, no. 3 (2019): 601–39.
  33. Taylor Arnold and Lauren Tilton, “New Data? The Role of Statistics in DH,”Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, eds. Matthew Gold and Lauren Klein (University of Minnesota Press, 2019).↩︎
  34. Lincoln Mullen, Stephen Robertson, et al. “Digital History and Argumentation.” White Paper, 2017. Available online at:[link]
  35. All students either received course credit or were financially compensated for their time. For more about our commitment to ethical labor practices, see Courtney Rivard, Taylor Arnold, and Lauren Tilton, “Building Pedagogy into Project Development: Making Data Construction Visible in Digital Projects,”Digital Humanities Quarterly013, no. 2 (August 1, 2019).

Layer 1: Motivation for the SLHP

  1. Guy B. Johnson and Guion Griffis Johnson,Research in Service to Society: The First Fifty Years of the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina(UNC Press Books, 2018); Michel J. Lacey and Mary O. Furner,The State and Social Investigation in Britain and the United States(Cambridge University Press, 1993); Alice O’Connor,Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century US History, vol. 59 (Princeton University Press, 2009); Dorothy Ross,The Origins of American Social Science, vol. 19 (Cambridge University Press, 1992); Mark C. Smith,Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918–1941(Duke University Press, 1994).
  2. Edward L. Ayers,The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction(Oxford University Press, 2007); Grace Elizabeth Hale,Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940(Vintage, 2010); Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore,Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920(University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Bruce J. Schulman,From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938–1980(Duke University Press, 1994); Fred C. Smith,Trouble in Goshen: Plain Folk, Roosevelt, Jesus, and Marx in the Great Depression South(University Press of Mississippi, 2014); National Emergency Council, “Report on Economic Conditions of the South” (Washington, DC, July 1938), Internet Archive,[link].
  3. For more on the history of the Great Depression by state, see: Douglas Carl Abrams,Conservative Constraints: North Carolina and the New Deal(University Press of Mississippi, 1992); Roger Biles,The South and the New Deal(University Press of Kentucky, 2006); George Blakey,Hard Times and the New Deal in Kentucky, 1929–1939(University Press of Kentucky, 1986); Jack Irby Hayes,South Carolina and the New Deal(University of South Carolina Press, 2001); Ronald L. Heinemann,Depression and New Deal in Virginia: The Enduring Dominion(University of Virginia Press, 1983); Douglas Smith,The New Deal in the Urban South(Louisiana State University Press, 1988); Jerry Bruce Thomas,An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression(University Press of Kentucky, 1998).
  4. Christopher M. Duncan,Fugitive Theory: Political Theory, the Southern Agrarians, and America(Lexington Books, 2000); Bob Holladay, “The Gods That Failed: Agrarianism, Regionalism, and the Nashville-Chapel Hill Highway,”Tennessee Historical Quarterly64, no. 4 (2005): 284–307; Twelve Southerners,I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition(Louisiana State University Press, 1930).
  5. Daniel Joseph Singal,The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919–1945(University of North Carolina Press Books, 1982), 273.
  6. Ryan Davis, “Chapel Hill in the Depression,”Daily Tar Heel, March 16, 2009,[link].
  7. “Graham Memorial,” Names in Brick and Stone: Histories from UNC’s Built Landscape, accessed September 23, 2019,[link].
  8. Helen Oldham Dennis, “Graham, Edward Kidder,” NCPEDIA, accessed September 23, 2019,[link].
  9. Reiko Hillyer,Designing Dixie: Tourism, Memory, and Urban Space in the New South(University of Virginia Press, 2015),[link].
  10. James Atwater, “Interview with James Atwater,” February 28, 2001, Interview K-0201, Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007),[link]; Rebecca Clark, “Interview with Rebecca Clark,” June 21, 2000, Interview K-0536, Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007),[link].
  11. White women were allowed to enroll in the university as transfer students beginning in the early 1900s but could not enter as freshmen until 1940. The first Black woman (Karen Lynn Parker) attended UNC in 1963. Pamela Dean,Women on the Hill: A History of Women at UNC(Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1987); “Karen L. Parker Diary, Letter, and Clippings, 1963–1966,” Collection no. 05275-z, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,[link].
  12. Lizabeth Cohen,A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America(Vintage Books, 2004), 1; Hale,Making Whiteness.
  13. Ayers,The Promise of the New South; C. Van Woodward,Origins of the New South: 1877–1915(Louisiana State University Press, 1951); Alex Lichtenstein,Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South(Verso, 1996).
  14. For example, Tulane University and the University of Virginia articulated such aspirations under the leadership of Edwin Alderman. The connections between UNC and UVa continue. Born in North Carolina and a graduate of UNC, Alderman, who served as president of Tulane and then UVa, spoke at the UNC presidential inauguration of Graham. UVa would also receive support from the Rockefeller Foundation to create a social science institute, which would result in the largest area of expansion in faculty and also be called the IRSS. For more info, see Dumas Malone,Edwin A. Alderman(Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1940).
