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The Valiant Virginians

ISSUE:  Autumn 1997
Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression.Edited by Nancy J.Martin-Perdue and Charles L.Perdue, Jr. North Carolina. $45.00 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Eudora Ramsay Richardson would love this book. Richardson was the state supervisor of the Virginia Writers’ Project (VWP) from 1937 until its close during wartime in 1942.As a unit of the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, the VWP provided work and wages for writers, nearly none of whom were professional authors, and it produced vast quantities of research materials that culminated in Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion (1940), the state’s entry in the rightly praised American Guide series. The Virginia Writers’ Project also published several valuable local histories and, through a separate office at Hampton Institute, Roscoe Lewis’s classic The Negro in Virginia (1940).

Other projects, such as a study of Virginia foodways, remained unfinished when the Virginia Writers Project shut down. The unpublished materials, along with the other files from the VWP’s work, went off to storage. The largest part—some 300,000 items in more than 500 boxes—went to the state archives at the Library of Virginia. Forgotten down in a damp basement, the VWP’s mountain of typescripts turned yellow with age and began to crumble.

Then, in 1969, Nancy J. Martin-Perdue and Charles L. Perdue, Jr., came in search of the interviews with former slaves that workers of the VWP used in The Negro in Virginia. They brought with them not only a folklorist’s formal training but also a curator’s perception of the richness of the VWP materials and an archivist’s dedication to bringing order out of documentary chaos. Since then, with help from talented colleagues and students at the University of Virginia, the Perdues have dedicated themselves to recovering the hidden cultural resources of the VWP. Weevils in the Wheat (1976), their collaborative edition of the Virginia interviews with ex-slaves, was the first of several published works, the most recent of which is Charles Perdue’s Pigsfoot Jelly 6- Persimmon Beer: Foodways from the Virginia Writers’ Project (1992). As important as those works are, the unpublished bibliographies and guides to the VWP materials that they prepared in aid of their work are indispensable. Their typescript guide to the VWP life histories at the Library of Virginia runs to 124 pages and is still the best means to navigate that collection.

The original idea to collect life histories came from William Terry Couch, director of the North Carolina Writers’ Project and also of the University of North Carolina Press. He wanted to counter the stock image of Southerners as exotics, which Erskine Caldwell’s clay-eating denizens of Tobacco Road had recently reinforced on the bestseller lists and on Broadway. Couch’s collection of Southern life histories, These Are Our Lives (1939), went to press about the time that the Virginia Writers Project began collecting life histories, and thus no Virginia materials appeared in that book.

Despite their late start, the workers of the VWP produced plenty of life histories, partly because Eudora Ramsay Richardson conflated directives from Washington to conduct “social-ethnic studies” and to collect folklore with Couch’s plan for the life history project. There are 61 life histories in this book, selected from approximately 1,100 originals. The Perdues explain that their “underlying concern with the VWP texts as ethnographical or oral historical accounts” primarily determined their choices. They also tried to get “a general representativeness” of race, gender, class, place of residence, etc.

One other selection criteria matters most of all: they chose the life histories that they could place in context. Twenty years ago, as editor of the Virginia Folklore Society’s newsletter, Charles Perdue warned that popular folklore and old-time music festivals wrenched traditional behaviors and cultural forms out of their contexts. Folklore, he insisted, “is a dynamic, on-going process of communication,” not merely something to be collected and preserved as a curiosity of times past.

The Perdues treat the life histories as dynamic acts of communication, and that makes the method of These Are Our Lives seem crude. Editor Couch insisted upon typicality for the subjects and literary quality for the life histories that he published. Thus, about half of the accounts were extensively edited, and some of them, the Perdues suggest, may be entirely fictitious. Changing the names of people and places may have been necessary then to protect the privacy of the subjects, but the Perdues are correct that such anonymity detaches the life histories from their “actual contexts of community and kin.”

The Perdues reversed Couch’s editorial creation of anonymity. Instead, they poured through censuses, court records, city directories, and other sources to place the moment of giving a VWP life history into the lives of the participants. As genealogists can testify, researching persons who lived in the recent past is more difficult than one might think. The records are plentiful but rarely organized or preserved with the care that documents from centuries ago receive. More important, considerations of privacy keep many records under seal. The 1930 U.S.census, for example, will not be opened until 2002.

In a few instances, the Perdues tracked down surviving subjects of interviews (one of whom had no recollection of giving a life history). More often, the records allowed them only to relate a subject’s life path—via family, marriage, and work—to the time of the interview. Knowing something about the life that preceded the telling of the life history changes the ways that a reader receives the interviews. Rather than typicality, one reads for individuality and complexity.

