Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project
Susan Rubenstein DeMasi
Writing biographies is a particular challenge. There is a normal literary reflex to turn a life story into a chronological account of events instead of locating the arc of the subject’s principal accomplishments. Facts pile on facts covering up the real story underneath. Additionally, sometimes it seems that it is a biographer’s nightmare to leave out a piece of research, no matter how trivial. It is a curse of biographers to be convinced that readers must be interested in what the subject had for lunch on Thursday afternoons before napping.
Susan Rubenstein DeMasi is to be highly commended not only for navigating around these dangers but also for taking on the task of writing about a subject who is not well-known. Henry Alsberg’s spirit is surely doing hand spins, for DeMasi has rescued him from undeserved obscurity and then told his fascinating life in clear and well-written prose.
Some subjects are cursed by the settings of their lives. The world itself provided insufficient background for them to lead an interesting life. Alsberg faced no such hardship. The Great Depression, alongside the Revolution and the Civil War, is one of the principal defining eras of the American experiment.
Writers were among those who suffered economic deprivations. The Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration, was one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s programs to help the unemployed. The project hired more than 6,000 people, mostly young and from the working class.
It was Henry Alsberg, a journalist with an eye for understanding the social forces at work in the society and a moral compass with social justice as its true north, who was appointed to direct the Project.
Because Alsberg himself came from the political left, and many projects were deemed left-wing, it didn’t take long for the House Committee on Un-American Activities to identify the Project as a threat to the country.
Alsberg deserves the principal credit for what turned out to be a thousand publications under his tenure. Ultimately, for example, there were 2,300 accounts of what it was like to have been a slave. Alsberg labored to ensure that such a vital history was collected.
In a way, Alsberg was the man who wrote America. The American Guide Series provided histories of each of the 48 states then in America. It took 6,000 writers to produce this invaluable series, which came under attack from some individual states for their inclusion of sharecroppers and workers.
The Project and its accomplishments are important stories in American life. It is odd, therefore, that Henry Alsberg’s name is not more widely-known.
DeMasi is out to correct that. Here’s Alsberg helping Jews who survived pogroms in Eastern Europe. There he is with Emma Goldman. Turn a page in DeMasi’s impressive book, and you find Alsberg aiding political prisoners.
Alsberg led a quiet personal life. It would have been easy to miss the inner man and focus just on the more famous aspects of his external life. But DeMasi, who did a jaw-dropping amount of original research, has determined that Henry Alsberg would be saved from oblivion.
She has done her job.