  15. Singal,The War Within, 273; Orvin Lee Shiflett,William Terry Couch and the Politics of Academic Publishing: An Editor’s Career as Lightning Rod for Controversy(McFarland, 2015).
  16. David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson,Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy(University of North Carolina Press Books, 2000); “UNC Will Remove Plaques at Kenan Stadium Honoring Kenan Family Member Who Had Ties to Wilmington Massacre,”WralSPORTSfan, October 3, 2018,[link].
  17. Lynn Moss Sanders,Howard W. Odum’s Folklore Odyssey: Transformation to Tolerance through African American Folk Studies(University of Georgia Press, 2003).
  18. Sanders,Howard W. Odum’s Folklore Odyssey, ix–x.
  19. Sanders, 4.
  20. The journal was originally named theJournal of Social Forcesand changed toSocial Forcesin 1925.↩︎
  21. Michael E. McGerr,A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920(Oxford University Press, 2005).
  22. Ned Blackhawk,Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West(Harvard University Press, 2009); Kathleen DuVal,The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo,Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History(University of Nebraska Press, 2017); Jean M. O’Brien,Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England(University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Noenoe K. Silva,Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism(Duke University Press, 2004).
  23. McGerr,A Fierce Discontent.
  24. Monty Noam Penkower,The Federal Writers’ Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts(University of Illinois Press, 1977), 2.
  25. Hale,Making Whiteness; Gilmore,Gender and Jim Crow.
  26. Twelve Southerners,I’ll Take My Stand.
  27. As quoted in Fred Hobson,Tell about the South: The Southern Rage to Explain(Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 180–81.
  28. Howard W. Odum, “Promise and Prospect of the South: ‘A Test of American Regionalism,’”Proceedings of the Annual Session (Southern Political Science Association), no. 8 (1935): 8–18.
  29. Earl Wright, “W.E.B. Du Bois, Howard W. Odum and the Sociological Ghetto,”Sociological Spectrum34, no. 5 (2014): 453–68.
  30. Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, eds.,W.E.B Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America(Princeton Architectural Press, 2018).
  31. Aldon Morris,The Scholar Denied:W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology(University of California Press, 2017).
  32. Sanders,Howard W. Odum’s Folklore Odyssey, 6.
  33. Odum, “Promise and Prospect of the South,” 16.
  34. Holladay, “The Gods That Failed,” 300.
  35. Sarah Gardner,Reviewing the South(Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  36. As quoted in Hobson,Tell about the South, 183.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Gardner,Reviewing the South, 9.
  39. Peter Givler, “University Press Publishing in the United States,” Association of University Presses, accessed September 23, 2019,[link].
  40. Singal,The War Within, 273.
  41. Singal, 274.
  42. Shiflett,William Terry Couch and the Politics of Academic Publishing.
  43. Singal,The War Within, 278.
  44. “History of the Odum Institute,” The Odum Institute for Research in Social Science, accessed September 23, 2019,[link].
  45. Singal,The War Within, 276.
  46. Arthur F. Raper,The Tragedy of Lynching(University of North Carolina Press, 1933).
  47. Rayford W. Logan, review ofThe Tragedy of Lynching, by Arthur Raper,Journal of Negro History18, no. 4 (1933): 484–86,[link].
  48. Singal,The War Within, 271.
  49. Shiflett,William Terry Couch and the Politics of Academic Publishing; Singal,The War Within.

Layer 2: Formation of the SLHP

  1. Jerrold Hirsch,Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project(University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Wendy Griswold,American Guides: The Federal Writers’ Project and the Casting of American Culture(University of Chicago Press, 2016); Jerre Mangione,The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project, 1935–1943(Syracuse University Press, 1996); Catherine A. Stewart,Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project(University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Monty Noam Penkower,The Federal Writers’ Project ; a Study in Government Patronage of the Arts(University of Illinois Press, 1977).
  2. Paula Rabinowitz,They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary(Verso, 1994); Stewart,Long Past Slavery; Jeff Allred,American Modernism and Depression Documentary(Oxford University Press, 2010); Sonnet H. Retman,Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression(Duke University Press, 2011).
  3. Lynn Moss Sanders,Howard W. Odum’s Folklore Odyssey: Transformation to Tolerance through African American Folk Studies(University of Georgia Press, 2003); Rabinowitz,They Must Be Represented; Retman,Real Folks; Stewart,Long Past Slavery
  4. There is a significant amount of research on the New Deal State; work includes Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, eds.,Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century(University of Chicago Press, 2019); Lizabeth Cohen,Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939(Cambridge University Press, 1990); Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, eds.,The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980(Princeton University Press, 1989); Robert S. McElvaine,The Great Depression: America 1929–1941, reprint (Times Books, 1993); Ira Katznelson,Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time(Liveright, 2014).
