The Federal Writers’ Project

I trust most readers of this post will recognize the high-profile New Deal programs devised by the Roosevelt Administration to help Americans rise out of the depths of the Depression. Consider the Civilian Conservation Corps, Tennessee Valley Authority and Works Progress Administration. The Federal Writers’ Project, a division of the WPA, may be less familiar.

In 1935 the Works Progress Administration decided to employ thousands of unemployed writers, with the goal of publishing guidebooks for each of the then-48 states, along with a voluminous collection of additional publications dedicated to regions, cities, and towns. In time volumes were published for Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, but not for Hawai’i.

Scott Borchert’s book Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) is a fascinating account of how the government employed over 6,000 once-bestselling novelists, acclaimed poets and people of dubious talent to chronicle the history, folklore and recipes of the Union. The guidebooks feature a general review of a state’s history, culture, ethnic groups, and natural resources. Next there’s a review of key cities. Finally, there’s a series of auto tours that conduct readers to points of interest, plus a map and a section of black-and-white photographs.

The Guide Book Series’ development didn’t take place in a social and political vacuum. Borchert details how its administrators and authors struggled with racial issues, writers’ radical politics, and conservative politicians who found the program’s fidelity to American values to be suspect. (Indeed, the FWP was eventually disbanded by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.) The Guides experienced fair success as a publishing venture, and some of them were updated in the years following their initial appearance. In addition to purchases by individuals the books found places on the shelves of libraries around the country. (Those I own were withdrawn from libraries.)

John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley: “If there had been room in Rocinante [Steinbeck’s camper] I would have packed the W.P.A. Guides to the States, all forty-eight volumes of them . . . The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has approached it.”

Reading Republic of Detours inspired me to find out whether any of the Guides remained. I was surprised at how many copies of them were available online. I subsequently bought the volumes for Pennsylvania (my birth state) and Michigan (where I’ve lived most of my life), at reasonable prices. Ironically, they both were published by Oxford University Press USA, my employer for a decade!

I recommend Scott Borchert’s book and invite you to consider investing in the American Guide for your favorite state. The kinds of books into which one dips at leisure rather than reading straight through, they provide unique snapshots of America, at a crucial period in the nation’s history.

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