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Blast from the Past


It’s the anniversary of the Works Progress Administration today and I tweeted out my This Day in Labor History post about it, as I do most days. People love the WPA and we need another WPA today, so it got a little attention. One core part of the WPA was the various arts programs that kept authors, painters, and musicians fed. Of course, conservatives then and now hated it. One of those in the more recent past was the odious Newt Gingrich, one of the most disgusting toads in American history. When I was tweeting about this, the historian Kevin Kruse reminded me of when Gingrich claimed the WPA was a waste of time because Arthur Miller pulled himself up by his bootstraps and didn’t need that federal money. Of course, Miller was still alive in 1995 and he had a response:

Dear Mr. Gingrich:

I write to correct an impression which you seem to have concerning my having created a literary career with no help from the government. (This from a member of a writers’ delegation who discussed the NEA with you very recently.)

It is true that I was able to survive in my early years by writing radio adaptations of books and plays for the “Du Pont Cavalcade of America,” and the U.S. Steel program, among others, while working on my stage plays at the same time. I confess I have taken a certain pride in this independence. But I was greatly helped at two points in my life by the Feds.

In 1936, as a student at the University of Michigan, the National Youth Administration paid me $15 a month to feed a couple of thousand mice in a cancer research laboratory. I washed dishes for my meals but without the NYA money I couldn’t have paid my room rent and would no doubt have had to leave school. Jobs in those times were next to impossible to find.

In 1938 when I graduated I managed to get on the WPA Writers Project-$22.77 a week-for six months until the project was shut down. In that time I wrote a tragedy for the stage about the conquest of Mexico, and perhaps more important, managed to break into writing for commercial radio. The government’s help in both instances was brief but crucial. (Among my colleagues on the WPA was Orson Welles; we were both helped to find our feet by the WPA. I have often wondered whether his and my income taxes in later years hadn’t paid for a big part of the project’s costs not only on our behalf but on many others’.)

But I believe there was something more involved than keeping artists financially alive. The country was in crisis, as you know, and the support of the arts by government was a vital gesture of mutuality between the American people and the artists, and helped sustain a faith in one another and the country’s future.

The arts are not going to die in America because Congress turns its back on them-the artist is a weed that can survive in the cracks of a sidewalk. But in the act of supporting its arts, Congress demonstrates a pride in our arts which I know will move American artists to tap their highest artistic ideals in return.

Owning Gingrich is always fun, not that the man has any sense of shame and would learn from him.

Of course, 25 years later, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are always on the chopping block of Republican federal budgets. They keep getting saved but it’s always a fight.

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