The WPA Guides as a Literary School

July 4, 2021   •   By Tom Zoellner

Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

Scott Borchert

THE URGE TO catalog everything in sight energizes a certain type of blockbuster nonfiction literature. Pliny the Elder was the graphomaniac of the ancient world, attempting to squeeze everything he saw into Naturalis Historia, the world’s first encyclopedia. His later disciples Carl Linnaeus, Alexander von Humboldt, and Denis Diderot all sought to capture the world’s grandeur between two covers, predecessors of Google’s humble mission statement: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

The same urge fueled the WPA Guides born of the Great Depression and New Deal. When thousands of unemployed writers and editors needed work, the public entrepreneurs of the New Deal created an innovative project with a colossal goal: to explain the nation’s teeming contents for its own citizens. Just as the young people of the Civilian Conservation Corps built hiking trails through the mountains, the Federal Writers’ Project sought to create narrative trails through the country via a series of thick guidebooks for each state, a Lonely Planet or Let’s Go endeavor to keep white collar creatives on some sort of payroll.

The result, concludes Scott Borchert in his terrific new biography of the project, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, was a lasting gift to the heritage of the ungainly, wonderful, appalling, and almost incomprehensible totality of the United States.

None of the Guides had a single byline — the project’s contributors were mainly anonymous, their copy smoothed out and regularized into a house style similar to the editorial assembly line at Time Magazine. But the story of the eccentrics, ideologues, wags, alcoholics, malcontents, and dreamers who churned out reams of magnificently reported prose is a story well worth telling.

Borchert uses the personalities as an organizing device: the book is divided into six parts, each told through the experiences of one of the contributors assigned to document their own home turf. There’s the sharp-elbowed Idaho novelist Vardis Fisher; the depressed immigrant Nelson Algren; the Florida folklorist Zora Neale Hurston; and scattered supporting players whom Borchert calls the “potted roster” of fame: George Cronyn, Ralph Ellison, Joe Gould, Carita Corse, John Cheever. Near the book’s end, the reader learns that President Franklin Roosevelt, the wizard behind the curtain, loved the WPA Guides because of his inherent “geographical mindset” with a memory like “a spacious, cluttered warehouse, a teeming curiosity shop” — an apt description of what the Guides hoped to accomplish. FDR would sometimes invite visitors to draw an imaginary line across a map of the United States and then not just name each county on the line but also provide a rundown of local culture, personalities, and politics there. He would have been a superb shotgun-rider.

The book’s primary hero, however, is Henry Alsberg, a journalist with a spotty work record, a “complete debacle intellectual liberal,” as he described himself in a letter to his friend, the anarchist Emma Goldman. At the age of 52, he was handed the Federal Writers’ Project, tasked with putting unemployed writers to work and trading the labor of their pens for relief checks.

The first question was: What should they produce? The leadership toyed with the idea of an encyclopedia before a staffer named Katharine Kellock successfully lobbied for the library of state tour books: an “American Baedekers,” after the famous German brand that had pointed out European and the Middle Eastern sights for the posh. The WPA Guides would be more middlebrow, aimed at Americans with a car and a desire to take modest vacations not far from home. The neon-laced era of roadside diners, auto courts, and highway culture that would explode in the 1950s grew a powerful foundation in the Depression, when Route 66 took on mythological characteristics, and gasoline sales and auto registrations saw an uptick despite widespread economic trouble.

Borchert writes evocatively, even lovingly, about Washington, DC, in the 1930s, a place of creative ferment emerging from its lingering Southern provincialism into status as a global city. If the Paris of the previous decade had nurtured writerly obsessions over modernism and meaninglessness, the young nation’s capital was a hotspot of optimism, pragmatism, and left-wing patriotism. Alsberg presided over production in the converted former mansion of Washington Post heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, where a pack of moody writers drank to excess, pranked each other, gossiped, batted around ideas, worked late into the night, and cracked sardonic jokes about their federal bosses, nicknaming the WPA “Wet Pants Administration.”

Literary critic Edmund Wilson described the swampy vigor of the city in those days:

Everywhere in the streets and offices you run into old acquaintances: the editors and writers of the liberal press, the “progressive” young instructors from the colleges, the intelligent foundation workers, the practical idealists of settlement houses, the radicals who are not too radical not to conceive that there may be just a chance of turning the old order inside out and the Marxists who enjoy looking on and seeing how the half-baked liberals are falling victims to their inherent bourgeois contradictions.

The Federal Writers’ Project may have created its greatest problem by hiring writers to do the work of writing. The WPA Guides emerged as a brilliant literary product suitable for only a particular stripe of motorist. “They hoarded and gossiped and sat you down for a lecture,” writes the author. “They were deeply researched on subjects of little use to a traveler — the structure of local government, a state’s literary residents — while they barely mentioned diners, motels, and gas stations. They were rich and weird and frustrating.” Government blandness this was not. But in general, the public loved the Guides, even if some scratched their heads on darkened highways. Alfred Kazin was not on the team, but he thought the Guides “became a repository as well as a symbol of the reawakened American sense of its own history.”