  5. “The Presidency: The Roosevelt Week: July 11, 1932,”Time, accessed September 6, 2019,[link].
  6. Michael Denning,The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century(Verso, 1998).
  7. Penkower,The Federal Writers’ Project, 15.
  8. Penkower, 1–2.
  9. Penkower, 15–16.
  10. Penkower, 10.
  11. Hirsch,Portrait of America.
  12. Penkower,The Federal Writers’ Project, 9–10.
  13. Penkower, 16–17.
  14. Penkower, 20.
  15. Penkower, 18–20.
  16. Jason Scott Smith,Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933–1956(Cambridge University Press, 2006), 87.
  17. Deborah Mutnick, “Toward a Twenty-First-Century Federal Writers’ Project,”College English77, no. 2 (2014): 124–45.
  18. Christine Bold,The WPA Guides: Mapping America(University Press of Mississippi, 1999).
  19. Cara A. Finnegan, “What Is This a Picture Of?: Some Thoughts on Images and Archives,”Rhetoric & Public Affairs9, no. 1 (2006): 116–23; William Stott,Documentary Expression and Thirties America(University of Chicago Press, 1973).
  20. Saul Carson, “Notes toward an Examination of the Radio Documentary,”Hollywood Quarterly4, no. 1 (1949): 69–74,10.2307/1209386; Walker Evans and James Agee,Let Us Now Praise Famous Men(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001).
  21. Erik Barnouw,Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film(Oxford University Press, 1993); Roland Barthes,Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography(Macmillan, 1981); Trinh T. Minh-Ha, “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning,”Theorizing Documentary1 (1993): 90–107; Michael Renov,Theorizing Documentary(Routledge, 2012); Susan Sontag,On Photography, vol. 48 (Macmillan, 2001); Brian Winston,Claiming the Real II: Documentary: Grierson and Beyond(BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).↩︎
  22. Stott,Documentary Expression and Thirties America; Bill Nichols,Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, vol. 681 (Indiana University Press, 1991).
  23. Erskine Caldwell, Margaret Bourke-White, and Alan Trachtenberg,You Have Seen Their Faces(University of Georgia Press, 1995).
  24. Rabinowitz,They Must Be Represented; Maren Stange,Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890–1950(Cambridge University Press, 1989); Stott,Documentary Expression and Thirties America.
  25. Stott,Documentary Expression and Thirties America.
  26. Pete Daniel et al.,Official Images : New Deal Photography(Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987).
  27. Gilles Mora and Beverly W. Brannan,FSA: The American Vision(Harry N. Abrams, 2006).
  28. R. Snyder,Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film(University of Oklahoma Press, 1968).
  29. Mangione,The Dream and the Deal, 47.
  30. Bold,The WPA Guides, xiv.
  31. Jeutonne P. Brewer,The Federal Writers’ Project: A Bibliography(Scarecrow Press, 1994), 325,[link].
  32. The most notable guidebook was the Baedeker Guides, which became popular as trains and then automobiles made travel into an exciting adventure that was accessible to wider audiences. Though not often credited, the idea for the American Guidebooks was largely the result of Katherine Kellock, who would become a key member of the WPA staff. See Bold,The WPA Guides,and Penkower,The Federal Writers’ Project.
  33. Hirsch,Portrait of America.
  34. Michael W. Pesses, “Road Less Traveled: Race and American Automobility,”Mobilities12 no. 5 (2017): 677–691. DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2016.1240319.
  35. Stewart,Long Past Slavery;John Edgar Tidwell, “Recasting Negro Life History: Sterling A. Brown and the Federal Writer’s Project,”The Langston Hughes Review13, no. 2 (1995): 77–82. Accessed January 9, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/26434434.
  36. Jerrold Hirsch argues that the FWP was wholly invested in cultural nationalism through pluralism inPortrait of America. There is no denying that celebrating diversity became a part of the portrait of America created in the Guidebooks as other scholars such as Alfred Kazin, Jerry Maginone, and Christine Bold have argued. However, the SLHP complicates the extent of Hirsch’s claim. FWP officials from the top, such as Alsberg, to state-level writers, such as Leonard Rapport, knew the life histories would reveal tensions in the region that could not be eased simply by celebrating cultural diversity. These tensions become clear in the subsequent layers through the distant reading of the entire life history collection.
  37. Letter from Harry L. Hopkins to William Couch, May 24, 1938. Folder 1084 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Digital image: 0898.
  38. He joined a growing chorus of intellectuals from the Chicago-school sociologists, sociologist Robert and Helen Lynd’s increasingly anthropological approach as pioneered inMiddletown, and the regionalist sociologists in Chapel Hill debating how to understand communities, particularly those in poverty. See Alice O’Connor,Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History(Princeton University Press, 2001), 55–56.
