About the Film


Soul of a People: Writing America's Story is the story of the most chaotic and influential cultural experiment in American history. In the grip of the Great Depression, unemployed men and women looked to the government for a life raft, and many found relief through the Works Progress Administration. While most WPA workers wielded picks and shovels, for a smaller cadre the tools were pen, paper and the spirit of invention. The WPA Federal Writers' Project recruited a diverse goulash of out-of-work writers, old newspaper hands, former schoolteachers, typists, high-school dropouts and drunks, and assigned them to fan out across America to learn its history, interview its citizens and produce the first-ever portrait of America from the ground up in a series of state travel guides.

At its height, the Project employed over 6,600 people in all 48 states to complete the American Guides series. Through the course of their work, Project employees, including future luminaries like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Jim Thompson, Vardis Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever and Studs Terkel, found their own voices. The America they uncovered was far from the glossy tourist pamphlets, but instead opened a window to a diverse tapestry, a "warts and all" approach which proved controversial to many people whose view of America was the status quo. These critics found a voice in Texas Congressman Martin Dies, whose House Un-American Activities Committee fought the influence of the New Deal and specifically, the Writers' Project. With the clouds of World War 2 looming and HUAC Hearings heating up, it was clear that the life of the Project was limited.

Yet while it existed, the Writers' Project uncovered an America that no one knew existed and the legacy of their discoveries is still felt today. The men and women who formed the ranks of the Writers' Project were assembling guides and interviews, but they were also knitting together the cultural fabric torn apart by the national crisis of the Great Depression. Soul of a People offers a fresh look at the WPA guides and the Project's long-hidden interviews, and reveals a rich legacy that speaks to us anew.

The film was broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel HD in September 2009.