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The Indy Issue from Friday March 12, 2021

 

 

Visions of the Development of Salem

By Kevin Zorn

An oil on canvas mural is displayed in the post office in Salem, West Virginia. It was painted by an artist named Berni Glasgow and its production was funded
through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. It is titled “Visions of the Development of Salem” and depicts a group of people
receiving mail, in the background is a village and cattle.

 

Berni Glasgow was one of more than 800 artists commissioned to paint 1371 murals, the majority of which are featured in post offices.
Often mistaken as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, these Treasury funded murals were created with the intent of fostering i
nspiration in the American people who were still feeling the devastating economic and social effects of the Great Depression.

 

It is a testament to the shift in the ideological landscape today that I cannot believe the US Government, in tandem with local governments,
was capable of doing what the WPA accomplished. Yet, here are just some of the facts: from 1935 to 1943 8.5 million unemployed men and
women were hired by the government to build over 10,000 bridges, 620,000 miles of streets and roads, 40,000 new and 85,000 renovated
buildings including thousands of schools, gymnasiums, auditoriums, playgrounds, parks, libraries, college dormitories, tennis courts, and skating rinks.

 

The WPA employed artists, writers, historians, and musicians whose work directly affected the lives of millions of Americans during some of the
country’s most painful years. Musicians hired under the Federal Music Project taught free lessons to 132,000 children and adults every week.
Those hired in the Federal Writers’ Project, in addition to their popular state tourism guidebooks, recorded over 2,300 slave narratives -
an invaluable collection for scholars and historians. Under the Federal Theatre Project 1,000 plays were performed across the country every month.
Incalculable is the number of children and adults inspired by this work.

 

Through the colossal endeavors of the WPA in both its pre-war effort and its public projects America achieved full employment by 1942,
the same year “Visions” was painted in Salem.

 

It is clear that the America many of us grew up in, the structures that supported our lives, the parks we enjoyed, the schools we attended,
the infrastructure we relied upon for travel, even the art classes that inspired the next generation of creators was largely built under the
auspices of the WPA and the New Deal.

 

This is a salient reminder that capital “H” History is not simply a collection of memorized facts and figures, dates and obscure names.
No, History is alive in the communities in which we live. It not only teaches us, it haunts us as well. It haunts us with what was
possible before and what is possible tomorrow.

 

Perhaps that is the greatest battle waged in the spectacle of media and politics today - the question of what is possible.
Our expectations are managed lower and lower. We learn that the climate crisis is inevitable, that homelesness is natural,
that workers are essential until they ask for a living wage. All to say that change is impossible. Visions of better futures recede from view.

But history haunts us with an alternative. By the time Berni Glasgow painted the mural in the Salem post office, the American
government had provided millions of meaningful jobs improving, with concrete and paintbrushes, nearly every community across the nation.

 

Nick Taylor, the author of “American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA”, writes this: 

 

“These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation.
They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy
that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them,
thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people.” 

 

This weeks front page:

 

 

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The Scottish novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson, was born in 1850 in Edinburgh. He was the son of Margaret Balfour and Thomas Stevenson who was a prominent lighthouse engineer. R. L. Stevenson is currently among the twenty-six most translated authors in the world. Among his plethora of literature, he is most known for writing Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson was a member of the small group of authors who happened to be famous for their work within their lifetime. Those who looked up to him include Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, and Vladimir Nabokov. Sadly, Stevenson’s life was cut short by what was most likely a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of forty-four. In the letter I’ve chosen below, Stevenson is in correspondence with his father. He talks a little about his recently re-published Treasure Island and laments not writing to his father more often. It’s also interesting to keep in mind that this letter is written one year before publishing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

[SKERRYVORE, BOURNEMOUTH,] OCTOBER 28, 1885.

MY DEAREST FATHER, - Get the November number of TIME, and you will see a review of me by a very clever fellow, who is quite furious at bottom because I am too orthodox, just as Purcell was savage because I am not orthodox enough. I fall between two stools. It is odd, too, to see how this man thinks me a full-blooded fox- hunter, and tells me my philosophy would fail if I lost my health or had to give up exercise!

An illustrated TREASURE ISLAND will be out next month. I have had an early copy, and the French pictures are admirable. The artist has got his types up in Hogarth; he is full of fire and spirit, can draw and can compose, and has understood the book as I meant it, all but one or two little accidents, such as making the HISPANIOLA a brig. I would send you my copy, BUT I CANNOT; it is my new toy, and I cannot divorce myself from this enjoyment.

I am keeping really better, and have been out about every second day, though the weather is cold and very wild.

I was delighted to hear you were keeping better; you and Archer would agree, more shame to you! (Archer is my pessimist critic.) Good-bye to all of you, with my best love. We had a dreadful overhauling of my conduct as a son the other night; and my wife stripped me of my illusions and made me admit I had been a detestable bad one. Of one thing in particular she convicted me in my own eyes: I mean, a most unkind reticence, which hung on me then, and I confess still hangs on me now, when I try to assure you that I do love you. - Ever your bad son,

 

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.