Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/H. Perry Davis

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This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories

People drinking at the bar, saloon, Raceland, Louisiana

Overview:[edit]

H. Perry Davis (1889-?) was a railroad worker and later became local Justice of the Peace (J.P.) in North Carolina during 1930s. His life history was recorded in 1939 by W.O. Saunders, a member of the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP), a part of the New Deal program during the Great Depression.


Biography:[edit]

Early years (1889-1905)[edit]

H. Perry Davis was born in 1889 on a farm near Elizabeth City, N.C. Instead of going to school, Davis started working at an early age. In 1901, he was hired out to a blacksmith shop owner at the age of 12. In 1903 he went to New London to work for the Northern Pacific Company.

Railroad Life (1905-1919)[edit]

In 1905, Davis set out northeast, where he lied about his real age and got a job as a yard man at the Central Vermont Railway. He later worked for several other large railway companies, including the New York Central, the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific and the Santa Fe. He started as a brakeman and worked up to freight conductor at the end of 1919.

Marriages[edit]

Davis first married a woman from Utah. His first wife died early and left him a daughter. In 1919 he married another woman from the West. His second wife was a widow and had a son by her first marriage. They divorced in the late 1920s.

Justice of the Peace (1929-1939) and alcohol addiction[edit]

Davis started his own business in 1919 and achieved some success in the early 1920s, but his business declined sharply during the Great Depression. After 1929 Davis petitioned to be a Justice of the Peace (J.P) in North Carolina, but gradually he was excluded from his upper-class colleagues’ social network. Life stress made him turned to alcohol for relief, and he soon became addicted. He spent all his money on liquor and was gradually shunned by both his clients and friends. There was a time when his only source of income was to issue marriage licenses for runaway couples for $5 each. He went to Dix Hill in New York to receive alcohol treatment, and it was successful. He later returned to North Carolina and was interviewed by FWP in 1939.[1]

Social issues:[edit]

Child labor[edit]

Child labor was common in the United States at the beginning of twentieth century. The society under industrialization had an increasing demand for consumer goods and services, attracting laborers from home workshops and farms to urban factories.[2] At that time child laborers and adult workers were considered to have equal working ability.[3] For poor families, income earned by their children was essential for surviving.[4] For Davis, he started working at the age of 12 in order to support his family.[5] Factory owners also preferred child laborers because children were viewed as "more manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike.[6]" There were no national laws that regulated child labor, and even though some states enacted such laws, they were often violated.[7] The 1900 census suggested child labor comprised 6% of the total labor force at the time.[8]

The Failure of Alcohol Prohibition[edit]

Prohibition was a nationwide ban of alcohol in United States from 1920 to 1933. The idea came from the Temperance Movement, whose members “associated alcohol with crime, poverty, murder and rape.[9]” Later in 1920, with the support of Anti-Saloon League, the 18th Amendment imposed the federal prohibition of alcohol. Although the prohibition achieved success in early 1920s, illegal consumption slowly increased.[10] In the interview, Davis mentioned his addiction to alcohol began in 1930s, during which he drank so heavily that he had to go to Dix Hill in N.Y. to receive medical treatment. The existence of the Alcohol Rehabilitation and Drug Rehab Center in Dix Hill in 1930s reflected an increasing rate of alcohol addiction and hinted about the failure of the Prohibition. The failure of Prohibition was largely tied with the Great Depression. The high unemployment rate following the economic crisis left many Americans feeling desperate, and many of them turned to alcohol for relief.[11] The risk and high profit of alcohol trade led to an increasing rate of illegal activities.[12] According to historian G. H. Levine, protestors from the Anti-Prohibition League rose and argued "liquor production would create jobs and that alcohol taxes might help to reduce income taxes.[13]" In 1933, the 21st Amendment legitimized alcohol and ended the Prohibition.


