Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Lola Roberts

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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]

Lola Roberts was a widow from Asheville, North Carolina, who struggled with financial issues after the death of her husband. She and her daughter lived together for most of her life until Roberts’ death in 1932.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Douglas Carter, a writer of the Federal Writers’ Project, wrote the account of Mrs. Lola Roberts’ life story. Carter interviewed Roberts’ daughter, Mrs. Ramsey, on February 21, 1939, at the Vanderbilt Hotel. Mrs. Roberts’ husband became a confederate captain at the age of 21, just before the Civil War ended. He soon retired from the military and owned a wholesale grocery business in Georgia, where he met Mrs. Roberts, who was visiting from Pennsylvania. After he retired from the grocery business, they moved to Asheville, North Carolina, to live with his daughter from a previous marriage. Mr. Roberts died soon after that and left numerous debts to his family which were later resolved. Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Roberts and her daughter, Mrs. Ramsey, moved to Pennsylvania. Mrs. Roberts received a small sum of money from her relatives and was allowed $50 each month from Mr. Roberts’ trust fund after his debts were settled. In Pennsylvania, Mrs. Roberts and her daughter often moved among various boarding houses and infrequently visited family or contacted them by mail. Eventually, they settled with relatives in New Jersey, where Mrs. Roberts’ daughter met her husband, Mr. Ramsey. Mr. Ramsey was not fond of Mrs. Roberts, so Mrs. Ramsey separated from her mother for the first time and moved in with her new husband. This left Mrs. Roberts to live alone, so she moved south to recover from the difficult separation. Mrs. Ramsey lived a lavish life with her successful husband and wrote to her mother frequently, but they were rarely allowed to visit each other. Helen, Mrs. Ramsey’s first child, was born in 1916 and admired her grandmother very much. Mrs. Roberts died in 1932, a year after Mrs. Ramsey’s second child Alice was born. Mrs. Roberts’ death caused Mrs. Ramsey to have severe mental health issues that escalated when her husband’s financial situation worsened because of the Great Depression. Mr. Ramsey separated from Mrs. Ramsey because of her nervous breakdown and sent her a monthly allowance. Tension grew in their relationship until Mr. Ramsey finally committed suicide.[1]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Role of Women in the Early 1900s[edit | edit source]

In the early 1900s, males dominated the social scene and the working world. Women usually did not work and depended heavily on their husbands for financial support. Only five percent of married women worked in 1900 because they relied solely on their husbands’ incomes.[2] Males also had significant social influence over women and often preferred that their wives exist in private. After Roberts was widowed, her life changed significantly because she did not work and therefore no longer had any income. She and her daughter lived on a small sum of money they received from Mr. Roberts’ trust fund for the remainder of their lives. Male social dominance can also be seen in this time period because Mrs. Roberts was obligated to comply with Mr. Ramsey’s wishes to not live with his new wife’s mother.

Mental Health Issues[edit | edit source]

Mental breakdowns were common because of the prevalence of financial problems in the 1900s, but they were frowned upon. Barke, Fribush, and Stearns note that “The rate of nervous breakdowns was high and rising operated from the 1920s to the 1960s--a key component of wider beliefs about the heavy mental toll of modern life.”[3] Mrs. Ramsey became neurotic as a result of separation from her mother and her difficult marriage, causing her husband to leave her because he didn’t want the reputation of being married to a mentally ill woman.

Financial Problems and Marriage[edit | edit source]

Many people struggled with financial issues in the early 1900s leading up to the Great Depression. In turn, these financial drawbacks affected family life. In a study of families in the early 20th century, Liker and Elder revealed how “Economic loss produced marked declines in marital quality among middle- and working-class families."[4] Mrs. Roberts struggled with finances after the death of her husband and her son-in-law experienced problems with his business that eventually lead to marital issues and Mrs. Ramsey’s mental breakdown.

Federal Writers’ Project[edit | edit source]

The Federal Writer’s Project was a component of the New Deal, President Roosevelt’s program to help America recover after the Great Depression. The FWP was a project that provided employment and documented the culture of the United States in the early 1900s. Because the FWP employed a wide range of people, the authors were “not [always] academic scholars. They were contributors to a New Deal cultural reform program.”[5] Because of the social and historical context of the Federal Writers’ Project, the life histories may not be entirely credible. According to Rapport, “It isn’t as easy to distinguish between the pure gold and the fool’s gold of the writers’ projects life stories.”[6] Mrs. Roberts’ neurotic daughter is the only one who was interviewed for the life history, which could also be a source of invalidity. The Federal Writers’ Project stories were “rapidly conceived and executed jobs.”[7] Therefore, the lack of credibility of the neurotic Mrs. Ramsey’s story could have been overlooked.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Ramsey. "Neurotic." Federal Writers' Project. UNC Southern Collection. Print. p.4246-4253.
  2. Barnett, R. C. (2004), Preface: Women and Work: Where Are We, Where Did We Come From, and Where Are We Going?. Journal of Social Issues, 60: 667–674. doi: 10.1111/j.0022-4537.2004.00378.x p.668.
  3. Nervous Breakdown in 20th-Century American Culture. Megan Barke, Rebecca Fribush and Peter N. Stearns. Journal of Social History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), pp. 565-584. Oxford University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789211 p.566.
  4. Liker, Jeffrey K. and Elder, Glen H. Jr. “Economic Hardship and Marital Relations in the 1930s.” American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Jun., 1983), pp. 343-359. American Sociological Association. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2095227 p.343.
  5. Hirsch, Jerrold M. "Modern Society, Folklore, and the Making of Americans: The Federal Writers' Project and Oral History Research in the United States." Portrait of America: The Federal Writers' Project in an Intellectual and Cultural Context. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 291-325. Print. p.302.
  6. Rapport, Leonard. "How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers." The Oral History Review 7 (1979): Print. para.4.
  7. Hirsch 306