  39. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans for Work of the Federal Writers’ Project in the South,” July 11, 1938. Folder 1087 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Couch specifically singles out work by scholars trained in UNC’s Department of Sociology, such as Dr. Jenning J. Rhyne, as examples of the limits of current sociology methods.
  40. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans.”
  41. Orvin Lee Shiflett,William Terry Couch and the Politics of Academic Publishing: An Editor’s Career as Lightning Rod for Controversy(McFarland, 2015); O’Connor,Poverty Knowledge.
  42. Rupert Vance,Human Factors in Cotton Culture: A Study in the Social Geography of the American South(University of North Carolina Press, 1929), vii–ix. Accessed online at:[link].
  43. Vance,Human Factors in Cotton Culture.
  44. Vance.
  45. Couch thought sociologists would dismiss the SLHP and suggested using the Vance example if there were objections. See “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans.”
  46. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans.”
  47. “Life Histories as a Method of Revealing People,” no date given, Folder 1165 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  48. “Life Histories as a Method of Revealing People.”
  49. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans.”
  50. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans.”
  51. Letter to Mrs. Mary S. Venable from Eudora Ramsay Richardson, November 2, 1938. Folder 1098 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  52. Letter to Harry G. Alsberg from William T Couch, April 22, 1938. Folder 1083 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  53. For more on Jonathan Worth Daniels, see Jennifer Rittenhouse,Discovering the South: One Man’s Travels through a Changing America in the 1930s(University of North Carolina Press, 2017) and Stott,Documentary Expression and Thirties America.
  54. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans.”
  55. National Emergency Council, “Report on the Economic Conditions of the South” (Government Printing Office, 1938). Available online at:[link].
  56. Letter to Mr. Tarleton Collier from William Couch on September 14, 1938. Folder 1091 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. .
  57. Retman,Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression,chapter 4;Autumn Womack, “‘The Brown Bag of Miscellany’: Zora Neale Hurston and the Practice of Overexposure,”Black Camera7, no. 1 (Fall 2015), 115–33.
  58. William Terry Couch, ed.,These Are Our Lives(University of North Carolina Press, 1939), xi-xiv.
  59. Letter from William Couch to Bernice Kelly Harris, October 20, 1938. Folder 1096 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  60. Pete Daniel et al.,Official Images; Cara Finnegan,Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs(Smithsonian, 2003), xiv.

Layer 3: Defining Life Histories and Qualified Writers

  1. Memorandum: “Program of the Federal Writers’ Project for the Coming Year” from Henry Alsberg, October 1938. Folder 1093 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Memorandum: “Program of the Federal Writers’ Project for the Coming Year.”
  3. Jerrold Hirsch,Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project(University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 3.
  4. Hirsch,Portrait of America, 4.
  5. Hirsch, 3.
  6. Sonnet H. Retman,Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression(Duke University Press, 2011), 13.
  7. As cited in Retman,Real Folks, 14–15.
  8. Retman,Real Folks, 14.
  9. Saidiya V. Hartman,Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America(Oxford University Press, 1997), 6.
  10. W.E.B. Du Bois,The Souls of Black Folk(Open Road Integrated Media, Inc., 1994), 5.
  11. Grace Elizabeth Hale,Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 18901940(Vintage, 2010), 8.
  12. These numbers are based on the SLHP’s recorded metadata. As described in the Methods section, we also include an additional ethnic category that identifies slightly more interviewees of Cuban and Greek descent. The extra counts are small compared to the official counts; there are 10 Cuban interviewees and 56 Greek interviewees using this ethnic category.
  13. Hirsch,Portrait of America, 27–28.
  14. Susan Schulten, “How to See Colorado: The Federal Writers’ Project, American Regionalism, and the ‘Old New Western History,’”Western Historical Quarterly36, no. 1 (2005): 60.
  15. As quoted in Hirsch,Portrait of America, 137–38.
  16. Hirsch,Portrait of America, 33.
  17. “Manual for Social-Ethnic Studies,” 1938. Folder 1111 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  18. “Memorandum: Program of the Federal Writers’ Project for the Coming Year.”
  19. “Memorandum: Program of the Federal Writers’ Project for the Coming Year.”
  20. “Memorandum on Project Work,” from Edwin Bjorkman, November 15, 1938. Folder 1101 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  21. William Terry Couch, ed.,These Are Our Lives(University of North Carolina Press, 1939), xi-x, 419.
  22. Letter to W. T. Couch from Bernice Harris, October 15, 1938. Folder 1095 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  23. Letter to Bernice Harris from W. T. Couch, October 20, 1938. Folder 1096 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  24. “Memorandum: Heading to be Placed on All Life Histories,” from Walter Cutter, January 5, 1939. Folder 1112 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  25. Rather than repeating what is now considered a racial slur, we will be using the word “Black.” Please see Methods for a more in-depth discussion about terms.
