Writing Like a State: Wendy Griswold’s “American Guides”

By Donal HarrisSeptember 4, 2016

Writing Like a State: Wendy Griswold’s “American Guides”

American Guides by Wendy Griswold

FOR A CERTAIN TYPE of bookish liberal, the Federal Writers’ Project occupies a mythic place in the annals of 20th-century literature. One of the many employment initiatives housed under the big tent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, it marked the first time in US history that the federal government undertook large-scale support of working artists. At its height it employed over 6,000 people across the country (though that was only a drop in the bucket of the roughly 8.5 million people who worked for the WPA). For artists starving both literally and figuratively, it was one of the few opportunities for a steady paycheck. At some point during its institutional life, from 1935 until 1941, it employed John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright. Best of all, the FWP directly or tangentially supported some of the most gripping, innovative, and historically significant documentary writing and literature of the decade, producing everything from previously uncollected slave narratives to mixed-media collections of poetry and photography to a children’s science book on the newfangled technology of television. It has everything a literary liberal could ask for: state support for the arts? Check. A mixture of avant-garde experimentalism and sensible popular appeal? Check. Authors from the urban coterie writing about the dignity of small-town living? Check. An embrace of diverse writers long before African Americans and women were represented in the academic canon? Another check.

Because of its attractiveness to the sort of people who are likely to become literary historians, it’s easy to exaggerate the popularity of the Federal Writers’ Project in its own time. As the work of numerous historians, social scientists, and literary scholars has shown, the FWP and other New Deal arts programs did not result from a national consensus that artistic activity should count the same as other kinds of salaried work, nor that tax money should go into a painter’s pocket, nor that people of color and women should have equal access to cultural expression. In June 1939, when the WPA had been up and running for four years, a Gallup poll found that when asked about “Relief and the WPA,” 28 percent of respondents thought it was the greatest accomplishment of the New Deal, while 23 percent called it the worst.

It’s not only public opinion that has been divided on the value of the FWP and its parent organization. Scholars have pointed out some of the internal ambivalences of the documents produced by the project, which are often shaped by institutional racism and misogyny. They also tend to sentimentalize the suffering of poor folk, and tamp down any implication that the reader should feel obligated to help, rather than just look at or read about, their impoverished fellow citizens.

Critical histories of the Federal Writers’ Project usually base their arguments on a set of texts that we might call “literary” or “highbrow.” James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices are both staples of such studies, and with good reason: these works take the documentary impulse of the 1930s and combine prose and photography in innovative, challenging, and rewarding ways. But these texts, rich as they are, are relatively unrepresentative of the body of writing funded by the New Deal, too singular and idiosyncratic to stand for the whole. To analyze the representative features of the FWP’s oeuvre, it makes sense to look elsewhere.

Wendy Griswold’s American Guides: The Federal Writers’ Project and the Casting of American Culture attempts to do just that. Griswold, a sociologist, reminds us that the published work that its administrators saw as its signature achievement were not literary texts like those of Agee and Evans or Wright but a series of state travel books called the American Guides. They were produced for every state in the Union, coordinating the work of thousands of FWP workers. They were widely read and appreciated by tourists and armchair Americana buffs alike, and, Griswold argues, they fundamentally altered how people conceived of regionalism in the United States.


Griswold has long been fascinated by the persistence of regionalism in the 20th century, especially as it relates to the pressures of globalization. Her previous book, Regionalism and the Reading Class, compared the prominence of regionalist literature in a variety of national publishing markets — most prominently the United States, Italy, and Norway — to parse out what factors contribute to a strong sense of literary place. She found that highly mobile, well-educated, and cosmopolitan groups — that is, groups fully embedded in the networks of global capital — often “demonstrate their cosmopolitanism through an intense localism.” She calls such people cultural “cowbirds,” after the parasitic birds that cozy up in others’ nests: they move somewhere new and, to make it feel like home, invest time and money learning about and then adopting the history and customs of the locals. For Griswold, regionalism — or the championing of cultural differences tied to specific places — is not a bug in the program of globalization; it is in fact “characteristic of global culture.”

