It sounds like the premise of one of those classic 1930s comedies: Thousands of jobless writers are hired by the United States government to collaborate on books. What could go wrong?
But as Scott Borchert reveals in his new book, Republic of Detours, what’s amazing about the Federal Writers’ Project is how well everything turned out.
The Federal Writers’ Program was a New Deal initiative designed to employ novelists, journalists, librarians, teachers, and poets during the Great Depression. On average, it employed 4,500 writers per month, many of whom worked on guides for the 48 states at the time.
Some of the illustrious “broken writers” aided by the project were Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and John Cheever. Borchert insolently refers to this list of famous alumni as “the potted list” that every book on the project necessarily cites.
What he shoots Republic of Detours is a dynamic and discriminating cultural story aimed at both readers who know the project and those who do not. Like the American guides on which these Depression-era writers worked, Borchert’s book is full of colorful characters, picturesque detours and telling anecdotes; his own style of writing is full of “verve” – the highly prized quality possessed by so many guides themselves.
All along Republic of Detours, Borchert also argues in favor of viewing these guides – assembled in part from the accounts of former slaves and stories of “economic struggles” – such as presenting an “countless” national history that directly disagreed with Euro-centric, “for whites only” history cherished by nativists. This standoff between two visions of America, as Borchert acknowledges, has only intensified today and made his excursion into the Federal Writers’ Project and the American guides that he produced much more than a nostalgic road trip.
Borchert is inspired by the structuring Republic of Detours from the idiosyncratic delusion of the guides themselves: its chapters are nicknamed “Tours” and they revolve around key figures such as, for example, Henry Alsberg, a lawyer and journalist in his fifties, who was distraught when he was appointed by Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration, to lead this work-lightening project.
Alsberg and his team quickly came up with the idea of guides because such collective writing assignments “would absorb a maximum of unemployed workers in relief roles.” Speaking at a Federal Writers’ Project staff meeting, Hopkins stressed that the well-being of human beings comes first; their literary skills came second. Therefore, one of the tenets of the Federal Writers’ Project was that it viewed writing “as a profession like any other – or, better yet, as a form of work.”
This inclusive definition has attracted particular candidates. In New York, Borchert tells us, “a postman applied because he was ‘a man of letters'”.[s]Some of the country’s most talented black writers were concentrated in offices in New York and Chicago … of about 4,500 FWP workers in February 1937, only 106 were black. “
One of the most compelling writers whose story Borchert retrieves in the book is that of Vardis Fisher, a capricious and little-known novelist who led the project in Idaho and practically wrote the guide to that state himself. . Driving around the state, Fisher stopped at nightfall and wrote until midnight. He captured places like the swampy islands of Lake Henry, where legendary Native American cemeteries “disappeared and reappeared with their cargo of the dead.” Obviously, like so many other American guides, Fisher’s was a hybrid between a reference volume and a literary work, “a book that could sit in the glove compartment of your car or on your bedside table.”
In 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project was investigated as “un-American” by a congressional committee headed by Texas Nativist representative Martin Dies Jr. The committee claimed that American guides offered “a magnificent vehicle for the dissemination of class hatred ”. With its funding cut in 1939, the project limped along to complete publication of all planned state guides. The Federal Writers’ Project’s overarching mission – in its fragmented way, to tell a more diverse and inclusive national story – is, of course, a project that is still ongoing and still fiercely contested.