Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Power of Storytelling

If my grandmother Blanche were around to read the headlines today, I know just what story she would tell: in the mid-1920s, at the height of the Florida land rush, she was working in a real-estate office in Palm Beach. Times were flush and sales were booming. This exuberance was on display in a showy mosaic map of Florida embedded in the office floor.

To highlight Palm Beach, the artist had cemented in a shiny silver dollar. Before long, the speculative bubble burst, helped along by a hurricane. One morning my grandmother and her colleagues arrived at the office to discover that someone had chiseled the silver dollar right out of the floor. Times were that hard.

Blanche ended up losing her house, her car and all the money she had saved for my father's education. Those things, though, she seldom mentioned. Instead, she told me about the stolen silver dollar. It comforted my grandmother, I believe, by reminding her that in her misfortune she was far from alone.

I was raised on Depression stories; this was only one of many told around our dinner table. Hearing them again and again, I became fascinated by the role that stories play during hard times—the way they seem to strengthen people, offering a bulwark against loneliness and feelings of personal failure. That is how I came to find myself spending a year in a dimly lit storage room in the Library of Congress, sorting through thousands of interviews with ordinary Americans telling of how they survived the Great Depression.

The stories were collected in the late 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, a unit of the Works Progress Administration that employed out-of-work writers. But before the intended series of anthologies could be published, the Writers' Project was Red-baited out of existence. The oral histories—of tobacco farmers, smugglers, midwives, jazz musicians, oil roustabouts and others—ended up crammed in rickety filing cabinets in a remote storage room in the library stacks.

When I learned of these forgotten stories, I decided to try to finish what the project had started by editing an anthology of the material. Sifting through the 150,000 pages in the dusty storage room, I was looking to fall in love. And I did—with a collection of people who were by turns scared, determined, funny and brave, and whose clamorous vitality seemed to burst from the pages. I fell in love with Marie Haggerty, a Massachusetts housemaid who talked about how, when her employer left a $5 bill on the floor, "my face burnt like fire, for I knowed I was gettin' tested." With Irving Fajins, who while trying to organize his fellow workers at Macy's hit upon the idea of secretly distributing the union literature via the toilet-paper dispensers. With Lloyd Green, a Pullman porter who lamented his move north to the big city: "I'm in New York, but New York ain't in me."

The inhabitants of those file drawers told stories about how they got by using a mixture of ingenuity and guile. They hawked lucky charms and patent medicine made from "roots and barks and good raw whiskey." They peddled cake flavoring and cased sausages, they auctioned tobacco, they fished and smuggled rum—and sometimes aliens—from Cuba to Key West. They worked in coal and granite and cotton and iron. ("You ain't an ironworker unless you get killed.")

The women quilted and pressed laundry, stitched shoes and danced in burlesque shows. They took in boarders and delivered babies, and when their men ran out on them, they swallowed their pride and threw rent parties, as Bernice Porter described doing in 1920s Harlem.

These days, we may not be passing the hat at parties to come up with rent money, but we are in the midst of an economic meltdown. Now that hard times have returned, I believe storytelling is due for a revival. While the Federal Writers' Project is no longer around, it has inspired a modern version in StoryCorps, a five-year-old oral-history organization that encourages people to "celebrate one another's lives through listening." And we have just elected a president who invited us on his transition Web site to "Start right now. Tell us your story."

We need again to imagine a future that is meaningful in the face of difficult circumstances. Listening to each other's stories may grant us a sense of common purpose that money can't buy.