Friday, April 01, 2011

New Book of the Month: Soul of a People

The Great Depression. It was a trying time, a troubling time, and also in some ways a rewarding time, and all of it is captured in my current book of the month, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America by David A Taylor. It's all there, from the soon-to-be-famous writers to the hardscrabble novices, from the cynical politicians to the idealistic workers.

Growing up I was a big fan of the Depression-era WPA series of books called the American Guides. These were produced by what some contemporary critics called "welfare for intellectuals", the Federal Writers Project. Every state had its guide, which was a combination history book, sociological portrait and travel guide -- but like no travel guide before or since. Many cities had their own guides, and there were specialized guides, such as one that followed US 30 as it paralleled the Oregon Trail. In all nearly 300 books were published during the short run of the Writers Project.

Whenever my family went on vacation, I would check out of the library the guides to whatever states we would be driving through, and then "follow along" as we progressed through rural America. They were fascinating reading, and made each town, each wide place in the road sometimes, seem to come alive.

I always knew that for the most part the guides were really well-written, but until recently I hadn't given much thought as to just who those writers were.

Turns out that many of the producers of the Writers' Guides were to become famous in their own right. Four of the first ten winners of the National Book Award were "graduates" of the program: Nelson Algren, John Cheever, Saul Bellow (who also won the Nobel Prize for Literature) and Ralph Ellison. In addition to Ellison, fellow icons of African-American literature, Richard Wright and Zorah Neale Hurston, also came out of the project. Poets Weldon Kees and Kenneth Rexroth wrote sections; astonishingly, hardboiled crime writer Jim Thompson was for a time in charge of writing the Oklahoma guide, and Vardis Fisher wrote the entire Idaho guide all by himself (his wife helped, of course...).

And of course the Slave Narratives (available for download) were collected by workers in the Writers' Project.

Admittedly, the project was, in the words of the infamous Texas congressional windbag Martin Dies of the equally infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee, "riddled with communists", but so what? During the Great Depression, a common saying was, "If you're against unemployment, you're a communist; if you're against poverty, you're a communist"... Any reasonable and thinking person would take a look around at the contemporary failure of unfettered capitalism and agree that there had to be something better. "Communism" was a choice that many people would make, and had I been around then, I no doubt would have made it as well. In the early days of the Depression, before people learned what an asshole dictator "Uncle Joe" Stalin really was, the nascent Soviet Union seemed like a true Workers' Paradise -- of course this positive portrait was helped along by the works of such Americans as Lincoln Steffens ("I have been over into the future, and it works."), John Reed and Louise Bryant, and pretty much no one -- or at least no one that anybody listened to -- who went to Russia in the early days of the Revolution came back with anything bad to say about it.

But I digress. Back to Blowhard Dies: The book points out that he was almost beside himself in his exuberance to expose "The Red Menace", while seeming to go out of his way to avoid other, in my opinion, more real and more sinister threats to the nation, such as the homegrown Ku Klux Klan and the Hitler-inspired German American Bund (aka the American Nazis).

Soul of a People is a terrific read and an exciting peek into a part of our history that isn't so well known. I highly recommend it.

And, if you'd like the experience of reading some of the State Guides for yourself, good luck on finding a copy. Some of them were reprinted -- in a bowdlerized form -- in the 1980s, but the originals are now considered rare books and I've seen them going on eBay for several hundred dollars. Even the reprints are bringing a surprising sum.

However, do not despair. The eminently valuable Internet Archive has amassed a relatively few digitized copies of the guides (nowhere close to all of them) and you can view or download them in a number of different formats. Treat yourself and dip into one or two of them.

The guide for my own state of Washington was also reformatted, digitized and then updated for interactive explorations; it is also available for download.

Or, if you'd rather have a great sampler of the entire series, check out Remembering America: A Sampler of the WPA American Guide Series, edited by Archie Hobson, in which you will such gems as this one, chosen completely at random:

GARGLING OIL -- The businessman who put Lockport on the map in the 1870s was John Hodge, proprietor and manufacturer of Merchant's Gargling Oil, a remedy advertised to our grandparents as "good for man or beast"; one of Hodge's stunts was to send a steamer bedecked with banners over the Niagara cataract. (from the New York edition)
The guides are literally packed with this kind of stuff, each one more delightful than the last. This was an awesome project, never before -- and likely never again -- was there such a vast and intensive snapshot of a nation and its people.