  26. To read more about the use of racial categories, please seeMethods.
  27. Matthew Frye Jacobson,Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race(Harvard University Press, 1998), 10.
  28. Jacobson,Whiteness of a Different Color, 8.
  29. Hale,Making Whiteness.
  30. Memorandum on a Greek Study from Edwin Bjorkmon in Life History Collection, June 7, 1939. Folder 1029 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The inclusion of interviewees marked as “Cuban” in Florida is a result of the same situation as those marked as “Greek.” Letter to W. T. Couch from Carita Doggitt Corse, December 21, 1938. Folder 1108 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  31. “Life History of A. Way, Jr.,” written by Wilson Heflin, July 18, 1939. Folder 37 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  32. “Memorandum: Notes on Dr.Botkin’s Conference,” December 1, 1938. Folder 1104 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  33. Catherine A. Stewart,Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project(University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 41.
  34. Botkin received the following degrees: Harvard (BA, 1920); Columbia (MA1921); University of Nebraska (PhD, 1931) as cited in Lawrence R. Rodgers and Jerrold Hirsch,America’s Folklorist: BA Botkin and American Culture(University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), 2.
  35. Hirsch and Rodgers,America’s Folklorist,21.
  36. Rachel C. Jackson, “Locating Oklahoma: Critical Regionalism and Transrhetorical Analysis in the Composition Classroom,”College Composition and Communication66, no. 2 (2014): 308.
  37. Stewart,Long Past Slavery, 41; Hirsch,Portrait of America, 182.
  38. “Manual for Social-Ethnic Studies,” 1938. Folder 1111 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  39. Hirsch,Portrait of America, 184. .
  40. Monty Noam Penkower,The Federal Writers’ Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts(University of Illinois Press, 1977), 152.
  41. Hirsch,Portrait of America, 185.
  42. Letter to Dr.Douglass Freeman from W. T. Couch, March 25, 1939. Folder 1128 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  43. Letter to Mary S. Venable from Eudora Richardson, November 2, 1938. Folder 1098 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  44. Memorandum: “Program of the Federal Writers’ Project for the Coming Year.”
  45. Shirley Moody-Turner,Black Folklore and the Politics of Racial Representation(University Press of Mississippi, 2013); Stewart,Long Past Slavery.
  46. Stewart,Long Past Slavery, 64.
  47. Todd Carmody, “Sterling Brown and the Dialect of New Deal Optimism,”Callaloo33, no. 3 (2010): 820–40.
  48. Stewart, 14.
  49. Stewart, 65. For more information on the role of interviewees in this process, see Thomas Soapes, “The Federal Writers’ Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source,”The Oral History Review5 (1977): 33–38.
  50. Lomax was a director of the Ex-Slave Narrative Project before Botkin took over as head of the Folklore unit. John Lomax’s son, Alan, and his wife, Elizabeth, also helped with the project and generally shared similar beliefs. For more information see Stewart’sLong Past Slavery.
  51. Ruth Ann Beecher, “The Strange Disappearance of Sterling A. Brown: Literature, Social Science and the Representation of Black Americans, 1930–1945.” PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London, 2015, 134.
  52. Beecher, “The Strange Disappearance of Sterling A. Brown.”
  53. “Life Histories as a Method of Revealing People,” no date given, Folder 1165 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  54. While only 13 life histories were marked by writers as being from “ex-slaves,” some Black interviewees did find strategic ways to discuss their or their families’ experiences of enslavement. Moreover, White interviewees often lamented the end of enslavement and the wealth they lost with the end of slavery. These topics can be seen in the text analysis inLayer 4.
  55. Christina Sharpe,In the Wake: On Blackness and Being(Duke University Press, 2016).
  56. Earl Wright, “W.E.B. Du Bois, Howard W. Odum and the Sociological Ghetto,”Sociological Spectrum34, no. 5 (2014): 453–68.
  57. For examples of work about the importance of the book, see Herbert Blumer,Critiques of Research in the Social Sciences: AnAppraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki’sThe Polish Peasant in Europe and America (Social Science Research Council, 1939); John Dollard,Criteria for a Life History(Yale University Press, 1939); Loraine Gelsthorpe, “The Jack-Roller: Telling a Story?”Theoretical Criminology11, no. 4 (November 2007): 515–42. doi:10.1177/1362480607081839; Jo Goodey. “Biographical Lessons for Criminology,”Theoretical Criminology4, no. 4 (November 2000): 473–98.[link].
  58. John Dollard,Criteria for the Life History(Peter Smith, 1949), 189.
  59. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans for Work of the Federal Writers’ Project in the South,” July 11, 1938, Folder 1087 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  60. “Life Histories as a Method of Revealing People,” no date given, Folder 1165 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  61. “Life Histories as a Method of Revealing People.”
  62. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans for Work of the Federal Writers’ Project in the South.”
  63. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans for Work of the Federal Writers’ Project in the South.”
