A Guide to Vermont, and America: Project Revives Spirit of WPA Guidebooks
From Tara Wray's Fiddlehead Ferns post in the online American Guide. (Tara Wray photograph)
From James Orndorf's post Northern Navajo Nation Fair - Shiprock, New Mexico in the online American Guide. (James Orndorf photograph)
From Erin Chapman's story about the Ganesha Temple in Queens, N.Y., for the online American Guide. (Erin Chapman photograph)
A photograph from Tara Wray's post to the online American Guide. (Tara Wray photograph)
From Tara Wray's Fiddlehead Ferns post in the online American Guide. (Tara Wray photograph)
When she started making documentary photographs in Barnard and surrounding towns several years ago, Tara Wray was working more or less in isolation, putting her photographs up on the Internet.
But the Internet being what it is, she got to know other photographers with an interest in the vernacular subjects Wray favors, and they led her to The American Guide. The website, theamericanguide.org, which features photographs and short articles from people around the country, is a deliberate attempt to connect with the spirit of the original Depression-era American Guide series, which set out to describe America to Americans, one state at a time.
The American Guide got off the ground in August 2012, and about a year ago Wray became the state guide for Vermont.
“I feel like it’s necessary and useful and important,” Wray said of The American Guide’s work. She and a loosely-knit network of photographers is trying to do for post-recession America what the original guides did in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The Great Recession, 18 months of economic contraction that started in 2007, didn’t approach the magnitude of the Great Depression, when the economy shrank for 43 months, unemployment reached 25 percent and there was no social safety net to help people who were out of work.
But in a country that insists on its own exceptionalism and is used to projecting its economic and military might, the sudden and protracted weakness wrought by the Great Depression and Recession fostered a crisis of identity. There’s a question floating in the air over America’s inert government and sluggish recovery: What’s wrong with us?
During the 1930s and early 1940s, the Works Progress Administration put thousands of writers and researchers to work writing the American Guide series. Eventually, the series expanded to the 48 states, the Alaska territories, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. The aim was to give jobs to writers and to describe a country still adjusting to the mobility enabled by its cars and paved roads.
The American Guide, the website, was inspired by the Depression-era guides. Co-founders Erin Chapman and her husband Tom McNamara went on their first date to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y., where they picked up a copy of the WPA guide to New York City. The book was a reliable guide, even now, to New York.
“We just got really into the series,” Chapman said in a phone interview. They try to find American Guides when they travel. “The old books themselves are these really amazing objects,” Chapman said. Some of the most highly decorated American writers worked on the guides, including Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Some of the guides have fold-out maps inside their front and back covers and the books are richly illustrated.
Chapman and McNamara started posting photographs from their travels, often paired with an excerpt from the relevant state guide and text they wrote themselves, to a Tumblr site, a blogging platform that tends to be more visual than literary. Tumblr contacted them and helped promote the site.
Last November, they held an American Guide Week to encourage more people to submit photos and stories and to become state guides. Another American Guide Week is planned for Nov. 18-24.
“We’ve dug out the actual mimeographed manual that the WPA sent out to each state research office,” Chapman said. The manual was full of ideas about what sort of information the guides should furnish. For American Guide Week, she and McNamara plan to send out 10 of the “bureaucratically styled” questions as prompts for would-be guides to answer in the form of posts to the site.
Creating The American Guide was a response to how hard it is to get a clear picture of the country through mass media, Chapman said.
“We were both working in news and sort of tired of the 24/7 cycle,” she said. Although both were working at PBS in New York, they were attuned to the news, so much of which was either too shallow to be useful or instantly disposable as new information rapidly superseded established reports. “It just seemed like a lot of political feedback and not really about America,” Chapman said.
Like the original guides, the posts on The American Guide are meant to provide texture and color, although even a scan of the Vermont guidebook suggests that it was intended to be a deeply reported factual document. In both cases, the motivation is the same.
“We love America and a lot of people love America,” Chapman said.
At theamericanguide.org, viewers can look at photographs of the annual Northern Navajo Nation Fair in Shiprock, N.M.; a party of Pittsburgh Steelers fans watching the game on boats in one of the city’s three rivers; Klyde Warren Park, a year-old park in Dallas, Texas; and a portrait of the industrial prairie town of Marshalltown, Iowa, with text from Iowa: A Guide to the Hawkeye State, from 1938. Where the 20th century books were meant to be authoritative, the 21st century blog posts tend toward the quirky and offbeat.
Wray pairs her photographs of Vermont with excerpts from the original 1937 state guide, which bore the stamp of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, one of the state’s most prominent writers in the first half of the 20th century and one of the most influential women in the country. (Later editions from the 1960s, after Fisher’s death, contain an essay on Vermonters by Charles Miner Thompson.) Looking to the past for inspiration is part of what makes The American Guide unlike other websites, Wray said.
“It’s sort of like a throwback, in a way,” she said. The photography looks back to Depression-era figures such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, she said. “It feels like being part of an old-fashioned community of photographers,” Wray said.
So far, Wray has documented a couple of Vermont’s old foodways — fiddlehead ferns and apple cider — cows, church spires and vernacular architecture.
“I have a file full of things I want to cover,” Wray said, among them Morgan horses, the Morrill Homestead in Strafford and the Vermontasaurus, a dinosaur made of scrap wood in Post Mills.
The original Vermont guide is a consistent source of surprise. “Going through it, I’ll read something that was written in 1937 that could have been written today,” Wray said. Often it’s something that’s unique to Vermont, an idea with decades of longevity. For example, “even when this book was written, they were talking about the idea that Vermont is losing its young,” Wray said, a subject that recently turned up on the cover of Vermont Life.
There’s a painful irony at the heart of The American Guide: Where the Depression-era writers were being paid by their government so they could make ends meet while discovering and describing their country, today’s online contributors are paid in Internet currency. Which is to say, nothing.
“It’s a lot of volunteer work,” Chapman said. She and McNamara support the site with their day jobs. She’s a video producer at the American Museum of Natural History, while he still works at PBS.
The state guides aren’t paid, although Chapman said they were applying for grants, and that she and McNamara are working on a pilot project with PBS Digital to make videos under The American Guide banner. Wray received a grant in 2008 to photograph Barnard residents, a project she’s still working on. If the federal government or Warren Buffett offered to shower the project with money, its founders and supporters wouldn’t say no.
American Guide Week should enhance awareness of The American Guide. Wray said she’d like to see more Vermont guides posting photographs and stories about the state, and so far the site has received only one post about New Hampshire. Chapman and McNamara recently sent word out to their most dedicated guides, asking them how they think the site should expand. Possibilities include a stand-alone website that’s easier to navigate than the Tumblr site, and more writing to accompany photographs. A physical book, traveling exhibitions of photographs, text and video are also among the possibilities.
Ideally, The American Guide would be a launch pad the same way the original books were for Cheever, Ellison, Hurston and others. “I would love for this project to be the same kind of platform for people because they’re some really talented folks,” Chapman said.
And in the long term, the aim is to document the nation as fully as possible.
“Ultimately, I think what the original guides did and what I hope we’re amassing is kind of a self-portrait,” Chapman said.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.