It sounds like the premise for one of those classic screwball comedies of the 1930s: Thousands of out-of-work writers are hired by the United States government to collaborate on books. What could possibly go wrong?
But as Scott Borchert reveals in his new book, Republic of Detours, the amazing thing about the Federal Writers’ Project was just how much went right.
The Federal Writers’ Program was a New Deal initiative cooked up to get novelists, reporters, librarians, teachers and poets working during the Great Depression. On average, it employed 4,500 writers a month, many of them working on guidebooks for the then-48 states.
A few of the illustrious “broke writers” given a hand by the project were Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and John Cheever. Borchert cheekily refers to this list of famous alums as “the potted roster” that every book on the project necessarily cites.
What he pulls off in Republic of Detours is a dynamic and discriminating cultural history that speaks to both readers who know something about the project and those who don’t. Like the American Guides these Depression-era writers worked on, Borchert’s book teems with colorful characters, scenic byways and telling anecdotes; his own writing style is full of “verve” — the much prized quality that so many of the guides themselves possessed.
Throughout Republic of Detours, Borchert also makes a timely case for viewing these guidebooks — assembled in part out of the narratives of formerly enslaved people and histories of “economic struggles” — as presenting a “multitudinous” national story that was directly at odds with the Euro-centric, “whites only” one cherished by nativists. That tug of war between two visions of America, as Borchert recognizes, has only intensified today and makes his excursion into the Federal Writers’ Project and the American Guides it produced much more than a nostalgic road trip.
Borchert takes inspiration in structuring Republic of Detours from the idiosyncratic waywardness of the guidebooks themselves: His chapters are dubbed “Tours,” and they circle around key figures like, for instance, Henry Alsberg, a lawyer and journalist in his 50s, who was at loose ends when he was appointed by Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration, to direct this work relief project.
Alsberg and his team quickly came up with the idea of guidebooks because such collective writing assignments would “absorb a maximum number of jobless workers from the relief roles.” Speaking at a Federal Writers’ Project staff meeting, Hopkins stressed that the welfare of human beings came first; their literary qualifications came second. Consequently, one of the principles of the Federal Writers’ Project was that it regarded writing “as a craft like any other — or, better yet, as a form of labor.”
That inclusive definition attracted some peculiar applicants. In New York, Borchert tells us, “a mail carrier applied because he was ‘a man of letters.'” Despite its generous ambitions, however the project was restrictive when it came to race: Borchert acknowledges that while “[s]ome of the most talented Black writers in the country were concentrated in the New York City and Chicago offices … of roughly 4,500 FWP workers in February 1937, only 106 were Black.”
One of the most compelling writers whose story Borchert recovers in the book is that of Vardis Fisher, a temperamental, little known novelist who directed the project in Idaho and pretty much wrote that state’s guide himself. Driving around the state, Fisher would stop at nightfall and then write untilmidnight. He captured places like the marshy islands of Henry’s Lake, where legendary Native American burial grounds “vanished and reappeared with their cargo of dead.” Clearly, like so many of the other American Guides, Fisher’s was a hybrid between a reference volume and a work of literature, “a book that could rest in your car’s glove compartment or on your nightstand.”
In 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project was investigated as “un-American” by a congressional committee led by the nativist Texas Rep. Martin Dies Jr. The committee claimed the American Guides offered “a splendid vehicle for the dissemination of class hatreds.” With its funding slashed in 1939, the project limped along to complete publication of all the planned states’ guides. The overarching mission of the Federal Writers’ Project — to, in its fragmented way, tell a more diverse and inclusive national story — is, of course, a project that’s still ongoing and still fiercely contested.