  64. Jacobson,Whiteness of a Different Color.
  65. David M. Austin, “The Institutional Development of Social Work Education: The First 100 Years—And Beyond,”Journal of Social Work Education33, no. 3 (1997): 599–612.[link].
  66. Austin, “The Institutional Development of Social Work Education,”.[link].
  67. Robyn Muncy,Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935(Oxford University Press, 1994).
  68. Austin, “The Institutional Development of Social Work Education,”[link]. 601
  69. Linda M. Shoemaker “Early Conflicts in Social Work Education,”Social Science Review72, no. 2 (1998).
  70. Austin, “The Institutional Development of Social Work Education,”[link].
  71. “Memorandum Concerning Proposed Plans for Work of the Federal Writers’ Project in the South.”
  72. Jessica Enoch,Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work(Southern Illinois University Press, 2019); David Gold and Catherine L. Hobbs,Educating the New Southern Woman: Speech, Writing, and Race at the Public Women’s Colleges, 1884–1945(Southern Illinois University Press, 2013); David Gold and Jessica Enoch,Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019); Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith, “Mapping Topoi in the Rhetorical Gendering of Work,”Peitho17, no. 2 (2015): 200.
  73. Couch,These Are Our Lives, xi.
  74. Couch,These Are Our Lives, 418; Couch, xi.
  75. Letter to Eudora Richardson from W. T. Couch, November 1, 1938, Folder 1098 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  76. To be certified for relief, workers had to pass a “means test” that demonstrated their economic need and inability to find a job, which many felt would mark them as inferior when trying to find a job in the future. See Penkower,The Federal Writers’ Project, 56; Letter to W. T. Couch from Eudora Richardson, November 5, 1938, Folder 1099 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  77. Letter to W. T. Couch from Eudora Richardson, December, 21 1938, Folder 1108 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  78. Letter to Henry Alsberg from W. T. Couch, September 26, 1938, Folder 1092 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  79. Letter to Eudora Richardson from W. T. Couch, November 1, 1938, Folder 1098 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  80. Richard Walser,Bernice Kelly Harris : Storyteller of Eastern Carolina(University of North Carolina Library, 1955),[link].
  81. Letter to Bernice Harris from W. T. Couch, October 13, 1938, Folder 1095 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  82. Bernice Harris,Southern Savory(University of North Carolina Press, 1964), 184.
  83. Kathleen Ryan, Nancy Sean Myers, and Rebecca Paige A. Jones, eds.,Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric(Southern Illinois University Press, 2016); Enoch,Domestic Occupations.
  84. Two interviews were with women whose race was not recorded.
  85. Letter to Edwin Bjorkman from W. T. Couch, August 4, 1938, Folder 1088 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  86. As quoted in Hirsch,Portrait of America, 167.
  87. “Life History of Frank Martin” written by Ida Moore, October 31, 1938, Folder 680 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; “Life History of Unknown” written by Ida Moore, October 31, 1938, Folder 651 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; “Life History of Ellie Westbrooks” written by Ida Moore, October 31, 1938, Folder 664 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[link]
  88. Enoch,Domestic Occupations, 75.
  89. “‘Pay Day” written by Virginia Stevens [radio transcript created from the Life History of Frank Martin], no date, Folder 680 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[link]
  90. While Muncy writes about the professionalization of social work, the same is true here, in which White women establish their professionalization by focusing on their expertise in the home.Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935
  91. Letter to J. R Aswell from W. T. Couch, January 9, 1939, Folder 1113 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  92. Letter to Walter Cutter from J. R Aswell, May 6, 1939, Folder 1136 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  93. Letter to Couch from McDaniel, June 20, 1939, Folder 1143 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  94. Letter to Couch from McDaniel, June 20, 1939.
  95. Solberg, Janine. “Taking Shorthand for Literacy: Historicizing the Literate Activity of U.S. Women in the Early Twentieth-Century Office,”Literacy in Composition Studies2, no. 1 (March 15, 2014): 1–28.
  96. Solberg, “Taking Shorthand for Literacy,” 3.
  97. Harris,Southern Savory. Letter to Mr.Couch from Muriel Wolff, September 26, 1938 Folder 1092 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  98. For more about the data and metadata that we used to conduct these counts, see the Methods layer.
  99. Stewart,Long Past Slavery, 7-8.
  100. Charles H. Rowell and Sterling Allen Brown, “‘Let Me Be Wid Ole Jazzbo’: An Interview with Sterling A. Brown,”Callaloo21, no. 4 (1998): 789–809.
  101. “Report on the Status of the Negro in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee,” October 19, 1938, Folder 1096 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.↩︎
  102. Letter to W. T. Couch from Edwin Bjorkman, December 29, 1938, Folder 1109 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  103. “Report on the Status of the Negro in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee,” October 19, 1938.