American Guides is the second book in Griswold’s trilogy on the subject of regionalism (the third, she ambitiously promises, will cover regionalism in the United States from the 19th to the 21st centuries). While she never states explicitly the connection between her previous book and this one, her focus on the counterintuitive reciprocity between an increasingly centralized and hierarchical institution — the federal government — and renewed investment in local culture aligns the material in American Guides with her larger project. Globalization (understood as international free trade) wasn’t really the engine that drove the FWP or the American Guide series. Instead, it was the crushing poverty of the Great Depression, the increased federalism of the Roosevelt administration and its New Deal programs, and the constant negotiation between the agendas of federal relief programs and their actual implementation by state offices and local communities. The administrators of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Writers’ Project, and the American Guides were overwhelmingly white, Protestant, Northeastern, and Ivy League educated, and they fully believed, to a man (they were all men), in the objectivity of their position and the effectiveness of federal power. Yet the books they produced are awash in regional pride and attention to local differences, refusing at every turn the insistence on a single, blanket definition of nationhood or national culture. In American Guides, then, Griswold trades globalization for federalism, and studies how it creates a new kind of regionalism.

Her argument for how and why this takes place is refreshingly straightforward. Before the 1930s, she says, regional culture was not imagined to be coterminous with the borders of individual states. One could talk of the flinty New England temperament or the rugged spirit of the West, but not so much about the differences between, say, a Missourian’s sensibility and that of an Iowan, let alone a separate literary or artistic tradition native to those two states. But the New Deal changed that, and it did so entirely by accident. Neither the Roosevelt administration, nor the Works Progress Administration, nor the “Federal One” proposal that would eventually create the Federal Writers’ Project defined their task as transforming regional culture. Their doggedly singular goal was to bring down the unemployment rate, which teetered around 20 percent in the middle of the 1930s. As Roosevelt put it in his first inaugural address: “This nation asks for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work.”

This rhetoric trickled down from the Brain Trust to individual bureaus. Henry Alsberg, the head of the FWP, was charged with finding a politically and aesthetically benign undertaking that would employ lots of people in every state. It needed to quickly yield printed pages, too, so as to fend off the criticism that paying writers with tax money was a waste. In addition, it had to preserve a low profile for the left-leaning writers on its payroll, as the fear of Communist infiltration permeated New Deal programs. Katherine Kellock, who would become the field supervisor of the American Guides, suggested a series of travel books modeled on the widely popular Baedeker guides. Like a Baedeker, they would contain maps and travel suggestions and be marketed to a growing demographic of leisure travelers. Unlike previous guides, though, the FWP series would focus on automobile, rather than train or boat, routes, and be aimed at Americans themselves rather than vacationing Europeans.

The American Guide books would differ from the Baedekers in another way, too. George Cronyn, the chief editor of the series, wanted them to serve as pocket (or, more accurately, glove box) encyclopedias of each state’s local culture and history. Part of this focus was pragmatic: the writers on the FWP payroll would resent compiling tourism maps, but they could be kept happy and occupied with the more challenging work of research and cultural writing. So Cronyn and Alsberg together decided that substantial background essays on geography, geology, agriculture, individual cities and towns, and the arts would precede the suggested travel routes. As Griswold outlines, these essays were not geared toward tourists but toward what she calls “the reading class,” that small subset of citizens who have the time and inclination to read for pleasure and do it often. The cultural essays, which ostensibly were supplemental to the real purpose of the tourist guides, ended up occupying a huge portion of the published texts: around one-third, on average (Griswold includes extraordinarily helpful appendices that break down the content of the guides along a number of axes). And while the cultural essays made the American Guides more cumbersome and far less useful as actual tourism guides than their competitors published by Baedeker and the American Automobile Association, book reviewers lauded them as a substantial contribution to American writing. By and large, it’s the essays that keep readers returning to the American Guides today.

Griswold refers to the process of setting the state-by-state model and then filling it with content as “casting.” The metaphor works in two complementary ways. First, “casting” means establishing a specific shape or mold, as in cast iron, which can then be reused over and over, saving considerable time and effort. Because FWP funds were allocated through state governments, the American Guides series divided its study by states rather than some other way, such as US census regions or by cross-country scenic routes. We might think of this as the casting of institutional molds: the bureaucracy in place favored one kind of conceptual boundary over any another. But casting occurred at the level of the actual books’ structure, as well. Each book had a standard format: a section of cultural essays on geography, history, agriculture, literature, and the arts; a section on cities and towns; and then a number of suggested automobile routes through the state. Each state-based editorial team had to fill each section and get it approved by the central office in Washington, DC (the Dakotas, Nevada, and Idaho had slightly different culture sections). These connected, top-down organizational molds had an enormous impact on the content of the guides: each one now had to detail the idiosyncratic culture of each state, all of the things that make it different than its neighbors — even if, as far as the writers and researchers on the ground were concerned, those differences were nonexistent.

