Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Book Report: "American Made," by Nick Taylor

Writerly passion and interest can even inform a dry subject like the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

In "American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work"Nick Taylor takes what might be food for only the wonkiest among us and gives a fighting chance with those who merely like an interesting story.

Lists and data are inevitable in a book about a public works project and so we are often exposed to paragraphs detailing the 5,000 bridges built, 70,000 zillion miles of road paved, one million people vaccinated etc. etc.

Not that this is without merit. Conveying a story, Taylor must-needs wrestle with the second job of assembling an accurate historical document to support his conclusion that the ordinary folks of the WPA "proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation."

The literary calculus here entails providing a political context for the WPA narrative, a focus on some of the agency's more colorful exploits, and the depiction of a nation brought to its knees by government neglect, rather than cataloguing every single deed done.

By way of background, the WPA was the newly inaugurated Franklin Delano Roosevelt's effort to provide some of the Great Depression's many unemployed millions a job.

"American Made," enjoyed a special relevance over the past few months as the Obama administration dug deep into our pockets to finance projects that would both stimulate the economy and put idle hands to doing some long-overdue repairs all around the country.

New Deal comparison were inevitable and "The New York Times" recently reported Taylor's appearance at a Gotham conference focused on the virtues of the era.

The book makes clear that, politically, little in the United States has changed over the past 80 years or so.

In an all-too-familiar role, the Republican Party of those times choked on its own insistence all economic issues be sorted out by free market while, while its subscribers and supporters belittled WPA workers as bums looking for a handout.

Last week the highway scribe saw a bumper stick in Republican north county San Diego that read: "I voted for a hero, not a handout."

Same as it ever was.

"American Made" makes clear that, when Roosevelt could squeeze money for WPA projects out of Congress, unemployment went down and economic prosperity rose. In subsequent years, when budget balancing took precedent, the whole enchilada tanked once again.

Taylor does a nice job of fleshing out the major personality behind the WPA, administrator Harry Hopkins, whose book, "Spending to Save," serves as a perfect textual response to present day budget hawks and Bible for deficit defenders such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

But it is the stories of the little people writ large by their efforts on WPA projects that gives the book its life.

These include the story of a famed international chef reduced to assuming the cooking duties in the work camp at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon.

Another tells of an Appalachian women driven to the WPA rolls and charged with delivering used books on horseback to back country folk suffering as much from mental malnutrition as physical.

The recounting of John Houseman and Orson Welles launching a voodoo-infused version of MacBeth in Harlem brings to life New York culture of the time, details left-wing infiltration in Gotham's WPA branch, and shows how Republicans and Democrats alike used it as a springboard for a rollback of New Dealism, and worse, McCarthyism.

Chapters recounting terrible natural disaster impacting a beleaguered nation carry are pregnant with commentary on the importance of never wasting human desire to thrive, be useful, and live with some dignity.

These chapters attest to the potential dividends yielded by investing in human capital and to the virtue of the democratic project when it is working best.

The author smoothly lays out transitions in the political environment while successfully linking them to changes within the WPA itself.

The New Deal and the times in which it unfolded were not static, but ever ebbing and flowing. Nick Taylor's book does a fine job of capturing the personalities, the issues that moved them, the tenor and pitch of the debate surrounding.

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