three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
By: 
Nick Taylor
user_rating: 
0

A-American-MadeMarking the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, Nick Taylor’s in-depth account chronicles the history of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the still hotly contested brainchild of FDR during the Great Depression.

The Topic: Created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, the WPA offered 8 million unemployed Americans hope and self-worth by supplying them with jobs instead of charity. The WPA simultaneously rebuilt the nation’s crumbling 19th-century infrastructure; advanced scientific research, literature, and the arts; provided unskilled laborers with training and higher education; and presented women with unprecedented opportunities for growth and advancement only 15 years after they had won the right to vote. FDR’s opponents criticized the program’s inefficiency and expense ($10.5 billion), but in Taylor’s view, the WPA revolutionized American democracy by recognizing the government’s responsibility for its citizens’ basic needs. Congress closed down the WPA in 1943, when the revitalizing effect of World War II on the private sector rendered the program obsolete.
Bantam. 640 pages. $27. ISBN: 0553802356

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"It is more than a feel-good book; it is also vastly informative, popular history at its finest. … It is a straightforward, relentlessly chronological, clearly written account of the Works Progress Administration, a vital program implemented during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt." Steve Weinberg

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Nick Taylor eloquently and vividly details the rich and triumphant history of FDR’s masterstroke. … Taylor’s insightful, panoramic account does its large subject proud, while reminding us that our country is often at its best when confronting great and grave obstacles." Edward J. Renehan Jr.

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A paean to the WPA, Nick Taylor’s American-Made is balanced and engaging if overlong, mixing historical overview with profiles of individual workers and the WPA’s prime movers: FDR and program chief Harry Hopkins. … Taylor does not camouflage the WPA’s goofs." Rich Barlow

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This vivid, engagingly written book—a quick read, despite its bulk—is meant as a public work itself, a reminder of a distant time when federal agencies often functioned effectively and were staffed by people who believed that government could be a force for good. … The author’s devotion to narrative and to anecdotes by the avalanche-load leaves frustratingly unresolved major questions about the agency, how effective it ultimately was and whether anything like it could arise again." Jesse Berrett

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Taylor’s American-Made is bigger than its title suggests; he provides a succinct survey of the Great Depression and particularly its consequences for workers. … A warm glow of history enshrouds the WPA, which Taylor does little to dispel." H.W. Brands

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2.5 of 5 Stars
"An unreconstructed New Dealer, Taylor dismisses or ignores evidence that public works projects did not promote—and may have retarded—recovery. … Most critics of the New Deal acknowledge the WPA’s impact on individual lives and its role in rebuilding the infrastructure of the United States. But they do not agree that ‘by most objective measures,’ the jobs program was a success." Glenn C. Altschuler

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Taylor … offers colorful but scattershot thumbnail sketches—of an archaeologist, a publicist with the Federal Theatre Project, a carpenter working on La Guardia Airport—that are dropped seemingly at random into an unwieldy text burdened with excess material about political battles over such unrelated issues as FDR’s ill-fated court-packing plan. … His poorly organized narrative wanders from one project to the next, failing to create a coherent overall picture." Wendy Smith

Critical Summary

Taylor’s lively, comprehensive study of the WPA considerably divided the critics. Though Taylor doesn’t balk at detailing the program’s flaws, he also doesn’t conceal his admiration for the program and the men who created it. His hero, of course, is Harry Hopkins, the WPA’s founding director. Several critics praised Taylor’s writing and research, describing American-Made as insightful and evenhanded. While some reviewers complained about its length and lack of focus, a few, like the reviewer from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, panned the book’s politics and contemplated alternative outcomes "had the $10.5 billion allocated to the WPA been spent on a stimulus package for the private sector." Though the WPA continues to generate heated debate over its success 65 years after its dissolution, Taylor’s engaging and wide-ranging American-Made is a valuable record of the federal program and its place in American history.

Federal Writers’ Project

The Federal Writers’ Project, another of the WPA’s work relief programs, supported unemployed ethnographers, historians, children’s authors, writers, art critics, and editors—including John Cheever, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, and Zora Neale Hurston. Many of these now-famous writers contributed—for about $90 a month—to one of the Federal Writers’ Project’s major undertakings: The American Guide Series, more than 1,000 detailed histories of individual states, territories, and major cities. Many of the guides are still in print.