Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project

by Susan Rubenstein DeMasi, Publisher: McFarland & Co., 2016
Reviewed by: Harvey Smith

The world of the New Deal seems like an alternative universe compared to today’s public policies of climate change denial, privatizing of education, rolling back health care benefits, increasing homelessness, threats to publicly funded media and arts, and the increasing gap between rich and poor. The people-centered policies of the New Deal remind us that there is another way. There was a time when policy-makers did not succumb to greed, callousness and denial of basic human needs. Quite the contrary, they moved deliberately and vigorously in the opposite direction.
Much has been written about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the two key figures of the New Deal. The relatively recent biography of Frances Perkins, Kirstin Downey’s “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” finally gives an in depth look at the key architect of FDR’s social policy. Susan Quinn’s “Furious Improvisation” brings to light the dynamic role of Hallie Flanagan in bringing the performing arts to all Americans. Now Susan Rubenstein DeMasi’s new book “Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project” tells the story of the director of New Deal’s massive literary project.
Jerre Mangione’s earlier work, “The Dream and Deal,” described in detail the workings of the “Federal Writers’ Project” and to some extent the role of Henry Alsberg. However, DeMasi’s book tells the complete life story of another amazing figure from the pantheon of New Deal innovators and reveals the depth of Alsberg’s lifelong commitment to human rights and journalistic truth. As it turns out his New Deal work was in a sense the coda to a life of a very dedicated activist, one who was not afraid to confront death defying challenges.
Alsberg was an early champion of the rights of refugees and political prisoners. He worked in Europe during and after World War I. This was long before someone doing such work could rely on the support of an organization like Amnesty International. He sometimes traveled under great risk, working both as a humanitarian and a journalist.  Alsberg hoped to push the world to take action. It’s a sad commentary that so many years later others, like contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, must do the same.
As director of the Federal Writers’Project, Alsberg organized the massive
program of recruiting writers to do the unique guidebooks for every state and some cities and to chronicle and preserve critical American histories like the slave narratives. Like Hallie Flanagan he faced down the right-wing backlash of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Similar to Bayard Ruston in a later period, he had to hide the fact that he was gay and live under threat of exposure, perhaps stifling efforts to move on to even greater achievements and limiting him to working more behind the scenes.
Thanks to Susan DeMasi for bringing to light the moving story of journalist and human rights advocate Henry Alsberg. His artistic and radical life was an adventure, and her recounting moves along like one.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life

by Robert Dallek–This book is Robert Dallek’s newest on one of his favorite subjects, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was released on November 7, 2017. 

• Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and NPR
• A one-volume biography of Roosevelt by the #1 New York Times bestselling biographer of JFK, focusing on his career as an incomparable politician, uniter, and deal maker.
• “We come to see in FDR the magisterial, central figure in the greatest and richest political tapestry of our nation’s entire history” —Nigel Hamilton, Boston Globe
• “Meticulously researched and authoritative.” — Douglas Brinkley, The Washington Post
• “A workmanlike addition to the literature on Roosevelt.” — David Nasaw, The New York Times   
• “Dallek offers an FDR relevant to our sharply divided nation.” — Michael Kazin
• “Will rank among the standard biographies of its subject”— Publishers Weekly

In an era of such great national divisiveness, there could be no more timely biography of one of our greatest presidents than one that focuses on his unparalleled political ability as a uniter and consensus maker. Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life takes a fresh look at the many compelling questions that have attracted all his biographers: how did a man who came from so privileged a background become the greatest presidential champion of the country’s needy? How did someone who never won recognition for his intellect foster revolutionary changes in the country’s economic and social institutions? How did Roosevelt work such a profound change in the country’s foreign relations?

     For FDR, politics was a far more interesting and fulfilling pursuit than the management of family fortunes or the indulgence of personal pleasure, and by the time he became president, he had commanded the love and affection of millions of people. While all Roosevelt’s biographers agree that the onset of polio at the.age of thirty-nine endowed him with a much greater sense of humanity, Dallek sees the affliction as an insufficient explanation for his transformation into a masterful politician who would win an unprecedented four presidential terms, initiate landmark reforms that changed the American industrial system, and transform an isolationist country into an international superpower.

