Staff of the Federal Writers' Project. Courtesy of the National Archives.
During the darkest days of the Great Depression, artist Alice Neel painted a surreal portrait of her friend, the poet Kenneth Fearing. In it, the gaunt 33-year-old stares out through owl-rimmed glasses, eye sockets hollow from exhaustion and hunger, a gaping hole in his chest. There, a grinning skeleton perches, spilling a river of blood.
These were dark times. And Fearing was the poet for them.
Eighty years ago he burst onto the literary scene with his reckless and stylized first book, Angel Arms. The strongest pieces were free-form riffs on hard-boiled fiction themes: “dangerous, handsome, cross-eye’d Louie the rat / Spoke with his gat, Rat-a-tat-tat—” snarled “St. Agnes’ Eve.” A majestic revolutionary spirit balanced beside these staccato pieces, like this stanza from “Ballad of the Salvation Army”:
On Fourteenth street the bugles blow,
Bugles blow, bugles blow,
The torpid stones and pavements wake,
A million men and street-cars quake
In time with angel breasts that shake,
Blow, bugles, blow!
Though the poems were written earlier, during the Roaring Twenties, Fearing’s apocalyptic imagery proved timely. Coward McCann published Angel Arms in 1929, within months of the stock market crash that plunged the United States into the Great Depression. Historian Monty Noam Penkower details the meltdown’s subsequent catastrophic effect on the literary scene in The Federal Writers’ Project, stating that between 1930 and 1933, new books published decreased from 10,000 to barely 7,600, magazine advertising dropped 30 percent, and newspaper “mortality rates” reached 48 percent (sound familiar?).
In this climate, Angel Arms barely registered in the critical press, and Fearing churned out pulp fiction and porn to keep afloat. His first wife, Rachel Meltzer, told scholar Robert M. Ryley that “his shirts . . . were green with grime, his teeth covered with tartar.” She held down the household’s only steady paycheck, working while her husband wrote. Ryley noted that “she would get so tired that, much to Fearing’s annoyance, she would fall asleep at parties.”
Albert Halper’s 1933 novel Union Square parodies the poet as a drunken wreck: “‘Blow, bugles, blow,’ he mumbled sloppily, ‘and answer, hot dogs, answer, wharking, jarking, karking. On Fourteenth Street the mustard’s green, in Union Square the mob is queen. Blow, bugles, blow, set the wild echos barking. And answer, comrades, answer, harking, larking, farking.’” Alongside Neel’s portrait, these two works present the Fearing of that time as a troubled—and troubling—genius.
He seemed headed for oblivion, but the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)—a government-funded program that lasted from 1935 until early 1943, employing thousands of writers around the country as oral historians, researchers, and authors of state guidebooks—rescued him, if only for a short time. For some writers, like Claude McKay and May Swenson, the FWP provided a foundation from which they could launch their later careers after the economy picked up. For others, like Fearing, the project provided a brief respite from what came to seem an inevitable decline. But in that brief time, the FWP enabled Fearing to write some of his most enduring works.
As his poetic output lagged during the pre-FWP days of the Great Depression, Fearing found solace in New Masses, a weekly labor bugle. Running from 1926 until 1948, the radical magazine published some of the most famous voices to emerge from the Great Depression, including Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes. In the early 1930s, Orrick Johns—a scrappy poet who had lost a limb in a childhood accident and who navigated the Greenwich Village literary scene on one wooden leg—edited the poetry section. By his own estimate, Johns read 400 poems every month for the magazine. In the mid-1930s, New Masses averaged about one poem a week. Despite these daunting odds, Fearing was a valued contributor, publishing more than 30 pieces there. During Johns’s tenure, Fearing published five poems—despite the critical disinterest in his first book.
In the summer of 1935, more layoffs and closings rocked the literary world, and Johns lost his New Masses job. The editor didn’t stay unemployed for long, landing a directorship at the newly formed FWP in New York City. Housed in the cavernous Works Progress Administration building at the Port Authority, the FWP opened in 1935. At its peak, this bureaucratic beehive paid more than 600 writers around $20 a week (about $300 today) to collect information, write guidebooks, and record folk histories, among other projects. Nationwide, the FWP employed around 6,600 writers—among them Lorine Niedecker and Conrad Aiken, Zora Neale Hurston and Studs Terkel, John Cheever and Saul Bellow.
Johns was tasked with picking writers from a demoralized talent pool in New York City. “They were all from the home relief rolls, and it took weeks for some of them to get the habit of clean shirts and pressed trousers. They ran the gamut of mental states, the scared and the stolid, the humble and proud, reserved and excitable, with a scattering of plain drunks.” He selected many New Masses writers for the project, including Fearing.
