How America’s Weirdest Guidebooks Were Funded by the Government

How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America
By Scott Borchert

Imagine “a country of odd contraptions and strange careers, where all the big houses have secret rooms.” Now imagine its inhabitants: “A fanciful, impulsive, childlike, absent-minded, capricious and ingenious people” who “composed irreverent jingles for their tombstones, made up jocular names for their villages and farms … and were continually deciding boundary lines, the locations of county seats and the ownership of plantations by flipping a coin.” Then picture a land where “the project failed, the boom collapsed, the railroad went the other way, the authorities got wind of the plot, the current shifted, the bay filled in.”

Such is the America portrayed by the publications of the Federal Writers’ Project, according to an assessment by the brilliant writer Robert Cantwell in 1939, just as the project was withering under anti-Communist congressional scrutiny. As Scott Borchert relates in his impressive “Republic of Detours,” four years earlier the Works Progress Administration had initiated an unprecedented scheme to pay thousands of unemployed writers to document America, its people, its locales and its heritage. During the F.W.P.’s seven-year tenure, it produced at least 1,000 wildly heterogenous publications that together form “the biggest literary project in history” (Time magazine, 1943), “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by any state” (W. H. Auden, 1950, referring to the entire W.P.A. arts program) and perhaps the most complete portrait of the United States ever compiled. It was also, as Cantwell wrote, “a grand, melancholy, formless, democratic anthology of frustration and idiosyncrasy, a majestic roll call of national failure, a terrible and yet engaging corrective to the success stories that dominate our literature.”

The main idea was simple: to hire a vast work force of impecunious and anonymous writers to create local and state guides that would avoid boosterism and mythmaking. The writers succeeded, instead showcasing incongruities, minorities and arcana. (They also collected oral histories, including invaluable interviews with formerly enslaved people.) The stunning richness and poverty of the American landscape and people have never been as impertinently depicted. And the entire project was, as Borchert points out, as antifascist as possible.

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