  104. Letter to Henry Alsberg from W. T. Couch, January 25, 1939, Folder 1118 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  105. Letter to W. T. Couch from Irma Neal Henry, November 9, 1938, Folder 1100 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. See also Letter to W. T. Couch from Irma Neal Henry, January 12, 1939, Folder 1115 and Letter to W. T. Couch from Irma Neal Henry, January 30, 1939, Folder 1119.
  106. Cover letter of Edward Farrison, January 30, 1939, Folder 1119 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  107. Letter to Edward Farrison from W. T. Couch, January 31, 1939, Folder 1119 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  108. Letter to Samuel Tupper from W. T. Couch, July 19, 1939, Folder 1146 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  109. Letter to McDaniel from W. T. Couch, July 21, 1939, Folder 1146 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  110. Stewart,Long Past Slavery, 134.
  111. Stewart, 139.
  112. Stewart, 142.
  113. Letter to Henry Alsberg from W. T. Couch, February 25, 1939, Folder 1124 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  114. “Memorandum: Work on Life Histories” from W. T. Couch, no date, Folder 1165 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Layer 4: Rhetorical Strategies and Representation

  1. “Editorial Report on State Copy: North Carolina Mill Village Sketches,” October 27, 1938, Folder 1097 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. For more about the data and text analysis, see theMethods.
  3. For examples see Clifford R. Shaw and E. W. Burgess,The Jack-Roller: A Delinquent Boy’s Own Story(Martino Fine Books, 2013); Herbert Blumer,An Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki’sThe Polish Peasant in Europe and America (Social Science Research Council, 1939),[link].
  4. William Terry Couch, ed.,These Are Our Lives(University of North Carolina Press, 1939), x.
  5. Letter to Annie Rose from Samuel Tupper, January 5, 1939, Folder 1112 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  6. Couch,These Are Our Lives, 417.
  7. Couch, 147.
  8. Couch, 418.
  9. Life History of Mary Rumbley, written by Ida Moore, October 31, 1938, Folder 674 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,[link]
  10. “Life Histories as a Method of Revealing People,” no date given, Folder 1165 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  11. Kathleen Stewart,A Space on the Side of the Road,(Princeton University Press, 1996); Judith Butler,Giving an Account of Oneself(Fordham University Press, 2005); Robert Coles,Doing Documentary Work(New York Public Library, 1998); Robert Tausig,I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own(University of Chicago Press, 2011); Tobias Hecht,After Life: An Ethnographic Novel(Duke University Press, 2006).
  12. Letter to Bernice Harris from Walter Cutter, December 21, 1938, Folder 1108 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  13. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg,Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, reprint ed. (Oxford University Press, 1987).
  14. Letter to Mary S. Venable from Eudora Richardson, November 2, 1938, Folder 1098 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  15. Letter to George Andrews, Mary Northrop, Sidney Jones, Harriet Corley, and W. O. Saunders from Edwin Bjorkman, November 9, 1938, Folder 1100 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.↩︎
  16. Risa Applegarth,Rhetoric in American Anthropology: Gender, Genre, and Science(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), 19.
  17. Life History of Mary Rumbley written by Ida Moore, October 31, 1938, Folder 674 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,[link]
  18. Life History of Fannie Busbin written by Ina Hawkes, September 14, 1939, Folder 163 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  19. Letter to Myrtle Miles from W. T. Couch, November 12, 1938, Folder 1101 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  20. Letter to Myrtle Miles from W. T. Couch, November 12, 1938.
  21. Letter to Myrtle Miles from W. T. Couch, November 31, 1938, Folder 1101 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  22. “Editorial Report on State Copy: North Carolina Mill Village Sketches,” October 27, 1938, Folder 1097 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  23. “Editorial Report on State Copy: North Carolina Mill Village Sketches.”
  24. Document clusters are determined hierarchically so that clusters appearing next to each other are more closely related than clusters farther away from one another. See theMethodsfor more information.
  25. For example, see: “A Day with Lula Wright,” Folder 59 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; “Carrie Dykes Midwife,” Folder 73 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; “Fannie Icord (Colored),” Folder 343 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; “Georgia Negro,” Folder 627 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  26. For example, see: “At Father Baker’s Home,” Folder 61 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; “Carrie Dykes Midwife,” Folder 73 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; “No Lawd, I An’t Ready,” Folder 74 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  27. Letter to George Andrews, Mary Northrop, Sidney Jones, Harriet Corley, and W. O. Saunders from Edwin Bjorkman, November 9, 1938.
  28. “Life Histories as a Method of Revealing People.” For more recent scholarship on the relationship between biography and life histories, see Jo Goodey, “Biographical Lessons for Criminology,”Theoretical Criminology4, no. 4 (2000): 473–98; Liz Stanley, “On Auto/Biography in Sociology,”Sociology27, no. 1 (1993): 41–52.