Federal Writers' Project:[edit]

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was a component of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the New Deal, established by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935. It was created at the height of the Great Depression, aiming to support writers and collect American oral history. The FWP writers created life histories of Americans according to the notes taken during the interviews.[14] Over the years, scholars have debated on the validity of the FWP life stories. Scholars questioned the authenticity of the FWP documents by arguing that “before the tape recorder almost all direct quotation is open to question” (Terrill and Hirsch 87). It was highly likely that FWP writers edited the original conversation "too casually", and fabricated some stories.[15] For instance, the fact that Davis' life history was written in perfect chronological order is unusual; a person being interviewed is unlikely to recall his or her life stories chronologically. It is reasonable to believe the writers had rearranged the material, a practice that might cause the loss of originality. Another problem, as Florence Millerand argued, was the writers’ tendency to deliberately "make a social issue out of a personal experience[16]”, which could lead to false conclusions. In the Davis document, the FWP writer devoted half of the writing to describing instances of the divorce and remarriage in the life of Davis and his clients, in an attempt to show that the Great Depression caused an increasing divorce and remarriage rate in the society. But in reality, marriage rate and divorce rate drastically declined during the Great Depression.[17] The new story that created on purpose by writers had deviated from the truth. Reader should be critical when reading the documents.


References[edit]

  1. Davis, H. Perry. "Folder 736: W.O. Saunders (interviewer): H. Perry Davis, Justice of the Peace." Federal Writers' Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. NC 9713-9735.
  2. U.S. Department of State. "American Labor History." About.com. Economics. 2013. Web. 14 April. 2013. para.3.
  3. Fisk, M. Donald. "American Labor in the 20th Century." Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 30 Jan. 2003. Web. 14 Sept. 2013. p.4.
  4. Fisk, M. Donald. "American Labor in the 20th Century." Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 30 Jan. 2003. Web. 14 Sept. 2013. p.4.
  5. Davis, H. Perry. "Folder 736: W.O. Saunders (interviewer): H. Perry Davis, Justice of the Peace." Federal Writers' Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p.9716.
  6. University of Iowa Labor Center. " Child Labor in U.S. History." Child Labor Public Education Project. 2013. Web. 16 April. 2013. http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/ para.1.
  7. Fisk, M. Donald. "American Labor in the 20th Century." Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 30 Jan. 2003. Web. 14 Sept. 2013. p.4.
  8. Fisk, M. Donald. "American Labor in the 20th Century." Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 30 Jan. 2003. Web. 14 Sept. 2013. p.4.
  9. Anonym. "America's Short Mistake of Prohibition." Laws.com. Stupid Laws. 2013. Web. 4 April. 2013. para.2.
  10. Tyrrell, Ian. " The US Prohibition Experiment: Myths, History and Implications." Addiction 92.11 (1997): 1405-1409. John Wiley & Sons. Web. 15 April. 2013. p.1406.
  11. Davis, H. Perry. "Folder 736: W.O. Saunders (interviewer): H. Perry Davis, Justice of the Peace." Federal Writers' Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p.9716.
  12. Anonym. "America's Short Mistake of Prohibition." Laws.com. Stupid Laws. 2013. Web. 4 April. 2013. para.6.
  13. Mann, Karl, Derik Hermann, and Andreas Heinz. "One Hundred Years of Alcoholism: The Twentieth Century." Alcohol & Alcoholism 35.1 (2000): 10-15. Oxford Journals. Web. 31 March. 2013. p.11.
  14. Terrill, E. Tom, and Hirsch, Jerrold. "Replies to Leonard Rapport's 'How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers'." Oral History Review. Oral History Association. Oxford University Press: 1979. 81-89. Web. p.82.
  15. Terrill, E. Tom, and Hirsch, Jerrold. "Replies to Leonard Rapport's 'How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers'." Oral History Review. Oral History Association. Oxford University Press: 1979. 81-89. Web. p.82.
  16. Millerand, Florence."Making an Issue Out of a Standard: Storytelling Practices in a Scientific Community." Science, Technology, & Human Values 38.7 (2013): 7-43. SAGE. Web. 7 April. 2013. p.10.
  17. Carlson, Elwood. "Divorce Rate Fluctuation as a Cohort Phenomenon." Taylor & Francis 33.3 (1979): 523-536. JSTOR. Web. 7 April. 2013. p.523