Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/J. H. Marshall

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

Overview[edit | edit source]

American airplane engine being assembled.

JH Marshall, “The Inventor”

J. H. Marshall was a white middle school dropout with an exceptional understanding of mechanical devices. He had been working with cars most of his life, which had not stopped him from inventions in other areas; unfortunately, he had the worst of luck with his ideas, as he never had the funds to act on them before a similar design was patented by someone else [1]. JH Marshall’s life story was written as part of the Federal Writers Project during the New Deal in the 1930s.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early life[edit | edit source]

J.H. Marshall went through many jobs throughout his life. At the age of 18, he was a driver for a wealthy couple in Palm Beach, Florida. They wanted to adopt him, but he refused. Afterwards, he found a job as a helper in a garage and gained enough experience to become a mechanic. He went back to North Carolina, where he was part of a mining enterprise which went bust and learned to fly an airplane (as had three of his brothers). He always returned to his true calling, however; mechanics.He had a very good understanding of machines, which meant he always had work. Later, Marshall was able to buy his own garage in an area of North Carolina often visited by tourists, and his business started gaining popularity. Whenever he had free time, he worked on his inventions.

Inventions[edit | edit source]

This first occurred with an automobile choke he invented in 1928, but was dismissed as ludicrous by his boss who was a good mechanic. While Marshall was working on a prototype of his design, it was patented by another man and presented on a new car. The other man made a fortune, and Marshall was left high and dry. Similar experiences happened with his ideas for an electric toothbrush and an electric razor. Soon after he began work on a proof of concept to patent, his ideas would see light on the market, created by someone else. His most recent idea by the time of the interview was for an extremely efficient airplane engine. This invention especially suffered from his lack of funds. He had been working on it for quite some time, saving up any money he had to spare, but he was beaten to the implementation. Marshall was a man of great talent who never was able to patent his ideas because he never raised enough money to finish his inventions quickly.

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Problems with the Patent system[edit | edit source]

Marshall’s problem with finding money was a common theme during the Great Depression. Half of the banks in the United States went under, and the other half was unwilling to take risks on inventors whom did not have a large amount of capital and connections. The general economic crisis of the time was not conducive to innovation or economic growth, and was in fact recorded to be a period of one of the lowest number of patents in most of American history, and a crisis about invention had come to a head (Purcell, p. 166). The 1930s were a time of turmoil not only in the economic sector, but also in the battle between technological innovation and the desire to keep people employed. The patent system was reformed so that it became more difficult for a layperson to apply for a patent, as it was thought that the patenting system was somehow partly responsible for the problem [2]. This unfortunate situation made it difficult for a lone inventor to apply for a patent, even if the proof of concept was there.

Grade School Education[edit | edit source]

Another social issue that can be brought up is education; Marshall dropped out of middle school and became a mechanic. This occupation taught him a lot about machines, but his lack of higher schooling must have been an obstacle to being able to prepare a patent. This was an obstacle for many students in North Carolina; the education budget was slashed across the country, and this meant that many programs had to be cut- including school lunches- which made it increasingly difficult for poorer families to continue their children’s’ education [3]. In the early 1930s, students in North Carolina were only required to take 6 months of school a year, as was likely the case for JH Marshall. The salary paid to schoolteachers was low, and did not attract the most qualified of teachers. The public transit system was poorly organized and nonexistent in some districts, making it almost impossible for children on outlying farms to go to school. When small schools were consolidated together, this made it even more difficult for students to go to school. All of these factors combined made it very difficult for poorer students to complete even their grade school education, and many ended up dropping out early to get a job.

Issues of historical production[edit | edit source]

The FWP was an initiative during the New Deal, initiated to give writers a job to help them through the Great Depression. Many famous authors of the time went through the FWP- as did many whose writing was not of the same caliber. This made writings inconsistent and caused several issues of historical production.

Lack of fact verification[edit | edit source]

It is difficult to know how much of these written stories was fact or fiction; there are few dates, no city names that we can be certain are the correct ones, and deliberate attempts to cover up some information (Such as the individuals’ true names). This issue was written about extensively by Leonard Rapport in his work about his experience in the Federal Writer’s Project; the way that names were changed made it difficult to check on the facts of a character piece after the fact, and some tales were deliberate tales of fiction to ‘show the life of an average person in this area during this time period’ (p. 1). Furthermore, many editors of the project did not believe that strict guidelines should be set for the writing, and that authors should have significant leeway with their work, as long as the writing was interesting and believable [4]. Another issue brought up by Daniel Fox and James Miller was the desire to have regional culture integrated into the stories of the FWP. This was problematic because the tales contained not an overview of culture but the view of the region that the editors wished to portray [5][6]. These issues crop up in JH Marshall’s biography in his portrayal as a bright inventor who is constantly down on his luck because no one will fund his inventions; the voice is almost always that of the author. JH Marshall was given three sentences throughout the biography in his own voice, which was very different from that of the author. The writers of the FWP often cared more for literary truth than objective truth.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Marshall, JH. “Douglas Carter.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print.
  2. Pursell, Carroll. "Government and Technology in the Great Depression." John Hopkins Uiversity Press 20.1 (2010): 162-174. JSTOR. Web. 25 Apr 2013.
  3. Davis, Anita “Public Schools in the Great Depression: keeping the school doors open.” (2010): 1. NCpedia. Web. 25 Apr 2013.
  4. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review, Vol. 7. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom, 1979. 6-17. Muse. Web. 9 April 2013.
  5. Miller, James. “Inventing the "Found" Object: Artifactuality, Folk History, and the Rise of Capitalist Ethnography in 1930s America.” Journal of American Folklore. 117.466 (2004) 373-393.
  6. Fox, Daniel. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers' Project.” American Quarterly , Vol. 13, No. 1 Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961. 3-19. Web. 9 April 2013.