  29. Letter to Mable Montgomery from Chalmers S. Murray, November 30, 1938, Folder 1103 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. . Murray was not the only writer to question the ability of writers to remember such long quotes. In fact, Leonard Rapport, a writer in the North Carolina Branch, published an article questioning the validity of the life histories. Leonard Rapport, “How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers,”The Oral History Review7, no. 1 (1979): 6–17. See also a response to this article: Tom Terrill and Jerrold Hirsch, “Replies to Leonard Rapport’s ‘How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers,’”The Oral History Review8, no. 1 (1980): 81–89.
  30. Jane Raymond Walpole, “Eye Dialect in Fictional Dialogue,”College Composition and Communication25, no. 2 (1974): 191–96.
  31. Letter to W. T. Couch from Henry Alsberg, September 8, 1938, Folder 1090 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  32. Joan Redding, “The Dillard Project: The Black Unit of the Louisiana Writers’ Project,”Louisiana History, 1991, 47–62.
  33. Redding, “The Dillard Project,” 49.
  34. Oral history of Caroline Durieux by Margaret Fisher Dalrymple, March 31, 1975, Collection 4700.0013, T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History Collection, Louisiana State University.[link]; Jason Berry, “Up From the Soul,”My New Orleans(blog), April 1, 2014,[link].
  35. Richard B. Megraw, “The Uneasiest State: Art, Culture, and Society in New Deal Louisiana, 1933–1943.(Volumes I and II).,”LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses, 1990, 5077, https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_disstheses/5077, 414–15.
  36. Dennis R. Preston, “The Li’l Abner Syndrome: Written Representations of Speech,”American Speech60, no. 4 (1985): 328–36,cited in Sylvie Dubois and Barbara M. Horvath, “Sounding Cajun: The Rhetorical Use of Dialect in Speech and Writing,”American Speech77, no. 3 (2002): 264–87.
  37. Letter to W. T. Couch from William McDaniel, December 29, 1938, Folder 1109 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  38. Letter to Myrtle Miles from W. T. Couch, November 31, 1938.
  39. Her strong style can be seen in the fact thatTopic 2is almost entirely dominated by Bernice Harris.
  40. Life history of Mrs.Ola Titus by Gertha Couric, “A Day on the Farm,” January 20, 1939, Folder 16 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  41. Life history of Joe Vaughn by Ida B. Prine, “Life in a Shrimping and Oyster Shucking Camp,” Folder 63 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  42. Life history of Joe Vaughn by Ida B. Prine, “Life in a Shrimping and Oyster Shucking Camp.”
  43. Couch,These Are Our Lives, xi.
  44. Couch, ix.
  45. Katharine Jocher, “The Case Method in Social Research,”Social Forces, 1928, 203–11; George A. Lundberg, “Case Work and the Statistical Method,”Social Forces5 (1926): 61; George Andrew Lundberg,Social Research: A Study in Methods of Gathering Data(Longmans, Green, and Co., 1942); Howard Washington Odum and Katharine Jocher,An Introduction to Social Research(Henry Holt And Co., 1929); Wiley B. Sanders, “Recent Contributions in the Field of Juvenile Delinquency, Child Welfare, and Family Case Work,”Social Forces6, no. 4 (1928): 648–53.
  46. Copy of “Run of the News” in the Arkansas Democrat, May 23, 1939, Folder 1141 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  47. Copy of “These Are Americans—Not Rich, but Free” in theSunday Mirror Magazine, July 2, 1939, Folder 1116 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  48. “Life Histories as a Method of Revealing People.”

Conclusion

  1. Transcript of the radio show on UNC Press part of Extension Division of UNC, no date. Folder 1166 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Letter to Dr.Douglas Freeman from W. T. Couch, March 25, 1939. Folder 1128 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For other letters, see Folders 1128–1136.
  3. William Terry Couch, ed.,These Are Our Lives(University of North Carolina Press, 1939).
  4. Couch,These Are Our Lives.
  5. Letter to Henry Alsberg from W. T. Couch, May 3, 1939, Folder 1135 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  6. “Comment of Reviewers of ‘These Are Our Lives,’” May 21, 1939, Folder 1140 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  7. Copy of review, “Voice of the People,” May 1, 1939, Folder 1135 in in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  8. Letter to W. T. Couch from T. J. Woofter, Jr., no date, Folder 1135 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  9. “Report on the Status of the Negro in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee,” October 19, 1938, Folder 1096 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  10. Charlotte Observer,May 21, 1939, Carol Green Russell. Comments of reviewers on TAOL.
  11. Letter to Mary S. Venable from Eudora Richardson, November 2, 1938, Folder 1098 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  12. Letter to W. T. Couch from Walter Cutter, May 11, 1939, Folder 1137 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  13. Letter to Walter Cutter from George Andrews, May 11, 1939, Folder 1137 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  14. Lizabeth Cohen,A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America(Vintage Books, 2003).

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Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project, 1920s-1930s (2024)
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