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May 26, 1991|Charles Solomon

FIRST PERSON AMERICA edited by Ann Banks (W. W. Norton: $10.95 , illustrated). Long before oral histories became a popular means of documenting the recent past, the authors involved in the Federal Writers' Project (sponsored by the WPA between 1938 and 1942) set out to compile a first-person portrait of the United States. Working from a vast library of typescripts, Ann Banks presents a series of remembrances that range from a sly account of rent parties in jazz-age Harlem to the swaggering recollections of an aging rum-runner who claimed to have provided Hemingway with the background material for "To Have and Have Not." The most vivid selections provide glimpses into the life of the past that range from quilting bees and community canning sessions to the bitterly fought struggle to unionize the meat-packing industry in the Middle West.

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