     Dallek attributes FDR’s success to two remarkable political insights. First, unlike any other president, he understood that effectiveness in the American political system depended on building a national consensus and commanding stable long-term popular support. Second, he made the presidency the central, most influential institution in modern America’s political system. In addressing the country’s international and domestic problems, Roosevelt recognized the vital importance of remaining closely attentive to the full range of public sentiment around policy-making decisions—perhaps FDR’s most enduring lesson in effective leadership.
– Amazon Review


The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace

BOOK REVIEWSby Dr. David B Woolner
Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian
The Roosevelt Institute 
Senior Fellow Center for Civic Engagement
Bard College
Professor of History
Marist College. Reviewed by Christopher Breiseth

On December 14th, I attended a book signing/lecture by David B. Woolner at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY. His book, THE LAST 100 DAYS: FDR AT WAR AND AT PEACE appeared in book stores that day.
An audience of 150 people attended Woolner’s talk which was filmed by C-SPAN. My closest colleague during my years as president-CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, David had sent me a desk copy which I had the opportunity to read before this premier event. It is terrific.
The work establishes a symmetry between the first 100 days of the Roosevelt Administration, when the domestic New Deal legislation began a redefinition of the relationship between the American people and their government, and FDR’s last 100 days when he led the Allies against Nazi Germany to the edge of victory and secured commitments from Stalin to establish the United Nations and to enter the war against Japan.            Acknowledging the President’s deteriorating health as a factor, which has increasingly drawn the attention of historians, Woolner charts on a virtual daily basis the efforts of FDR to pursue with laser like focus his war and peace objectives. Even as his body gave way in early April of 1945 at Warm Springs, he was still managing the relations with Churchill and Stalin and preparing for the opening of the United Nations in San Francisco.
Woolner’s coverage of the Yalta Conference and its importance in shaping the post war world I believe will become the dominant interpretation of that crucial moment. I have read many books about Franklin Roosevelt but I have never felt closer to the man – and the leader – than when reading Woolner’s book.
The very favorable book jacket blurbs are written by Ken Burns, David Reynolds, Jonathan Alter and E.J. Dionne. The one dimension of Woolner’s success I feel they missed is his masterful control of the world diplomatic scene – David is a diplomatic historian – against which to appreciate Roosevelt’s own mastery of the war and his preparations for the peace.
The book is published by Basic Books and costs $32.00 in hardback.

New Deal Grandchildren Speak



A Panel of direct descendants of major New Dealers will discuss the importance of their grandparents’ legacy to the 21st century at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, at 4 p.m., Saturday, August 19th, 2017. Participants will include James Roosevelt, Jr., David Wallace Douglas, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall and June Hopkins.

This special gathering will be jointly hosted by the FDR Presidential Library  and the National New Deal Preservation Association.  The Panel, to be held in the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center, will be moderated by Christopher N. Breiseth, board member of the NNDPA and former president and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.

At the reception following the Panel, other members of the families of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry A. Wallace, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins and Frank Walker will be recognized.

At 3 p.m., before the Panel, the NNDPA will present the Kathy Flynn Preservation Awards.  Randall Wallace, grandson of Vice President Wallace, will give a concert at 7 p.m.

The FDR Library staff is excited to collaborate with the NNDPA for this program and expects a large audience, with possible national broadcast of the Panel.

All events are free and open to the public.

Whitney Plantation

Louisiana News – Whitney Plantation

The Whiteny Plantation museum facility has a collection of the Federal Writer’s Project’s “Slave Narratives”  copies obtained via National Archives .  Located at  5099 Louisiana Hwy 18. Edgard, LA 70049. Originally a plantation as of 1752 but John Cummings spent 16 years planning and implementing this museum.  Film about museum on www.whitneyplantation.com  Contact person: Ashley Rogers 225-265-3300. “Telling the Story of Slavery.” New Yorker Magazine. Feb 17, 2016.  Author: Kalim Armstrong

Aimee Goram Wood Mural

Aimee Goram Mural Restored!

Public unveiling of the newly restored 1938 wood marquetry mural at Chapman Elementary School “Send Us Forth to be Builders of a Better World” by Aimee Gorham
The entrance foyer of Chapman Elementary has been graced with the work of Aimee Spencer Gorham since 1938 when the large format wood marquetry mural titled Send Us Forth to be Builders of a Better World was installed there, but almost 80 years of accumulated soiling, wear, and vandalism had obscured the exquisite and glowing figural effects of the wood grains in the mural. On Thursday, Dec. 1st, from 6-8 pm, The Chapman PTA, Neighbors West-Northwest and Heritage Conservation Group will invite the public to view the mural in its newly restored condition. Conservation of the murals was made possible by funding through the State of Oregon’s Oregon Heritage Grant, the Juan Young Trust, the Autzen Foundation and community donations. The unveiling event is sponsored by Neighbors West-Northwest and organized by the Chapman PTA.

