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Butterfly Haven

Butterfly Haven

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Social butterflies, artists and writers, were housed and fed to feed the needy psyche during the Depression.
Social butterflies, artists and writers, were housed and fed to feed the needy psyche during the Depression.

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Published by: David Arthur Walters on Apr 18, 2014
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07/12/2014

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Drawing by Darwin Leon
BUTTERFLY HAVEN
By David Arthur Walters The massive dislocation of men and women from home to factory and farm to city during the Great Depression and their pathetic plight under unadulterated capitalist greed are a matter of public record. Fortunately for mankind, it has a few angels at large: As each wave of misery swept over the uprooted and homeless, newly freed to beg for work, social butterflies appeared with schemes that fell far short of envisioned paradise, yet still much was done to alleviate the suffering. People who had plenty to get by made vehement objections to any progressive move. Economic depressions are caused by bad attitudes, they believed, a lack of faith in the robber barons and Wall Street. In any event, everyone must work, and if they do not have a job it is their own damned fault for not taking one even if none were available on the free labor market, which was paying little or nothing at the time. The Invisible Hand would naturally provide abundance to all who did what they were told; if not, at least the fittest would survive to perpetuate the super race.
 
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 Poor relief was out of the question, as far as they were concerned, for it would only impoverish the middle class by taxation and cast everyone except the filthy rich on the rolls. Not even war veterans were entitled to public support: The army, under command of officers soon to become famous in the next world war, would use bayonets and tanks to run homeless veterans out of their makeshift tents in the nation's capitol. On the other hand, notwithstanding the patriotic protests of plump conservatives loyal to wealth already pocketed, revolution by those who have nothing to do must be averted; therefore, a New Deal was in order and was so ordered. Idle hands are devils' hands. The industrial revolution had divorced work from play. Alas, when there is no work and only leisure remains, free time is a dangerous proposition, and something must be done about that. Even when work is available, leisure must be well-organized, for only intellectuals know how to keep themselves occupied. Today, if we really wanted to share the wealth, we would only have to work four hours a day to provide everyone with their basic needs, thanks to technological advances. And then we would enjoy extraordinary leisure time for artistic pursuits instead of the  production of the usual garbage, trash and junk, token wealth for the masses, and the luxuries for the rich that now preoccupy the workforce. People would have a guaranteed subsistence income, leaving them with the choice to work for more. Instead, we have an abundance of make-work to keep the masses busy. If someone is not  busy, we have work-fare for them. But the sad results of work-fare are now in: The number of people on welfare has been drastically reduced; however, poverty has not declined. Families headed by single mothers are even poorer that before. Go figure. People are taking jobs and still living in the same old poverty, but now they have to work for it. Well, work-fare was designed not to reduce poverty but to reduce case loads; little or nothing has been added to the national wealth by work-fare. President Clinton remarked on the "dignity of work" but said nothing about the dignity of the worker. Of course, "dependence is reduced" because the person is made dependent on a meaningless job spinning the economic wheel; otherwise, she might be wantonly wasting leisure in irresolute dissipation. Even more worrisome is the possibility that unemployed intellectuals, alienated social butterflies, would be fomenting rebellions.  No, today's work-fare program is not the panacea people thought it would be. In retrospect, the New Deal work-fare program, despite Red Scare hysterics to the contrary, was more effective in terms of producing enduring physical and spiritual wealth. . The Work Projects Administration employed about eight-million people During the Great Depression, mostly in manual labor on public works projects such as bridges, roads and  parks. The WPA body had its psyche in the Federal Arts Project, under which 6,500 writers, some of them beginners, were given jobs by the Federal Writers' Project (1936-
 
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 1940) at an average salary of $20 per week. We recognize famous names among those writers, such as Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and Margaret Walker. The WPA writers were not supposed to work on their own projects while on federal time; of course, many of them did just that: if a worker can complete the normal work in half the usual time, why not? Why must the advantage go to the employer who should be  paying him double? As for the official work, the Federal Writers' Project is best known for the state guides it  produced. A less well-known, hidden treasure is preserved by the Library of Congress in the form of 10,000 life stories, interviews with people from all walks of life recorded by the writers. Samples of the interviews may be viewed on the Internet, at the site 'Voices from the Thirties.' (Copyright 1980 Ann Banks). We take for example this excerpt from Ralph Ellison's April 30, 1939, interview with a man at Eddie's Bar in Manhattan, in response to the question, "Do you like living in New York City?" "Ahm in New York, but New York ain't in me. You understand? Ahm in New York, but  New York ain't in me. What do I mean? Listen. I'm from Jacksonville Florida. Been in  New York twenty-five years. I'm a New Yorker! Yuh understand? Naw, naw, yuh don't get me. What do they do; take Lenox Avenue. Take Seventh Avenue; take Sugar Hill! Pimps. Numbers. Cheating those poor people out a whut they got. Shooting, cutting,  backbiting, all them things. Yuh see? Yuh see what Ah mean? I'm in New York, but New York ain't in me!" (Transcript #21020403) Many of the persons interviewed were dirt poor, but they did not mind talking to the federal writers since the writers themselves were on relief. The writers were fascinated by the stories of ordinary people. It is hardly surprising that the interviews fostered literary realism in the United States, with its stories from country porch to city stoop, railroad box car to shanty town or jail, and factory to stockyard. Black speech was especially enjoyed. Jazz musicians and prostitutes added special flavor to the mix. Everyone got their story told for a change, and none were too boring to listen to. The natural, first-person character wanted out of the dirty, monotonous industrial closet; the more grotesque or  burlesque the character the better, the more real in contrast to standardized man. The alienated and bored butterflies spread their wings. A few found solace in art or in social reform, while others took to crime and business. Many were those who fell under the spell of the hypocritical bourgeois underbelly in Europe in order to lose their suffering selves in organized crime legalized. Along came Hitler and Mussolini to save the world from the disastrous consequence of  private international capitalism: the Great Depression. Therefore the war to save private greed from totalitarian regimes. Thus was the United States saved from revolution--and revolution was in fact impending. The Federal Writers' Project came under attack by red-baiters and was halted. The Library of Congress collected and housed the material for our mutual benefit. What was the fate of those 6,500 scribbling souls drawn to abstract pursuits? I do not know--I shall

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