I missed the defining event of my parents’ generation, the Great Depression. But I heard plenty about it, through tales about the jobless selling apples on the street and the songs Woody Guthrie sang. And eventually I found that so large an event leaves other traces for later generations to unearth. Some are tangible, such as the facilities constructed under the Works Progress Administration (the WPA, later called the Work Projects Administration), which President Franklin Roosevelt founded by executive order in 1935 to employ millions of the jobless. If you have flown into Washington’s National Airport, driven down Manhattan’s East Side Drive, or used any of thousands of other facilities, roads, and buildings, you have encountered this physical legacy.
Less concrete, but with its own kind of permanence, is the cultural legacy of the WPA, which employed artists along with the legions of blue-collar workers needed for construction jobs. Theatrical productions like Orson Welles’s Macbeth; murals that decorated (some said blemished) the New York Public Library and other buildings; art prints and posters; American travel guides-these and more came out of the WPA
Federal Art, Theatre, Music, and Writers’ projects. And the WPA supported artists who would later do important work. Richard Wright began Native Son in time allowed for creative writing apart from his WPA assignment; Jackson Pollock started developing his abstract style while receiving a WPA paycheck.
Not so well known is the legacy left by the scientists and engineers who conducted research with WPA help. It too includes famous practitioners and classic works: research by the likes of Glenn Seaborg, who won a Nobel Prize in 1951 for discovering plutonium and other atomic elements beyond uranium; significant compilations of data such as the MIT Wavelength Tables, which became a Rosetta stone for scientific
research; and experiments conducted on atom-smashing machines, the Big Science of the time. Not only do these moments in American scientific culture deserve recollection, but a look at WPA science, as well as some of its other endeavors, offers lessons for today. Although we 1997-model Americans have it far better than did the Depression generation, many scientists also operate in a climate of scarcity-layoffs and shrinking budgets-reminiscent of those earlier days.