- Historic Sites
The Dream And The Deal:
The Federal Writers’ Project 1935-1943
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
But the legacy is astonishing. Some 700,000 copies of the various guides have been sold to date, and there are collectors who rejoice with the passion of confirmed hobbyists in the possession of complete sets. Taken together, they form a compendium of information that sketches the social history of a kaleidoscopic nation. Each state guidebook consisted of an introductory set of essays on the history, geography, government, arts, architecture, education, recreation, local lore, and social features of the state. A second section described salient points of interest in a list of major cities. And a third, the largest, laid out highway tours to take. These, far from being prosaic rosters of mileages, accommodations, and mandatory sights to see, were made to bulge with as much miscellaneous information as the writers (who in most cases went over every mile of the ground them- selves) could manage. Local feelings were neither flattered nor spared, and the only restraints observed, other than those of space, were provided by researchers and checkers who remorselessly kept the writers from soaring into undocumented flights of prose.
The essays are uneven in quality, though the best are superb. Many are now dated, but some states have issued new and revised versions that repair the damage of time to facts and statistics. Best of all are the tours, which offer still, in Bernard DeVoto’s words, “a rich, various and rewarding spectacle.” They have, as another reviewer noted, “the profuse disorder of nature and life” that “gets in your blood and sends you crowing from oddity to anecdote, from curiosity to dazzling illumination of single fact.” Mangione presents an intriguing sampling; and to check matters further this reviewer picked up the books for New York, California, Texas, and Vermont, opened each at random, and unearthed the following representative facts before forcing himself back to the typewriter:
—The Beekman Arms Hotel, in Rhinebeck, New York, once had a sign in its office giving the rates as follows: Lodging 3 pence With breakfast, 4 pence Only 5 lodgers to a bed No boots can be worn in bed.
—In Oakland stands the home of the California poet Joaquin Miller. “The poet claimed he could not write without rain on the roof; he had pipes installed to sprinkle water on the roof when he wanted inspiration.”
— In Texas, according to a 1969 revision of the original guide, coyotes still venture into the streets of small towns at night; a herd of buffalo is still maintained on the Goodnight ranch, the remnant of a herd of sixty million that once roamed the state; and wild turkeys are still plentiful in some sections.
—Bellows Falls, Vermont, on the Connecticut River, has a fifty-foot drop. Yet at least a dozen persons have gone over the edge and lived. The first was an Abnaki squaw, in 1781. “Carelessly allowing her canoe to be drawn to a point where she could not paddle against the current, the squaw drank a bottle of rum that she was taking to her brave and lay down in the canoe to await her fate. She was fished out below the falls, quite safe and quite drunk.”
And one browses on, helplessly, through tales of freak storms, bad men and good, curious houses, vanished communities and trades, obscure and famous battles, unsung inventors, and dastardly crimes, all of which left their marks on the land. The richness of printed lore parallels the graphic feast spread for consumption in the Art Project’s Index of American Design . [See A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February and April, 1972.]
Like any massive undertaking, of course, the project’s publications are not without fault. But the sum total was and is a composite portrait of what the critic Alfred Kazin called “an America unexampled in density and regional diversity.” And this was done, not only in the midst of “capitalist America’s” predicted doom, but just after the twenties, when a number of intellectuals had condemned their native land as a cultural wasteland, empty and crackling in the chill of “Puritan repression.” The Writers’ Project, under adverse circumstances, had helped a nation to discover and appreciate its true identity.
There is occasion for cheer in this story. We live in another kind of hard times, when pessimism is not easy to avoid. It takes an effort to remember that the United States—its land, its people, its institutions—adds up to something bigger than one generation’s troubles and mistakes. It often takes an effort nowadays to remind ourselves that this country is sometimes better than its leaders, always more interesting than its image makers know, and durable enough to outlast the rhetoric of both its critics and its uncritical defenders. But Mangione is really telling us that we were in deep trouble before, and we almost accidentally paid for a self-portrait, and we liked and were strengthened by what we saw.