Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State.
Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1941.


Chapter Five: 

A Fabricated Nation: The Politics of Democratic National Portraiture


Wordage, Poundage, Yardage: Inventing and Operating the American Baedeker Machine

Designing a Landscape of Words: Genre Negotiations, Composition Policies, and Stylistic Features of the Guides

Patchwork Quilt of These United States: The Rhetoric of Cultural Enthusiasm in Contemporary Reviews of the American Guides

Un-American Guides and Pink Baedekers: The Red Scare of the Federal Writers' Project

A Fabricated Nation: The Politics of Democratic National Portraiture

Vintage Snapshots from Alabama to Wyoming: Reflections of a Cultural Nation in State Profiles




In chapter five, "A Fabricated Nation: The Politics of Democratic National Portraiture" I study the peculiar position held by the federal writers in their composition of the American Guides. Employed by the U.S. Government to portray their own nation-a nation which had not served them well enough to keep them off relief-they had to negotiate their own vision with a national narrative. The Federal Writers' Project offered them the opportunity to fashion themselves workers on a "homespun epic" or genuine, democratic people's literature. But in any version, the writers themselves became submerged under the heavy burden of speaking as "the nation." I essay placing the American Guides in the context of three major American literary projects of "writing the nation": Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, John Dos Passos' U.S.A., and William Least-Heat Moon's twin projects, the peripatetic Blue Highways and the static PrairyErth. The federal writers share with Whitman their desire to catalogue the nation and to be the "bard commensurate with a people." They are not, however, given Whitman's occasion of desire that allows him to extend his self into the panoramic ego. Dos Passos' proletarian novel resonates in the federal writers' gestures towards the urban documentary and their effort to capture "the speech of the people" which is U.S.A. William Least Heat-Moon's recent attempts to capture America in language and extended narrative come closest to the federal writers, particularly in his notion of the "deep map," a mode of portraying the land he offers to counteract the superficiality of standard landscape descriptions. In all their efforts to capture the nation in writing, however, the federal writers ultimately succumb to the loss of control exerted by the immensity of the subject matter as well as the dispersal of authority within the Federal Writers' Project. Their narrative of the nation becomes a fabrication, an attempt to stitch together out of disparate pieces a unified plot that aspires to monolithic strength where it really excels in fecund multiplicity.


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