Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State.
New York: Viking, 1939.
 



 

Introduction

 






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


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

      
 Imagine a "vast seven-foot shelf panorama of our land," "the biggest literary project in history," and "the finest contribution to American patriotism that has been made in our generation." The literary scholar and cultural historian of today is hard pressed to name this marvelously praised body of writing and might not readily arrive at the conclusion that it was penned by government employees. 

The gigantic text in question, the American Guide Series, was written between 1935 and 1942 by a peak number of 7,535 writers, temporarily put on the WPA payroll as members of the Federal Writers' Project. In order to allow for a broad and nationwide enactment of white collar relief, the federal government chartered the compilation of in-depth guidebooks to each American state, in the hopes of boosting not only the artists' morale by allowing them to execute their own craft, but also to provide the nation with a symbol of cultural strength during a challenging time in history. The core of the American Guide Series, as I study it in this dissertation, is comprised of 48 state guidebooks, averaging about 500 pages in length each, plus territorial guides of Alaska and Puerto Rico, as well as the city guides of Washington, D.C. and New York City (New York City Guide and New York Panorama). 

The guidebooks are usually subdivided into general essays covering such areas as history, art, industry, agriculture, and geography of a state, city portraits, and automobile tours. The books are generously supplemented with maps, photographs (often by FSA artists), and drawings. In addition to these 53 volumes, the FWP published hundreds of city guides (e.g., Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace and San Francisco: The Bay and Its Cities), regional guides (e.g., U.S. One, Maine to Florida and The Oregon Trail), and local guides (e.g., The Berkshire Hills and Death Valley: A Guide). Often local guides were merely pamphlets of small circulation that contained information collected during the making of the state guides but were left out in the process of condensing the massive amounts of information into the publishable one-volume format.

"This world, as a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator, is furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing, equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creatures."

WILLIAM BARTRAM, Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida (1791)
 
 

In 1773 botanist-philosopher William Bartram embarked on his travels down the southeastern part of North America, desirous of studying the workings of God's "wondrous machine." His expressed purpose was "the discovery of rare and useful productions of nature, chiefly in the vegetable kingdom," but the written account of his travels renders perhaps more powerfully Bartram's sense of humor, his theistic naturalism, and the America of the late 18th century. Recording nature, Bartram had given testimony of himself as much as of his subject matter. Reading the divine plan of creation in the bountiful landscape he was privileged to traverse, Bartram revealed his metaphysical needs as much as a natural world on the brink of irrevocable transformation.

More than one and a half centuries after Bartram, an army of American writers forayed into a very different American landscape, now heavily populated and at a cataclysmic moment in history, aware of its own imminent modernization. The Depression of the 1930s had fostered a climate of governmental support and a cultural reawakening, out of which grew the New Deal relief agencies, among them the WPA's Federal Writers' Project. Like their spiritual forefather, these federal writers inspected the ordinary, in a Whitmanesque sense, and noted the richness of the American scene. The printed record of their explorations, the fifty-three volumes of the American Guide Series, is the subject of this study, which is entitled "Vintage Snapshots: The Fabrication of a Nation in the WPA American Guide Series." A clarification of terms and their intended ambiguities must precede any further discussion:

By vintage I mean two distinct qualities of agedness, which I find simultaneously present in the texts I am studying. First, they are, as a group, dated to a certain moment in history, the second half of the 1930s and early 1940s in the United States. They are, as I will subsequently attempt to prove, "classic" products and producers of American culture that possess enduring appeal, especially because they hail from a clearly circumscribed crisis point in American history. The American Guides emerge out of the Second New Deal and close with America entering World War II, and it is the cultural atmosphere of this intermediary period of American reorientation and cultural renaissance that the American Guides reflect. But on a second note, they are "dated" in the sense of "outdated." Like vintage automobiles, these books are bulky remnants of times past which strike the modern observer with a certain stubbornness of thought and a frame of mind that has long become obsolete. As discursive foils they enhance the present by illustrating in such great detail a whole nation of the past. Finally, I use vintage as an aesthetic judgment of distinctive performance.

With the term snapshot I invoke the 1930s infatuation with photography and the visual as a preferred mode of rendering truth. The Depression was the time of the camera and James Agee's "keen historic spasm of the shutter." Distrust of language and its capacities for deceit reigned. The writers of the American Guides had internalized this belief in the superiority of the visual over the written word, and hence they infused their writing with an urgent descriptiveness in an attempt to approximate the camera's method of recording reality without the mind's intervention. Since these texts are to a certain degree "formless," especially when they follow the highways of America in their "automobile tours," modern readers often perceive their vivid anecdotes, trifling details, and pictorial descriptions as "snapshots"-careless, arbitrary, unstructured, unpremeditated, spontaneous, true. They are, of course, neither, and hence I am using the term "snapshot" with some irony and awareness of the tension between the inevitable pose and the genuine attempt to catch reality as it is.

The concept of fabrication corroborates my understanding of the snapshot as always already invested with a design and an agenda of meaning. I am using this term in two ways. First, fabrication refers to the mass-production that occurred in the writing of the American Guide Series, the manufacturing and assembling of often standardized parts in a factory-type setting which imitated an industrial production in pace and efficiency. On the other hand, I am deliberately alluding to the element of deception and invention inherent in the concept of "fabrication." To some degree, the federal writers' narrative of the nation is a concoction and a fabulation, a myth and an epic. My use of the term fabrication means to underscore this presence of a powerful fantasy and desire in the writing of the American Guides.

The meanings of nation and America are intricately tied to this regard of the narrative. My reading of America and the way it is negotiated in the American Guide Series is inspired by Lauren Berlant's use of "America" in her Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. Berlant regards "America" as "an assumed relationship, an explication of ongoing collective practices, and also an occasion for exploring what it means that national subjects already share not just a history, or a political allegiance, but a set of forms and the affect that makes these forms meaningful." The federal writers in effect studied the very strings that entangle the web of American meanings by detailing the elements of the American everyday life in past and present as they encountered it on the road, researching for the grand national monument of the American Guide.

The American Guide Series is perplexing and daunting: about 31,000 pages of hybridal writing, at times travel guidance, local color narrative, regionalist fiction, documentary reportage, tall tale, road map, calendar of events, encyclopedia, poem, and epic-"a dadaist jumble" as one contemporary critic would have it. Approaching the texts with a guiding metaphor elucidates their purpose. Many federal writers understood their own work as a contribution to a mosaic. Made up of a large number of small, colorful tiles, each representing a tiny version of the larger narrative, the mosaic depends on the collaboration of its particulars. Once completed, it gives rise to a distinct image, one that is not contained in the individual pieces but emanates solely from the conjunction of them all. This present study attempts to delineate the version of American culture that emerges from the combined volumes in the American Guides.
 


 

Home  | Contact me: pscarter@umich.edu  |  Buy the book |