This brings in the other sense in which the FWP was “casting”: they were surveying the contents of each state and selecting particular examples that will fit into the mold, like casting a play. So even if the respective cultures of Mississippi and Alabama or Vermont and New Hampshire seemed of a piece, the researchers and writers had to come up with local details and characteristics to distinguish them from one another. And whether or not the Guide staff could point to a specifically Oregonian literary culture, say, they had to produce one for the purposes of the guide, just as they had for New York and Massachusetts.

The two types of casting — one dealing with forms, the other with content — had two big effects. First, they remapped regional culture along state boundaries, enforcing federalism as a cultural fact, not just a bureaucratic convenience. Second, because there are now more boxes to fill with content, particularly in the arts sections, they increased and diversified the range of individuals recognized within the (still inchoate) canon of American literature. And Griswold has the numbers to back up this claim: the 46 Literature essays mentioned 2,785 unique writers and (counting authors who are listed in more than one guide) a total of 3,463 names. It’s a canon that dwarfs the number of authors included in contemporaneous literature anthologies, and one that is far more welcoming of women, minorities, and authors living outside the American literary capitals of New York, Boston, and Chicago. For example, New Hampshire’s guide devotes a full paragraph to Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, who edited Godey’s Lady Book, one of the first women’s magazines, for 40 years. Connecticut mentions Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” though she wouldn’t enter the academic canon until second-wave feminist scholars rediscovered her in the 1970s. Pedro Castañeda de Nájera, who fought for Coronado and wrote a chronicle of his expedition, finds his way into no less than five different guides.

Griswold’s “casting” explanation of the Guides project is compelling and forceful. A large part of that force comes from the sheer range of data she marshals to make her case. To be sure, American Guides is a much narrower book than Regionalism and the Reading Class in terms of historical scope, geographic reach, and comparative perspective: it deals only with the United States in the 1930s (though the consequences of that period extend into the present day). But it offers a kaleidoscopic array of scholarly methods to offset its relatively tight focus. Over the course of a mere 10 chapters, Griswold includes an institutional biography of New Deal work programs; a précis on the guidebook genre going back to Ancient Greece; a cultural history of British and American tourism in the 19th and early 20th centuries; a survey of literacy rates and reading practices in the 1930s by gender, race, region, and class; a statistical analysis of the relative length of each section of each state’s American Guide entry; and a comprehensive list of authors and artists covered in the guidebooks, which she then breaks down by state, gender, race, and age. Toward the end, she offers some conjectures about how people actually used the American Guides based on, among other data, the relationship between the size of the guidebooks and that of the average automotive glove box in 1927. Say what you will about sociologists, but they do their homework.


The second half of Griswold’s book, which delves into the specific content of the Literature essays, makes several revelatory claims about the connections between geography, genre, and author identity as presented in the American Guides. The guides contain an unprecedented number of women and people of color in their catalog of writers, while still retaining a strong preference for white men from the Northeast (55 percent of named authors came from the East Coast). Intriguingly, Griswold finds that the most equitable representation of authors doesn’t come from the centers of literary culture, but from the periphery. For example, the guide to Massachusetts, a center of the abolitionist movement and longtime home of Frederick Douglass, didn’t mention a single black author, and despite Manhattan being the site of the Harlem Renaissance, the only African American writer the New York State guide mentions is Langston Hughes. In contrast, African American writers make up seven percent of Alabama’s Literature section and six percent of Georgia’s (though, to be sure, inclusion in a state-sponsored tour guide would have been cold comfort for a black writer living in the Jim Crow South).

Griswold finds a connection between genre, gender, and race, too. In the guides that mostly restrict their definition of Literature to poetry, fiction, and drama, women authors make up almost a third of the entries but racial minorities are nearly entirely absent. But when guides expand their concept of Literature to include other forms of writing — history, journalism, sermons, diaries — the number of Latino, Native American, and African American writers goes up significantly, while representation of women writers plummets by 20 percent. These perplexing findings should be a lesson to those who imagine that “diversifying the canon” is merely a matter of countering the hegemonic influence of white men: what Griswold’s work suggests is that different definitions of what counts as literature produce different kinds of underrepresentation.

Griswold’s ability to provide such revelatory interpretations of her quantitative material is impressive. However, her decision to limit the book’s archive to the American Guides alone does produce some liabilities. Sure, the guides offer an important record of New Deal cultural work, and clearly some version of the state-shaped regionalism they promulgated still exists today. It persists in volumes such as the Reader’s Guide to Illinois Literature and Cambridge’s History of California Literature. And it was on full display, in a non-literary context, during the delegate roll calls during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, when an individual from Arkansas exhorted “the best duck hunting on Earth,” Washington declared itself “home of the national Christmas tree,” Minnesota bragged of being the “home of Spam,” and Delaware proudly championed itself as “the state that brought you Kevlar, nylon, and Gore-Tex.”