The Perdues’s editorial research also exposed connections between the VWP workers who conducted the interviews and the subjects. Some of the texts already reveal them: in a slum neighborhood in Petersburg, Susie R.C.Byrd interviewed a married former classmate at Virginia State College who spoke of her embarrassment for Byrd to see her situation. Other connections went unmentioned. Margaret Wolfe, who worked the night shift at a silk mill in Covington, was interviewed while waiting in the morning outside the post office for the Potts Creek mail carrier who daily gave her a ride home. The VWP interviewer was the mail carrier’s sister, and she collected his life history, too. He told a harrowing tale of conflict with a tenant who rented his farm. The tenant, named Sampson, mistreated the property, destroyed the trees, neglected the crops, and defied the owner to stop him. The editors state that this life history is unusual for being a platform for polemics against government relief programs, but those are rhetorical frills on a nightmarish story about a season-long contest of wills. Sampson and his long-suffering family finally left the farm, but not before the evil man fouled.the well by drowning a big yellow cat in it. The cat belonged to the VWP writer who collected this life history from her brother. Knowing the connections, one reads the story not only as a document about tenant farming in Virginia but also as a family narrative about a shared traumatic event.

Interactions between interviewer and subject also show that class and racial differences influenced the telling (and reporting) of the life histories. For example, white Bessie A.Scales interviewed black Dilcie Gum and asked if she remembered much about “the war.” Gum responded that, of course, she did. Her son served in the Army and fought in France. Scales ignored the answer and asked for Gum’s memories of “the other war—the War Between the States.” Similarly, Scales interviewed a white woman in Danville who had been a leader of a strike at the local textile mill and who lost her job after the governor sent troops to end the union effort. During the interview, Scales declared that she hoped the woman would not get involved in strikes again. Did the woman’s swift disavowal of union sentiments reflect her true feelings, or was she responding to fit Scales’s apparent anti-union declaration? Other interviewers may have told the subjects what they wanted to hear in more subtle ways than Scales did, but the interaction between subject and interviewer inevitably influenced the content of the life histories and adds to the difficulty of generalizing from the documents.

That difficulty notwithstanding, a short editorial essay, drawing upon the entire collection of VWP life histories, precedes each section of the book, and some tentative conclusions do emerge from the life histories. For one thing, the editors demonstrate that today’s much-discussed analytical categories of gender, race, and class did matter in the lives of Virginians then. Josephine Wright’s declaration that she had “done the work of a man and at the same time. . . was living the life of a woman” came from experience, not from a volume of feminist theory. The Perdues point out that whereas Wright’s life history concerned her home and garden, her husband’s emphasized his role as family provider at work. From differences such as these, the editors propose that the Great Depression was harder on men than women because the men had invested so much of their identity into work.

Few of the interviews with white Virginians mentioned racial matters, a reflection of how the Jim Crow system rendered blacks invisible (and whites indifferent). For the African Americans who gave their histories, race did matter, whether the speaker was a community leader or an impoverished transient living in a shack. Yet, as always, there are exceptions, such as the white owner of a crab-meat processing plant whose black employees were on easy, informal terms with him. And, looking ahead to the political transformations of subsequent decades, an undertaker in Covington declared that folks might think that all blacks supported the party of Lincoln, but he proudly voted with the Democratic party.

The ages of the narrators also influenced the stories that they told. The editors begin the book with a set of life histories by aged Virginians, who reflected upon the profound changes that had occurred during their lifetimes. Under the rubric of “Making a Living,” the larger part of the book presents life histories of younger people, telling about their work on the farms and the rivers and in the mines and the factories. As with their elders, these narrators’ stories exemplify Virginia’s long-term transformation from rural to urban, from agriculture to manufacturing. The book closes with an epilogue depicting the Old Dominion preparing for World War II.The war economy accelerated that longer transformation, but it also ended the Great Depression, sending Virginians off to the suburbs of northern Virginia and the military-industrial complexes of Tidewater where there were jobs—real jobs, not make-work relief.

If the book’s overall framework emphasizes change, the life histories reinforce the conclusion of Ronald L.Heinemann, the historian of the Great Depression in Virginia, that “the Virginia of 1939 was remarkably similar to that of ten years earlier.” The Byrd organization retained its strangle-hold on state government, and few narrators mentioned government, politics, or voting unless prompted, and even fewer actually did vote. The state’s have-nots had learned to endure silently long before the hard times of the 1930’s, and the narrators who were employed seemed grateful to their employers for it. For all the railing of Virginia’s leaders against invasive federal government during those years, New Deal programs were administered locally, and the process of obtaining relief work or a pension generated complaints more than gratitude in the life histories. Why, in the midst of hard times did Virginia change so little? There are plenty of clues in the life histories.

But, set aside historical analysis. This big, beautiful book invites readers to ramble. In addition to the life histories and the eloquent introductory essays by the editors, there are numerous magnificent photographs that document the lives of Virginians in the 1930’s. So, maybe you’ll stop to read about Dan Arritt, age 80, who tells about making salt-glazed pottery in Alleghany County “from diggin’ the clay to sellin’ the ware.” Or, perhaps pause at the old-time song lyrics that aged but erect Lycurgus Drumheller sings to the interviewer. How about a visit to wealthy Emily Palmer Stearns in Culpeper County, founder of the Parley Refuge for Friendless Cats? Or, look through the photo essays to see tobacco farming, migrant laborers, or the construction of the Aberdeen Gardens Homesteads project for African Americans in Newport News.

This book is very like the documentary photographs that illustrate it. One sees at first the details of lived experience, but in the end it is the art of the entire composition that one admires. More than a half-century after the Virginia Writers Project’s demise, here is its finest achievement.


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