Eighty years ago this fall, the state Historical Society published “Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State.” At 700 pages and some 250,000 words, the guide was an ambitious, but quirky, survey of the state’s geography, history and culture – from Port Townsend and Seattle to Walla Walla and Spokane and a thousand places in between.
Few Washingtonians ever saw that book. A few weeks after its publication, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, triggering World War II, relegating the guide to the dusty back shelves of public libraries and used book stores. Equally forgotten were thick, hardbound, comprehensive guides to 47 other states – the highly collectible “American Guide Series” — plus some 1,000 more odd and sometimes eccentric volumes exploring broad swaths of American culture.
This enormous and unprecedented volume of work was produced by mostly anonymous American writers who found work in a unique Depression era program called the Federal Writers Project. Thanks to countless boxes of notes and manuscripts housed in state and federal archives, the FWP and the American Guide Series have been thoroughly researched and autopsied in mostly-unreadable academic volumes and PhD theses. .
I discovered the Washington Guide some 30 years ago in the stacks at Shorey’s, Seattle’s musty landmark shop which sold used books and ephemera for many years amid the peep shows and bars of First Avenue. I think I paid $20, took it home and gradually learned a bit about its extraordinary pedigree. Over the next decade, I found more state guides in used book stores from LA to Boston and Juneau, and eventually online at Ebay and Allibris. In time, I collected a full set of the guides, then another full set, until I acknowledged my addiction and ran out of shelf space.
The American Guide Series does not qualify as fine literature, nor intricate journalism. The guides were researched and drafted by out-of-work writers and teachers who travelled their states, hung out in Main Street cafes and pubs, and wrote about what they’d learned. Their reports were sent off to Washington DC to be rewritten and edited in a style and format prescribed by the national editors — a process that probably sacrificed some individual and regional character for the sake of coast-to-coast consistency.
For years, I’ve yearned for a readable history of the project and what it produced. Now we have one from Scott Borchert, a New Jersey writer and editor, who tells that story in “Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America” (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2021.)
The FWP’s primary mission was to do for writers what the Works Progress Administration (WPA) did for carpenters and bricklayers. In just seven years, the project employed 10,000 people, including the likes of Richard Wright, John Cheever, Studs Terkel, Zora Neale Hurston. Borchert’s compelling account focuses heavily on the stories of six of them.
The guidebooks themselves provided a unique survey of Americans at a pivotal point in their history – a state-by-state, town-by-town glimpse of a growing nation that was emerging from the Great Depression, and about to plunge into a world war that promised to change everything. Travelling our state as a journalist years later, I found the Washington guide to be a fine companion, a glimpse of the way we were a lifetime ago – what has changed, and what has not.
Some Washington places bear no resemblance to what the Guide described. Bellevue was billed as “a trading center for the berry farmers and vineyardists of the rich lowlands.” Meydenbauer Bay was home port to a fleet of whaling steamships. “During the winters the whalers lie idle, their engines silenced and their harpoon guns covered.”
Port Townsend, on the other hand: “The business section spreads along the waterfront, the main streets being lined with substantial old buildings dating back to the boom days, when the town was measuring its future in terms of a major city.” No change here.
Borchert finds “a philosophy of history” in the guides – “a sense of the possibility in how we might relate to the past and sort through the things we’ve inherited from it – such as a national story or a method of governing.”
Those lessons are not to be learned just from the guidebooks, but from the brief tenure of the Federal Writers Project itself — an ambitious government effort that produced what it promised, but was encumbered and eventually terminated by conservatives who were convinced that the project was part of a vast communist conspiracy. The red-baiting delayed publication of Washington’s guide for some two years, making it the last state guide to come off the presses.
But there it is, gathering dust on the shelves of your local library or Goodwill store. For all its shortcomings, the American Guide Series is as valuable to our national heritage as the rustic lodges and stone walls erected by WPA workers.
There have been proposals to do it again. In a recent NY Times op-ed, Borchert argues for a bill introduced in Congress to distribute some $60 million in grants to universities and nonprofits to hire unemployed writers to produce a “collective national self-portrait, with an emphasis on the impact of the pandemic.”
Fine idea, but one with zero chance of congressional approval. And even if it were, writers and sponsors would face an ideological minefield far more treacherous than faced by the FWP.
Here’s an alternative: We need a privately funded nonprofit to recruit a new generation of writers and editors and deliver a new set of guides, adhering to high journalistic and literary standards and free of the political constraints that plagued the original project. We need a jillionaire with ties to good journalism and the publishing industry. Hmmm. Anybody in our neighborhood who might fit that description?