During the unveiling event, talks will be given by art historian Bonnie Laing Malcolmson on Aimee Gorham, Heritage Conservation Group president Nina Olsson on the conservation treatment, and Dr. Suzana Radivojevic, wood scientist with the U of O Historic Preservation Program, on Gorham’s the use of wood veneer and plywood in the historic context of the wood products industry of the Pacific Northwest. There will also be a dedication of a new Auditorium sign by Butch Miller, of the American Marquetry Association.

Aimee Gorham is best known for her work at the Timberline Lodge, the largest and most ambitious New Deal project of the area, where two of her pieces grace the walls of that temple to rustic regionalism. Under WPA programs, Gorham produced murals for Oregon State University’s School of Forestry, numerous Portland Public schools, regional art centers in Oregon, and for the New York World’s Fair in 1939. She established a workshop of furniture makers from Timberline Lodge that executed her designs into the 1950s.

Gorham only recently has come to be is considered a significant regional artist, despite never having received adequate recognition. This may have been due to now outdated concepts in art criticism during the mid and late 20th century, that considered her technical medium, wood marquetry, a decorative or “minor art”. Not to be overlooked is her identity as a female artist, which also may have contributed to her lack of critical fortune due to gender bias.

Learn more about this significant piece of work Come at the educational community event on Thursday, Dec. 1st, from 6-8 pm at the Chapman Elementary School Auditorium, 1445 NW 26th Ave, Portland, OR 97210. Appetizers and child friendly activities will be provided.

NM CCC Statue Dedication

Exciting news – Bandelier, NM CCC Statue Dedication 2016

Click on the link below to learn more about the Bandelier, NM CCC Statue Dedication 2016 ceremony

Bandelier, NM CCC Statue Dedication 2016

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Poster for the stage adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here, October 27, 1936 at the Lafayette Theater as part of the Detroit Federal Theater
An invitation from Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Repertory Theatre invites you to take part in a nationwide reading of It Can’t Happen Here.
To see the full letter please click here –ichh-community-letter-brt-pdf

We hope you will join us in hosting a staged reading in your own community on the evening of Monday October 24th. We have made arrangements with the Lewis estate to allow one-night readings of the play to be mounted without payment of any licensing fee during that week.

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, a novel that imagines the rise of fascism in America. Concerned about race riots, a huge income gap between the rich and the poor, the stigmatizing of immigrants, global terror, and a right-wing extremist running for president, Lewis’ novel reads like it was ripped out of today’s headlines. Whether he’s describing Buzz Windrip, the demagogue who wins the presidency based on the promise of making our country great again, or Doremus Jessup, a liberal newspaper editor who simply waits too long to take Windrip seriously, Lewis’ understanding of our political system was precise and far-reaching. Reading the book now is somewhat shocking, if only because it’s impossible to dismiss our current situation as an aberration. As one of the characters in the book says, the problem’s not Windrip [read: Trump]; “it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to.”

Shortly after publication of the novel, Lewis wrote a play by the same name for the Federal Theatre Project. On October 27, 1936, the play opened in 21 cities across the United States. It created a sensation, not because of its dramatic value (which is unfortunately lacking), but because of its message.

We hope to reclaim the excitement of the original production and rectify the shortcomings of the script. Berkeley Rep is opening our season with an entirely new adaptation of the novel, created by Tony Taccone and Bennett Cohen. Lisa Peterson will direct. It will run September 23, 2016 through the election. We have uploaded the rehearsal script to a drop box for your perusal. Please go to the Dropbox at… http://bit.ly/2cxhjns

If you decide to participate we ask that you notify us. We will provide a sample press release, editable artwork for a poster, horizontal and vertical ads, cast breakdown and an updated script. If you would prefer to use the original Lewis play, that is in the public domain and you are welcome to use that as well. What is most important to us is that It Can’t Happen Here should happen in as many communities as possible!

No admission may be charged per the arrangement with the Lewis estate. We hope to generate local and national press.

Please consider being part of this project. Let us know if we can add your date, time and location to our calendar.

You may respond to Sarah McArthur at smcarthur@berkeleyrep.org  / cell 415-307-3374 to signify interest, ask questions, and receive access to the Dropbox that will contain material to assist you in producing and promoting your reading.

Century of Design

Former CCC Workers with Current AmeriCorps Workers, Leeds, Utah
Photo by Harvey Smith, September 2011

Read Harvey Smith’s article, Century of Design: Remembering the New Deal in the Parks, Harvey L. Smith

Century of Design

CCC Centre County, PA

Civilian Conservation Corps workers pour concrete for the Poe Valley dam. The CCC camps helped to build Poe Valley State Park during the Great Depression. Photo provided

CCC Stories shared at Centre County PA event

The CCC Centre County, PA shared stories thanks to the Historical Society  on August 14, 2016 at the Poe Valley State Park.