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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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Samuel Dashiell Hammett was a fiction writer who became famous for his hard-boiled detective novels which include The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. As you may know, Humphrey Bogart brought The Maltese Falcon to life by portraying Sam Spade in the Oscar nominated film. Dashiell Hammett worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency before joining World War I. He did not leave the mainland, rather, he served in the Motor Ambulance Corps before contracting the Spanish flu and tuberculosis. During his recovery at Cushman Hospital in Tacoma Washington, Hammett fell in love with a nurse named Josephine Dolan. When he was stationed at a different hospital they continued their correspondence through letters. Hammett and Dolan would eventually have a two children together and marry. Although his constant sickness drove them apart literally, Hammett was advised by doctors to stay away from his second child and wife, he continued to support them even as the marriage disintegrated. During those troubling years, Hammett became the famous writer that we remember today. Below is a letter written by Hammett to Josephine after they moved the injured soldier away from her hospital.

 

To Josephine Dolan

 

9 March 1921 [Camp Kearney, California]

 

Dear Dear—

Your letter of the fourth got here this afternoon—so you see it does take nearly a week.

I was tickled pink to get your letter. I wasn't at all sure you'd write till some tiresome, draggy evening when you couldn't find anything else to do. But the letter came and so I feel as if I had the world by the tail—it was better than a shot of hooch. I'm still a long way from finding anyone to take part of your place. (I don't expect to find any one who could completely fill it.) All the nurses here are impossible. A few with fair ankles but, My God! the faces—like cartoons! But, seriously, I am being remarkably faithful to you. Some day I may partially forget you, and be able to enjoy another woman, but there's nothing to show that it'll be soon. If anything, I'm a damnder fool over you now than I ever was.

Mr. Brown is one fine ass, isn't he? I wonder where he got all his information. Dream Book? Or Ouija board? But I reckon it was half quesswork and half based on information furnished by Jacobs. Now you can paste the following in your hat: I may have done a lot of things that weren't according to scripture, but I love Josephine Anna Dolan—and have since about the sixth of January—more than anything in Christ's world. I know you don't expect or want me to deny Mr. Brown's news, so I won't bother you with it.

Meldner and Goodhue were kicked out a couple days ago for putting on a booze-party. I think they are at Alpine now—a san[i]torium about 30 miles out of San Diego. You can't be missing me any more than I'm missing you, Sweet. It's pretty tough on these lonesome nights. I'll have to cut this off now and fall in bed. Yes'um, I deserve all the love you can spare me! And I want a lot more than I deserve.

 

Love

 

Sam