Fearing thrived as an FWP staffer, uniting the fractious collection of authors and radicals in the project. According to Jerre Mangione, the FWP’s coordinating editor, Fearing “was one of the project’s most popular staff members and had friends in all camps.” Early in his career, Fearing was pigeonholed as a “proletarian poet,” but avoided taking sides in political debates (something that probably helped at the FWP). When FBI agents asked if he was a Communist, the poet replied: “Not yet.” For years scholars have debated his true ideological stance during these difficult days.
In 1935 Fearing published his second collection, Poems. Out of the 20 pieces in the slim volume, eight were first published in New Masses. This new work blasted the bankers, fat cats, and politicians who had plunged the country into an economic dark age. Straight from the pages of New Masses, the bombastic “Dirge” dishes out comic-book retribution. “Wham, Mr. Roosevelt; pow, Sears Roebuck; awk, big / dipper; bop, summer rain; / Bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.” The pop hymn mocks and mourns the domesticity of J. Alfred Prufrock in Fearing’s most famous poem:
And wow he died as wow he lived,
going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep
and biff got married and bam had children and
oof got fired,
zowie did he live and zowie did he die
The country’s resentment over the economic meltdown electrified the poet’s experiments. Horace Gregory summed it up in his 1946 anthology, A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940: “When his second book, Poems, appeared, the public that had ignored Fearing suddenly discovered his value . . . a generation that was more distinctly urban, that was self-consciously ‘hard-boiled,’ that had shared the hopes and disillusionments of 14th Street in New York and Union Square.”
The populist anger that Fearing kindled resembles 21st-century rage over CEO bonuses and stock market scammers, though no poet today has yet claimed this zeitgeist in the way Fearing captured his. The first print run of Poems quickly sold out, becoming a surprise hit despite the Depression. His success shocked the New York Times books section, earning his publisher headlines for “unusual sale of their volumes of radical verse.”
As a fellow Greenwich Village bohemian, Orrick Johns had radical dreams for the FWP. He imagined revolutionizing the writing economy and unionizing the profession. Inside the WPA bureaucracy, he struggled to realize “the hopes and disillusionments of 14th Street” that Fearing expressed. However, Johns couldn’t tame the hungry, desperate masses. He lasted barely a year and a half of the tumultuous program. Hunger strikes, brawls, scandals, and malfunction constantly threatened his hold on the organization. During one FWP hiring scandal, the New York Times reported a particularly violent protest outside the Emergency Relief Bureau headquarters. The New York Fire Department arrived at the mob of nearly 3,500 disenchanted workers and spectators with a “newly equipped sound-truck used to broadcast police instruction among the huge crowd.”
By 1936 Johns was making headlines on a monthly basis, struggling to control his public image and the image of the FWP. “The total volume to date [published by the FWP], more than 8,000,000 words, dwarfs the combined wordage of the three ‘jumbo’ novels of the day . . . plus all of Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible,” he boasted to the New York Times in September, countering the nearly daily reports of Communist infiltration and productivity problems.
After an all-night party in October 1936, one rejected FWP applicant attacked Johns, beating him senseless, drenching him with booze, and lighting him on fire. “When I woke up,” he wrote, “some of my teeth were scattered on the floor and blue flames were rising around my face.” It took him six weeks to recover, and he resigned his FWP post at the end of the year. He fled to Connecticut, drinking and writing a memoir. He would never publish poetry again. The Times reported his 1946 suicide: “drinking a poison concoction he mixed in a glass of beer.”
As Johns declined at the end of the Depression, Fearing reached the pinnacle of his poetic career: praised as an exemplary FWP member, earning Guggenheim Fellowships, and landing a contract with Random House. Sadly, it wouldn’t last. In 1938 he published the poetry collection Dead Reckoning. “[He] was content to repeat the earlier successes of his writing with slight variations on a central theme,” wrote Horace Gregory.
The collection includes “Literary,” a sarcastic advertisement from an imaginary writing school brochure. Fearing rails against “The Literary System” that provides
[a] thousand noble answers to a thousand empty
questions, by a patriot who needs the dough.
And so it goes.
Books are the key to magic portals. Knowledge is
power. Give the people light.
Writing must be such a nice profession.
Fill in the coupon. How do you know? Maybe you
can be a writer, too.
After his singular moment passed, Fearing’s verse would get buried among the “thousand empty questions” that concerned writers after the Great Depression. He found more fame as a novelist in the 1940s, writing a string of novels that climaxed in The Big Clock in 1946. Ray Milland starred in the classic film noir adaptation of the book, which eclipsed the fame Fearing’s poetry once enjoyed.
After his second marriage dissolved in 1952, Fearing spent the last years of his life in his bachelor apartment. He drank pints of whisky every day, cobbling together a living as a publicist, book reviewer, and, once again, pulp writer. The poet—without New Masses, Johns, or the particular battles of the Depression—lost the fight against the bloody skeleton lurking inside. He died in 1961.