They were also a financial success. The nation’s major publishers took them on contract from the United States government — a form of pork in itself, delivered to midtown Manhattan — and they sold well. Reprints sell well to this day

Republic of Detours also serves as a snapshot of American literary culture in the Depression, thanks to Borchert’s accretion of details about his writer-subjects and the conflicted personalities behind the smoothed-out prose. Importantly, Borchert notes the staff’s lack of diversity, a general employment problem of the New Deal and American society at large. Some regional staffs had a “Negro Unit” — a segregated group of Black writers assigned to tell Black stories, as if part of a foreign country.

The novelist Richard Wright, who felt bemusedly ambivalent about his work for the WPA, had escaped a vicious hothouse of prejudice in Mississippi as a young man and found his voice in Chicago. Borchert writes perceptively about the new form of racial manners Wright encountered:

When he arrived there, he’d felt disoriented in the soot-stained city with its factories and stockyards and tenements and streets full of icy wind. The intricate system of rules that he’d lived by in the South — and that others had died by — was scrambled in the North, not erased but revised into a more subtle and confounding form. He knew he was freer but the extent of it was murky and kept him guessing.

Midcentury corruption also threatened the series — the state director in Missouri was a pawn of the Tom Pendergast political machine who installed a series of low-rate flunkies and wanted to create a glossy booster publication to steer business to connected interests; an irascible proletarian novelist named Jack Conroy emerges as the antihero of the episode.

But Borchert also points out that the Guides are “not triumphalist” and refuse to gloss over troubling aspects of the past, such as Native subjugation, slavery, and massive economic inequalities. Most of the authors, after all, were liberals with socialist sympathies. “They carry a whiff of New Deal optimism, sure,” he says, “but for the most part they resist those signature American habits of boosterism and aggressive national mythologizing.”

The Guides make up a school of literature all their own — they would go on to influence completest nonfiction Americanists such as John Gunther, as well as the academic practice of oral history — and deserve distinct critical appraisal. Borchert writes with a perceptive eye in this regard, even if in imitation of the stereophonic tones of his subject:

The conquest of the frontier was there, alongside the old myths of rugged settlers and doomed races and the bloody roots of civilization. But it was all chopped up and jumbled up, its narrative encasement broken, the pieces spilled and left to mingle with images and anecdotes from ten or twenty years ago, or that day. The tours showed the wreckage and glories of the past piled up in the present, there for you to explore and make sense of on your own.

The heroes in this book are clear, and Borchert supplies a natural narrative arc — the survival of the writers’ project against a welter of headwinds: the departure of key people like Wright, the infighting among strong personalities, the inherent difficulties of managing 4,500 querulous scribes, the scale of documenting 2,000,000 miles of highway, and — most dramatically — a confrontation with the conservative Southern wing of the Democratic Party that grew increasingly suspicious of the multiethnic vision of the Guides. The young firebrand Martin Dies Jr. of Texas, a Gingrichian figure, saw an opportunity to tee off on the “excited, happy, eager zealots, about to remake the world” and called a set of Congressional hearings on the supposed frivolousness and Bolshevism of the project that was producing what skeptics called “Red Baedekers.” “Would you go so far as to say that the tenor of the Guide from New Jersey has been class hatred and incendiary propaganda?” Dies asked one witness.

Such hostility toward an overall honest look at the United States, its imperfections in addition to its goodness, reflects the persistent “culture wars” of today. The conservative hostility toward the taxpayer-funded Guides resembles the outrage directed toward The New York Times’s 1619 Project, though Borchert steers clear of such transhistorical comparisons. He leaves it to an acid observation of the critic Lewis Mumford:

These guide books are the finest contribution to American patriotism that has been made in our generation: let that be the answer to the weaklings who are afraid to admit that American justice may miscarry or that the slums of Boston may be somewhat this side of Utopia.

Borchert has done heroic work in the archives, mining long-neglected letters and dull government reports for the same type of life-giving detail that this school of national literary history, and its thoughtful conceivers, thrived upon. “Their approach, a hearty embrace of the American land and all that it contained,” he writes, “resembled something dreamed up by Walt Whitman — if he were handed a federal bureaucracy and a hefty budget.” Despite multiple potholes on the road, the Guides helped make the country a richer and more intriguing place for those who wanted a deeper experience of it and gave maximalist expression to an honest love for the land and its people that is too easily lost among the tribal noise.

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Tom Zoellner is LARB’s politics editor and the author of The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America.