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February 23, 2009

An Arts Job is a Job!

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 8:56 pm


Strike me dead if I don’t stop beginning every conversation with the words “the economy” but we were just talking about the last time we were in such a pickle. It reminded me both of another of Minnesota’s greatest books and a successful model for government to support the arts and mitigate the recession.

Minnesota: A State Guide. Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration… New York: Viking Press, 1938.

When Mabel Ulrich became director of the newly established Minnesota Writers’ Project she believed that there weren’t any “mute inglorious authors” in the state but soon found out how wrong she was. She ended up hiring 120 promising writers from virtually every walk of life who were unemployed and in desperate need of the paycheck the feds were offering. Some of these writers were as well known as Meridel Le Sueur. The end result was a lovely publication which kept a lot of people off the dole and stimulated tourism which helped the local economy. Not to mention a book great enough to make our list 70 years later.

My experience with the WPA guide was probably typical. My family drove around the state quite a bit [a Vista Cruiser full of kids strikes me now as a silly form of recreation] and kept the Guide in the glove box. When we drove into Esko, for example, my father would hand the book back to me and I would begin reading aloud.

The Finns are a clannish people who cling to their Old World manners and customs, and to a stranger may sometimes seem unfriendly. At one time a suspicious farmer accused them of practicing magic and of worshiping pagan deities. Entire families, he claimed, wrapped themselves in white sheets and retreated to a small square building set apart from the dwellings and worshipped their gods calling upon them to bring rain and good harvest to the Finns, and wrath upon their neighbors. On investigation, however, it was discovered that although they did wrap themselves in sheets and visit these “shrines” almost daily, it was not in the zeal of religion but for the purpose of taking baths. The Finns here are almost fanatical advocates of cleanliness, and each has his own “sauna” or steam bathhouse.

Because of the WPA Writers project a whole lot of writers owed their livelihoods to the Federal government. I owe them my love of Minnesota and its history!


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3 Responses to “An Arts Job is a Job!”

  1. deirdre maeve Says:

    beautiful! good pick!

  2. Mike Hazard Says:

    Jobs, jobs, jobs, as Rudy Perpich used to chant.

    I love the way this blog is logging the multitudinous ways books work in our lives.

  3. Patzer Says:

    MN’s WPA writer’s project is still going strong in Mpls: the Minneapolis Writers’ Workshop.



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