Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/John McClenny

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

Goldsboro, North Carolina, April 1938


John McClenny was an automobile painter from Goldsboro, North Carolina during the Great Depression. McClenny was interviewed in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers Project.[1]


Early Life[edit]

John A. McClenny was born and raised on a farm with two sisters and a brother. His date of birth and the location of his home town were not mentioned in the interview. His father married three times, but McClenny had a good relationship with his stepmothers. He worked on the farm till he was nineteen, then moved into Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he got a job at a sawmill plant firing the boiler.


Married to Hattie Cotton in 1926, McClenny had three daughters: Mildred, Joyce Anne, and Jean. McClenny was not a very religious person, though Hattie McClenny enjoyed taking the children to church. Mrs. McClenny did all of the housecleaning, laundry, and cooking since she never went to school. The McClenny’s lived in an old house with a family of three, a mother and two daughters who lived upstairs. McClenny was not particularly wealthy, and he took on a lot of debt to support his family. A typical meal for the McClenny’s consisted of salt pork, cornbread, and molasses; McClenny even suffered through two attacks of appendicitis with just ice bags because he could not pay the medical bills.


After eighteen months of working at the sawmill plant in Goldsboro, McClenny was laid off and became an automobile painter. McClenny painted second-hand cars and encountered hazardous fumes from the paint on a regular basis. He wore a respirator constantly, and those who failed to do such had their “nose eaten clean off” from the fumes.[2] McClenny also claimed that the fumes caused strained nerves and fainting. The date and location of John McClenny’s death was not mentioned in his Federal Writers Project interview.[3]

Social Issues[edit]

Labor Rights[edit]

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt initiated programs, collectively called the New Deal, to stimulate the economy. The New Deal fixed wages and prices to prevent future cutbacks. However, the real problem of the crisis was low aggregate demand. When aggregate demand inevitably increased, wages could not increase proportionally because of these policies. The fixing of wages gave employers the chance to profit greatly as revenues increased and worker’s wages stayed constant.[4] As Thomas Hall explains, “The problem with the New Deal was that the Roosevelt administration was treating the symptom of the problem as opposed to the problem itself”.[5] The result was a drastic drop in working wages for many Americans. McClenny was no exception, voicing his frustration at a meager income from those “dirty, selfish money-hogs”.[6] Roosevelt enacted the National Recovery Act in 1933 to give workers voting rights in matters such as working conditions. Contrariwise, the unions representing workers’ interests were controlled by the employers. Thus, debating on certain issues proved a false hope for American workers.[7] McClenny’s bitterness is demonstrative of the hostility expressed by many Americans in the 1930’s. In McClenny’s words, “Something is bound to bust loose soon”[8] unless working conditions were addressed.

Access to Education[edit]

During the 1930’s American public education was severely diminished in size, affordability, and functionality due to the Great Depression. Education was hit hard during the economic crisis: over 7,000 teachers were laid off during the Depression. Education accounted for 3.0% of personal incomes in 1929 and 4.9% in 1932, the biggest increase in American educational history.[9] A number of impromptu committees were formed to supplement the cut in education, and were temporarily successful. However, since these committees worked in unison with the New Deal, they were not a permanent solution and “. . . with the death of the New Deal relief programs . . . failed to become incorporated into the established educational system”.[10] Such drawbacks in education proved financially strenuous for many American families, creating an ultimatum for parents between their children’s future and a low income. McClenny realized the value of education but also realized that education for his children was not practical financially. Consequently, McClenny struggled with providing education for his children.

Federal Writer’s Project[edit]

Created in 1935, the Federal Writers Project (FWP) provided jobs for writers. The goal of the FWP was to enlist unemployed writers to interview the life histories of random individuals representative of various American people groups. However, the FWP was not designed for historical accuracy. The dictum of the interview was often tweaked to represent an accent, or contained slightly embellished details for creativity. Ann Banks, a writer for the Washington Post Magazine, stated in an article about the FWP that, “As interpreters of their own history, people told stories that they had chosen as giving meaning to their lives. The best of these stories offer insights born of years of living”.[11] Interviewees, as Banks showed, had the ability to modify their life histories. Leonard Rapport, a writer for the FWP, explained that accuracy was a fluid concept to these writers, many of whom were not writers but merely unemployed people. Rapport states that, “Looking back, I don’t believe that writers- people certified by the relief agencies as writers-were the best people for life stories. Persons who consider themselves writers, or who are told they are writers, in their heart of hearts begin to think of themselves as creative writers, and, most likely, in the innermost adytum, potential fiction writers”.[12] Rapport emphasized that the writers had a desire to create stories that sounded good but were not necessarily historically accurate. As a result, the life histories of the FWP are not wholly reliable as historical recordings of American lifestyles in the 1930’s. These same issues apply to John McClenny’s life history. Though there are not any instances of altered dictum or embellished descriptions, the nature of the FWP is enough to raise suspicions about the validity of McClenny’s life history.


  1. McClenny, John. “The McClennys.” Federal Writers Project. University of North Carolina Southern Collection. Print. NC-27
  2. McClenny p. 2
  3. McClenny NC-27
  4. Hall, Thomas E., and J. David Ferguson. The Great Depression: An International Disaster of Perverse Economic Policies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998. Print. p. 122-123
  5. Hall, Thomas E., and J. David Ferguson. The Great Depression: An International Disaster of Perverse Economic Policies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998. Print. p. 122
  6. McClenny p. 1
  7. Hall, Thomas E., and J. David Ferguson. The Great Depression: An International Disaster of Perverse Economic Policies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998. Print. p. 142
  8. McClenny p. 1
  9. Jeynes, William H. American Educational History. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2007. Print. p. 249
  10. Tyack, David B., Robert Lowe, and Elisabeth Hansot. Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression and Recent Years. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1984. Print. p. 113
  11. Banks, Ann. "Getting By in Bad Times." The Washington Post Magazine 12 Oct. 1980. (p. 10-11). Print. Para. 2
  12. Rapport, Leonard. How Valid Are the Federal Writer's Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers. Chapel Hill: Library of the University of North Carolina, 1979. Print. p. 14