Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Jesse Powell
This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), Jesse Powell was a white self-made businessman from Hickerson, North Carolina. After the Great Depression ended his short but relatively successful tenure in the wholesale business, Powell would spend the rest of his life battling unemployment.
I. Early Life
Born in Hickerson, North Carolina, Jesse Powell was the second youngest of seven children. Growing up, Powell and his siblings helped their father bribe his way into holding office as treasurer of Vicks County for eight years and sheriff for twenty-one years. Due to his power and wealth, Powell’s father was able to provide all of his children with a college education. However, while five of the children received college degrees, Powell and his younger brother dropped out of school before college to work. Although in retrospect Powell regretted foregoing a college education, he took enormous pride in his early successes as a self-made businessman. As his own boss, Powell picked up a few odd jobs and made more money than his older brother, a college graduate.
II. Financial Troubles
Soon after going into the wholesale business with his younger brother, the Great Depression struck, putting Powell out of business. Around the same time, Powell married Sally. The couple would struggle to make ends meet for the rest of their lives. After a short stint as a peddler, Powell picked up a job as a field man for an industrial insurance company. This job required the couple to relocate to Raleigh, where they faced even greater economic hardship. With Powell failing to make ends meet, Sally opened their home as a boarding house. Soon, Powell was out of work again, and this time for good, leaving his wife as the couple’s sole source of income. Although they never had children, Sally always had her hands full caring for the tenants and Jesse, who took an early retirement on account of his persisting unemployment.
I. Economic Failure and Unemployment
Powell’s personal history highlights the economic struggles wrought by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. After the stock market crashed, Powell’s wholesale business struggled to compete for business with the larger grocery chains, beginning Powell’s long battle against unemployment and bankruptcy. On a broader scale, as the economic downturn reached its nadir, the depression left few Americans’ financial health intact.
Although the Great Depression caused widespread financial havoc, the economic failure proved more disastrous for certain businesses. More specifically, “those producing durable goods, such as machinery, clothing, and housing, suffered more severely than those in food processing, utilities, and public service.” Moreover, though the number of unemployed workers did increase, unemployment during the Great Depression was not the national epidemic it may have seemed. In fact, as Garraty states, the number of unemployed workers during the Great Depression was relatively small: “the unemployed, while numbered in the millions, were a minority.” Many labor unions even scoffed at the unemployed, condemning their lack of employment as the result of laziness and stubbornness.
II. Higher Education
Jesse Powell’s story also illuminates the increased national recognition of the importance of higher education given the job market during the Great Depression. Before the Great Depression, the superfluity of higher education system led many, including Powell, to believe that a higher education was unnecessary for economic health: “some educators welcomed the depression as a corrective to the excesses of the decade of the twenties.” However, the Great Depression quickly changed the national perception of higher education. When the economy faltered and unemployment rose, thousands of Americans quickly lamented their lack of a higher education. For example, in retrospect, Powell wished he had become a professional, such as a doctor, to obtain the job security that eluded so many.
Many Americans began to realize that a liberal-arts oriented college education was indispensable to effectively combating the fluctuating job market. These liberal-arts oriented educations provided greater job security by avoiding fields of study “where jobs were hard to find, seeking instead a general liberal-arts education to give them the flexibility the uncertain economy seemed to demand.” On a national scale, Americans were realizing the monumental importance of a higher education to securing employment in the tumultuous job market.
Issues of Historical Production
I. Narrative Bias
Under the Federal Writers’ Project, a subsidiary project of the New Deal’s Work in Progress Administration, writers on a government payroll conducted interviews of ordinary Americans to construct their life stories. The purpose of constructing these life stories was to “present a generally comprehensive picture of Southern culture, history and the impact of economic dislocation, industrialization and such New Deal agencies as TVA on the South.” Like the hundreds of other Americans interviewed, W.B. Sedberry composed Powell’s life story as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Specifically, Powell’s life story emphasizes that with little education and no economic security, he spent a large part of his life struggling to make money. However, the interviewer constructs Jesse’s life history similarly to a short story, and this practice of constructing a narrative from an interview tends to skew the interviewee’s intended portrayal of information. As prolific American writer Ralph Ellison explains of his work with the FWP, “I tried to use my ear for dialogue to give an impression of just how people sounded…I developed a technique of transcribing that captured the idiom rather than trying to convey the dialect through misspellings.” Similarly, instead of directly conveying Powell’s words, Sedberry integrates reconstructed snapshots of Powell’s words that fit into the narrative frame. Thus, it is difficult to discern Jesse Powell’s actual words from the interviewer’s interpretation of the messages Powell intended to convey.
- Garraty, John A. “Unemployment During the Great Depression.” Labor History. 17.2 (1976). 133-159. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00236567608584378. p. 134.
- Garraty p. 135.
- Orr, Kenneth B. “Higher Education and the Great Depression: An Introduction to the Early Thirties.” Review of Higher Education. 2:3 (1979). Available from: http://vb3lk7eb4t.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info:sid/summon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:journal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=HIGHER+EDUCATION+AND+THE+GREAT+DEPRESSION%3A+AN+INTRODUCTION+TO+THE+EARLY+THIRTIES&rft.jtitle=Review+of+Higher+Education&rft.au=Orr%2C+Kenneth+B&rft.date=1979-01-01&rft.issn=0162-5748&rft.eissn=1090-7009&rft.volume=2&rft.issue=3&rft.spage=1&rft.externalDBID=n%2Fa&rft.externalDocID=v05000060001. p. 3.
- Schrecker, Ellen. “The Bad Old Days: How Higher Education Faired During the Great Depression. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 16 June 2009. Available from: http://vb3lk7eb4t.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info:sid/summon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:journal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=The+Bad+Old+Days%3A+How+Higher+Education+Fared+during+the+Great+Depression&rft.jtitle=Chronicle+of+Higher+Education&rft.au=Schrecker%2C+Ellen&rft.date=2009-06-26&rft.pub=Chronicle+of+Higher+Education&rft.issn=0009-5982&rft.eissn=1931-1362&rft.volume=55&rft.issue=40&rft.externalDocID=EJ847851
- Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project.” American Quarterly. 13.1 (1961). JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2013. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2710508. p. 12.
- Brinkley, Douglas. “Unmasking writers of the W.P.A.” New York Times. 2 August 2003. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/02/books/unmasking-writers-of-the-wpa.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm