In 1935, President Roosevelt founded the Federal Writers’ Project as part of the Works Progress Administration. The FWP employed thousands of historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers struggling through the Great Depression, creating jobs and enabling the artistic expression and preservation of an era. One of the publications that resulted from the FWP was These Are Our Lives, published by UNC Press in 1939. Based on interviews conducted throughout North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, the book collects the “life histories of tenant farmers, farm owners, textile and other factory workers, persons in service occupations in towns and cities (such as bell hops, waitresses, messenger boys, clerks in five and ten cent stores, soda jerks), and persons in miscellaneous occupations such as lumbering, mining, turpentining, and fishing,” wrote UNC Press director and southeastern regional FWP director William Terry Couch.
Upon the book’s publication, Time magazine said, “It gives the South its most pungent picture of common life, the Writers’ Project its strongest claim to literary distinction.” The San Francisco Chronicle called it “praiseworthy from any point of view, whether political, social, or literary.” And the New York Times Book Review declared it “one of the most revealing books that has been written on folkways that largely make the South what it is.”
This past spring the Library of Congress sponsored a 75th anniversary event commemorating the publication of These Are Our Lives. The event featured comments from John Cole, director of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, where the FWP archives are held; historian David Taylor; journalist Ann Banks; StoryCorps recording and archive manager Virginia Millington; plus audio recordings from StoryCorps and live readings of the personal accounts found in These Are Our Lives. See video of the event embedded below.
For additional historical context: in 1939, UNC Press was breaking new ground in the publication of works written by and about African Americans, a controversial pursuit for a southern university press of that era. This was the year UNC Press also published Tobe, which was one of the few children’s books at the time to feature realistic images of African American children.
For more insight into the time in which These Are Our Lives was published, we turned to The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945, by Daniel Joseph Singal. The War Within puts literary modernism during the interwar period into context, with a chapter highlighting Couch’s role as publisher at UNC Press and his development of These Are Our Lives. Couch’s modernist ideas and his daring to publish works then controversial in the American South helped place Chapel Hill on the academic publishing map.
Contemporary documentary projects such as StoryCorps and Humans of New York thrive today in a spirit similar to that which led the vision of the Federal Writers’ Project and These Are Our Lives. They remind us that every life has a story, and every story matters.
These Are Our Lives is currently available as a UNC Press Enduring Edition. UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in affordable paperback formats, bringing readers both historical and cultural value.
See the full Library of Congress event video celebrating These Are Our Lives below (01:10:44).