Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America
The incredible story of a WPA program that set out to create a state-by-state guidebook to America—and employed some of the biggest names in American letters
The plan was as idealistic as it was audacious—and perhaps flat-out crazy. Take thousands of broke writers—whether formally unemployed or self-anointed, communists or nonconformists, urbanites or country dwellers, young or old, poets or reporters, but all of them American in some shape or form—and put them to work writing a guidebook to a country in the throes of the Great Depression. Or forty-eight guides to be exact, one for each state, along with hundreds of miscellaneous books dedicated to cities, territories, folklore, and even slave narratives, all of varying quality, each revealing distinct regional sensibilities.
All this fell within the purview of the Federal Writer’s Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration founded to employ not just writers but anyone who seemed ill-suited to manual labor. It was a predictably eclectic organization, directed by an equally eccentric man, Henry Alsberg—a disheveled Manhattanite prone to fits of melancholy who took his advice from the anarchist Emma Goldman. When Alfred Kazin sat for an interview at the New York office of the FWP, he encountered a room “crowded with men and women lying face down on the floor, screaming that they were on strike.” Even W. H. Auden couldn’t help but remark that the whole thing was “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state.”
Republic of Detours tells the story of this raucous, Whitmanesque, entirely utopian institution, from its starry-eyed early days to its dismemberment by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In spite of its inglorious end and unusual mission, the FWP was a thoroughly American institution, and it reflected the aspirations, diversity, and darker recesses of the nation’s present and past.
Scott Borchert illuminates an essentially noble enterprise that sought to create a broad, inclusive patriotism that could speak to all Americans. As the United States enters a new era of economic distress, political strife, and culture-industry turmoil, its lessons are urgent and strong.
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