But the American Guides were only one production of the Federal Writers’ Project, which in turn was only one arm of the Works Progress Administration octopus. What about all the other, non-state-based guides produced by the FWP? The agency compiled books on cities (Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, but also Pittsburgh; Port Arthur, Texas; and Allegheny City, Pennsylvania), counties (Rochester and Monroe County), and even old-fashioned multi-state regions (Here’s New England! A Guide to Vacationland). These were funded through state FWP offices, and yet didn’t feel the pull of state-based regional affiliation. Not that these projects were always as successful as the American Guide series. One of the best stories Griswold recounts concerns the first pamphlet produced by the FWP, A Guide to North Little Rock: The City Without Bonded Debt. (N.B.: I read the entire thing, and it only mentions lack of bonded debt in its subtitle.) When a beaming Walter Alsberg showed the Little Rock pamphlet to New York City’s WPA administrator, an Arkansas native, the latter responded, “Who in the hell wants a guide to North Little Rock? Don’t you know it’s the asshole of the world?”

Then there are all the other New Deal arts programs, some of them massive. What about the literally tens of thousands Farm Security Administration photographs that reached broad swaths of readers both inside the United States and abroad, and surely impressed a sense of regionalism on the country? How might images of the Dust Bowl’s ravaged landscape or the poverty of Southern sharecroppers — two regional categories cataloged by WPA programs but not reliant upon a state-shaped cast — complicate or challenge the representations given in the Guides?

More broadly, Griswold never quite acknowledges that other kinds of regionalism, both larger and smaller than the state, continue to influence our notion of geographic and cultural place. Just look at the South. We talk about Delta culture, which spans parts of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas, as in “Delta blues,” which first found an audience during the same period American Guides covers but didn’t depend upon state “casting.” (It may have helped that it was spread via radio, which by its very nature traverses regional boundaries.) At the same time, New Deal–created entities like the Tennessee Valley Authority popularized the moniker “the New South” to describe their attempts to modernize sections of Appalachia. Again, a new regional designation sprang up without any emphasis on the borders of a state.

Examples like this certainly do not invalidate the larger claims of American Guides, but Griswold’s single-minded focus on state-shaped regionalism risks losing sight of the ways that regional divisions tend to nest inside one another, rather than cancel each other out. Even within the guides themselves, competing versions of cultural regionalism crop up. Take the titles of Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South and Maine: A Guide ‘Down East’, where older and larger regional identifications happily co-exist alongside the modern state-based model. Or the opening essay of the Tennessee guide, called “Cross Section of a Three-Fold State,” which gives the impression that the intra-regional divisions that separate Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville can’t be easily subsumed into a single Volunteer State culture. The preface to California: A Guide to the Golden State makes that issue even more explicit: “California has so great a diversity of places and people and things that the problem of getting it between the covers of a single book seemed almost unsolveable,” the editors reflect. “The California staff has sometimes wished that its State were just a little smaller.”

Such ambivalence within the American Guides invites questions about the uneven development of regional identifications across, and within, states. But, from a different angle, it can also look like proof of Griswold’s point. Since these researchers, writers, and editors were crafting the paradigm of state-based regionalism — attempting to fit so much variegated content into a prefab mold that East Coast bureaucrats had decided upon — it makes sense that their writing would inscribe the struggle to square the old with the new. In the end, American Guides excels at drawing attention to these messy places on the map where a new form — be it an institution, a genre, an individual book, a table of contents — meets an older content. Furthermore, it testifies to the possibilities of bridging the methods of the social sciences and the humanities, giving the lie to the idea that the “quants” and the “quals” are at odds, or even incommensurable. It’s a better, more capacious, and more convincing book for including quantitative analysis of author lists, close readings of individual texts, and meticulous research into the Guides’ material history and circulation among readers: these methods help Griswold make arguments that literary scholars would not have made, but which they can learn from. If there’s a battle between the two cultures, or a crisis in humanistic inquiry, it is nowhere to be found in these pages. In that sense, American Guides shares more than just a title with the series of books it takes as its subject. It, too, interweaves empirical research and deft analysis, fact and creativity, and provides us a brand new way to see the United States.


Donal Harris teaches in the Department of English at the University of Memphis.

LARB Contributor

Donal Harris is an associate professor in the department of English and director of the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities at the University of Memphis. He is the author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines.


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