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Editorial: American Portrait; Website Revives Spirit of WPA Guides

By no means does every new Internet marvel pique our interest, but a website described by staff writer Alex Hanson on the Close-Up page earlier this month is more than intriguing in that it speaks not only to the American present but also to the past.

The site is theamericanguide.org, which aims at nothing less than documenting America as it emerges from the Great Recession and which draws for inspiration on the celebrated WPA guides of the 1930s and early ’40s. The website, containing photographs and short articles posted by people throughout the country, is well worth investigating. Its founders, Erin Chapman and Tom McNamara, describe the project this way: “It’s part archive curation from back in the day, part documentary travel in the here and now. It’s here to keep a state-by-state record of an America coming out of the Great Recession and beyond: to document people and places both pretty and hard because, all things being equal, that’s what makes America, America.”

In trying to channel the spirit of the original American Guide series, the website sets a high bar for itself. During the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration established the Federal Writers Project to provide work relief for thousands of struggling writers and professionals. This proved to be anything but the “busy work” its critics asserted; the magisterial American Guide series to the 48 states and several cities that resulted is a glittering and finely-wrought ornament of American culture. Not coincidentally, some of America’s most notable writers worked on the project, including John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston.

It is astonishing, in fact, how well much of what was written then bears scrutiny more than 70 years later. For example, the website, below photos depicting apple picking and cider pressing posted by Tara Wray of Barnard, carries this quotation from the original 1937 Vermont, A Guide To the Green Mountain State: “Yes, I think it is nearly safe, by and large, in spite of many exceptions … to say that Vermont represents the past, is a piece of the past in the midst of the present and future.” The author? Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

Although the American Guide series is infused with a sense of American dynamism, a passing acquaintance with several of the volumes suggests that the writers did not pull their punches even as they celebrated their country. For example, the preface to the 1939 guide to New York City instructs readers that it attempts not only to provide an accurate, detailed description of the five boroughs, but also “to point out the evidence of achievement and shortcomings, urban glamor as well as urban sordidness.” Its almost lyric description of the public food market in Spanish Harlem, where “voices are musical, and bargaining is done in a friendly spirit,” is followed immediately by this: “To Spanish Harlemites bargaining is more than a tradition; to save a few pennies is a necessity. Those who succeed in finding employment work as poorly paid domestics or at menial occupations in hotels, laundries, cigar factories, or on Works Progress Administration projects (!); ... Racial discrimination and lack of opportunity to learn skilled trades have kept both sexes from better-paid jobs.”

The enduring value of the American Guide series, and the potential embodied in the web version, lies in the aggregated power of thousands of facts — historical facts, geographical facts, architectural facts, specific descriptive facts about specific places and things and people — to convey the multifaceted truth of American life, not only in the moment but on out into the future. If this new documentary project is understood as an attempt to explain ourselves to ourselves as Americans, then the explanation will emerge in the welter of telling detail it compiles.