Documentary Evidence and the Southern Life History Project

“The people, all the people, must be known, they must be heard,” proclaimed William T. Couch in 1939 from Chapel Hill. A respected editor turned part-time government bureaucrat, Couch served as both director of the University of North Carolina Press and the New Deal’s Federal Writers' Project (FWP) Southern Life History Project. As economic turmoil engulfed the nation, his concern for the voiceless led to the development of a new form of documentary expression called a “life history,” oral interviews of everyday people’s life experiences captured in writing by federal workers.

Writing Their Voices: Documentary Evidence and the Southern Life History Project recovers the history of the SLHP and their efforts to reconfigure the life history method. We employ an interdisciplinary approach that combines close readings of archival material with computational methods that analyze pattern across the collection. The digital platform gives readers an opportunity to explore archival materials and data alongside our argument, which opens up new forms of reading and interaction in the humanities. We address five questions: What were the motivating factors behind the creation of the SLHP? How did the SLHP come into formation? How did the project come to define the form of a life history and who was capable of writing them? Who was represented in the life histories and why? What are the legacies of the SLHP? In addressing these questions, we demonstrate key points in the struggle over what counted as social knowledge, how to accurately represent social conditions, and who could produce such knowledge.

Taylor Arnold is Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Richmond. Courtney Rivard is Teaching Associate Professor in English & Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Lauren Tilton is Assistant Professor in Rhetoric and Communication Studies at the University of Richmond.
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