Federal Writer Bias

The preface to William Couch’s These are Our Lives raises some interesting points on the Federal Writer’s Project and the specific task the employees undertook during the Great Depression.  An important figure in this project, William Couch compiles life histories within this text keeping in mind the goal of objectivity, not choosing specific interviewees or having biased questions.  However, his goal for objectivity is in itself eschewed by his instructions for the writers that he hired at the time.  He emphasizes providing a variety in his text, instructing the writers to interview different families of different races and occupations in an attempt to provide a holistic story of the South during the Depression.  Although Couch wishes to provide a holistic story for his audience by telling different tales from different people, he somewhat hypocritically provides a scripted outline for interviewers.  Technically such an outline effectively eliminates any personal writer opinions or prejudices, but with this we instead have a multitude of Couch’s views since he provided the instructions.  Therefore, this life histories cannot have true objectivity, and so rhetoric once again plays a role in presenting history, a continual topic returned to time and time again in this class.

Moreover, though Couch attempts objectivity (though ultimately failing with a prescribed outline of his creation), Thomas F. Soapes argues in his article, “The Federal Writers’ Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source,” that the writers did not necessarily follow interview instructions.  Objectivity is truly challenged in this article as Soapes argues that life histories such as the slave narratives in the Federal Writer’s Project retained some significant bias.  Soapes indicates that not only were there specific questions that needed to be asked by the interviewers, but also that there was a specific editorial process in order “to prepare a ‘faithful account of the ex-slaves’ version of his experience’ in his own conversational style and dialect” (Soapes 34).  Soapes finds that “[r]andom inspection of the published transcripts indicates, however, that these instructions were not always followed” (Soapes 34).  Therefore, though objectivity and authenticity were primary goals, the histories proved to retain a seemingly inevitable bias in their presentation of history.  Authenticity then is the key question when discussing these life histories, knowing the bias that permeates throughout the Federal Writer’s Project life histories.  Because the interviewers placed their own twist into their writing, how do we determine what is truly authenticate when we dive into our project with the North Carolina life histories? What rhetorical strategies do we adopt to either promote or denounce the rhetorical decisions that were made in each of these life histories that we encounter?

About Carla Aviles-Jimenez

Writing and Learning Center
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1 Response to Federal Writer Bias

  1. Tionna Outen says:


    I really enjoyed reading your response for this week’s discussion. You influenced me to wonder whether or not interviewees should be forced to have some sense of diversity within their works. To some degree, this rule would be recognized as rhetoric or bias because you are singling out or marginalizing a group, because they are too typical or not diverse enough. It all travels back to what we consider as diversity or “different” in the first place. In my junior seminar class, we focused on what diversity truly was. For example, if all of UNC’s students were White, would it still be classified as a diverse institution? All of us answered, “yes” because no matter what color someone is, they possess a different background from the next person. Everyone is unique in his or her own way and has the ability to fix false historical claims.

    Thank you,

    Tionna Outen

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