The WPA Guides

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Christine Bold. The WPA Guides: Mapping America. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. xvi, 246 pp. $20.00, ISBN 1-57806-195-4.

Summary

Christine Bold’s The WPA Guides: Mapping America reveals an unexpected outcome of New Deal policies to provide work and to change American society. The Guides, one for each state and all published through the Federal Writers Project (1935-1943), were designed to highlight notable features of each state, including geography, history, diversity, and arts. However, the infrastructure to create and publish these books created palpable tension between the Ivy League educated Washington staff with left, liberal ideology and the conflicting values of local fieldworkers. Bold argues that Washington’s “vision amounted to unselfconscious paternalism and respect for difference of the right kind, joined with a typical New Deal zeal for planning” (32), but it is in the process of local contestation to these standards that the forces of cultural production emerge.

For example, in the case of North Carolina these workers did not feel the need to include the influence of blacks or Cherokee Indians, or receive input from the academic community, while the New York fieldworkers were guided by a far more radical liberalism that sought to dissolve the boundaries imposed by Washington. Through examining the purpose and process of the Guidebooks through a chapter each on Idaho, New York, Missouri, North Carolina, and highway tours, followed by an epilogue describing the later life and meaning of the books, Bold discovers a process of cultural production linked to national and local citizenship.

One aspect of The WPA Guides is Bold’s analysis of the role of individuals and their politics, especially as related to New Deal reform, had on shaping the Guides. In one case, Idaho was essentially the vision of one man, Vardis Fisher, whose biases and values on people, landscapes, and the research and editorial process defined the state for all the nation’s consumption. Fisher’s description of Idaho “refused to conform to the New Deal’s cultural vision, implicitly challenging the dominant 1930s’ meanings of the frontier, authorizing rugged individualism in a presocial landscape, and thus naturalizing a version of social relations profoundly at odds with the Progressive history critical of New Dealers’ faith in social improvement” (37). Once again in New York, the politics of those most closely involved in the project determined the outcome, in this case creating two distinct Guides in 1938 and 1939. As Bold argues, both tested the limits of the New Deal project and the guidebook genre (92) with the 1938 Guide attempting to order society through creating divisions while the 1939 Guide celebrated the human perspective and the differences class, race, and gender imply.

A second mode of Bold’s analysis is to view the Guides as a production born out of conflicting priorities in regards to local constituencies and local knowledge versus a national agenda. In North Carolina, competing interests volleyed for national visibility and cultural legitimacy through the Guide and in the process mapped out “guidelines to cultural belonging and exclusion, according to the large political categories of race, gender, and class” (124). In their zealousness to prove their state as a presence on the American landscape, Bold argues the writers relied on local historical lore in the “’George Washington Slept Here’ syndrome” (139) at the expense of accurately representing racial and ethnic roots. Rather than contesting the role of Washington and the ideology promoted by the other Guidebooks, Missouri writers saw the connection to Washington, and by association New York, “as a way to link with national and international developments—overstepping corrupt state party politics and parochial cultural standards” (163). In a state with a growing urban center, Missouri used the Guidebook to build its reputation among national readers as opposed to North Carolina that hoped to impress its heritage.

In order to unify these narratives, Washington editor Katharine Kellock devised the Highway Route Guide series. Beyond binding the nation, the Highway Guides provided “a story of the nation in the practical minutiae of their directions and in the categories with which they framed the cultural landscape” (64). Bold argues that ultimately the Highway Guides provide a framework for understanding a newly mobilized and rearranged society through a “Progressive interpretation of history [that valued the role of labor, like the WPA fieldworkers] and professionalized relief” (70) among others. However, with the exception of Missouri, states were not interested in being bound to each other or to a prescribed set of principals for the sake of progress, but rather understood their goal to be to create a unique local identity.

Commentary

Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

As strong as Bold’s analysis is as a work of cultural studies of the past, she is weak in providing the necessary historical context that would make The WPA Guides great. She grounds her analysis in how the Guides supported or refuted New Deal policy and its effects. Further, she focuses on the political ideologies of the Washington editors and the field staff. However, she never fully articulates which pieces of New Deal policy she is using as her frame of reference. Nor does she explain what she considers to be the tenets of the New York staffers’ radical leftist thinking. To say she assumes readers already know these distinctions is a possible explanation, but not a satisfactory one since the concepts of “New Deal policy” and “New York radicalism” are far too large for consensus of meaning. It is unclear that The WPA Guides is designed for an audience of historians, and if it is not, it is even more problematic to assume readers will have a good sense of 1930s politics. As a work of analysis of cultural production, Bold offers a solid work of scholarship that is worth reading; but as a work of cultural history, The WPA Guides is missing some crucial pieces.

The major question not answered throughout The WPA Guides is how the Guidebooks were received at the time by people outside of the WPA program. Bold impresses the longevity of the Guides and for what they came to represent for later generations, but does not actually address if and how the books were used during the 1930s and 1940s. Often Bold stresses the diversity and democracy within the program, but ultimately the artists and writers shared much in common, whether from background, experience, or being shaped by elites leading the program. The Guides are painted as part of an elite social and political commentary and it remains unclear what and how much of this message related to concepts such as citizenship, identity, and heritage trickled down to those reading it at the time.

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