Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Whatever USA–or–Is It Time for a New Federal Writers’ Project?

State by State (2008) is rife with jaunty attacks, superficial panegyrics, random reportage, and puberty memoirs. Isn’t it time for a comparable update?

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
Matt Weiland, Sean Wilsey

Not long ago a New York Times guest essay called for a new Federal Writers’ Project. It’s a promising idea—not only for the reasons offered in the Times but because I’d like to see what our contemporary writers would do with another chance to portray the country. The last time 50 of them took a crack at it, things didn’t go so well.

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (2008), edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, was inspired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) state guides and began with the conviction that “America and the lives lived here remain strangely and surprisingly underdescribed.” The roster of writers, as dazzling as the WPA’s, included Alison Bechdel, Anthony Doerr, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Ha Jin, Heidi Julavits, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rick Moody, Susan Orlean, Ann Patchett, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and William T. Vollmann. “We knew we couldn’t find out everything—who could possibly be comprehensive about their own household, let alone an entire state?” Weiland recalls in his preface. “But couldn’t we put together a book that captures something essential, something fundamental and distinctive about each state?”

Given that seriousness of purpose, it should be easy to determine which of the following passages appear in State by State and which I took from a mock travelogue published a decade earlier, State by State with the State: An Uninformed, Poorly Researched Guide to the United States (a sketch comedy troupe formed at New York University, The State in the 1990s had its own cable television series):

  1. If you’re in New Hampshire and looking for a really good rhythm-and-blues bar…keeping driving until you hit a state that’s not all white people.
  2. Virginia, for all its Civil War carnage, shouldn’t be viewed only in ambrotype. It was a necropolis from the start.
  3. Massachusetts offered the first state constitution, and it served as a model for the rest of the country. And in my own lifetime, it was Massachusetts that gave birth to the first gourmet food shop that served only pudding, and, yes, it was called “Pudding it First.” After independence, however, something changed. Massachusetts became unnecessary.
  4. I guess that I am from Massachusetts, but I never felt at home there, and, really, no one ever does. 
  5. Ironically, it’s the innately hostile quality of the state and its inhabitants that makes [Maine] the Vacationland it undeniably is. Because who doesn’t want the bullshit cut clear through by an ice storm?
  6. In general, Michiganders have a live-and-let-live attitude about life, with a deep sense of religiosity and a strong kinship to family and friends.
  7. Michigan’s long winters and rugged, wild environment are responsible for creating what I observed to be the three distinct types of Michiganders: there is the Poet […] the Outdoorsman […] and the Sports Fanatic. 
  8. There’s a lot of “there” there [in South Carolina], which is saying something, state-wise. Most states aren’t places as much as they are political compromises or tourism slogans. Most people passionately claim their cities and patriotically claim their country. But their state?
  9. The truth is that I will always remain proud to be a Californian. I have the right to act in any consensual way that I choose; so does anyone else. In Sacramento, I might go duck hunting; in the Sierras, I could hike on my own terms; so, in San Francisco, I watched the nude submissive getting taped and lashed to the padded table, with an absorbent gauze pad beneath her buttocks and a mask over her face.
  10. If there is one thing all Montanans have in common, other than a disdain for speed limits and a thing for huckleberries, it is a love of William Shakespeare.

Most of these claims can be dismissed out of hand. For starters, “the Poet” isn’t even a leading type on the campus where I teach English, and I’m sorry to report that not all of our majors love Shakespeare. As for California’s hunters and hikers, it isn’t clear how they would obtain consent if indeed it were required: Duck, care to die? Mountain, may I go down on you?

Only the first passage, I’d venture, easily qualifies for the “real” book. Yet it is every passage except the first that appears in State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. In context, the claims—some disconcertingly glib, some disconcertingly earnest—do not improve. If one knows the country well, they’re even worse. About literacy in Michigan, I knew too little, so I consulted a 2009 series in the Detroit Free Press. A state study showed that “one out of three Michigan adults—1.7 million people—lacks the basic literacy skills to get a family-sustaining job.” 

State by State arrived in my college’s American Studies department in paperback, compliments of HarperCollins, in 2009. A history professor handed me the book, which I opened while a passenger in her car. Straightaway I was confronted with inanities. When I got home, I kept going, zigzagging around the country; the nonsense kept coming. Ohio’s “vast cornfields are…a myth” because the General Motors Plant at Lordstown is (was) “colossal”; Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was “a nascent state anthem that became a national anthem”; Vermont’s “bleeding heart values” have “been here from the get-go.” (Perhaps not: Vermont is one of two states that never voted for FDR and it did not send a Democrat to the Senate until 1975.) With half the essays still to read, the book was so bad that I could not put it down. 

Not everything that is outrageous is inaccurate. North Dakota, I’ll be the first to agree, “is still safe enough for children to live freely and spend their time outdoors”; West Virginia “is somewhere you can find a place to live”; and Rhode Island “is not an island.” (Jhumpa Lahiri begins “Rhode Island” with this announcement, shattering illusions right off the bat.) Not everything outrageous occurs at the level of the sentence. Whole essays are howlers: “Kansas” is about white people; “Arizona” about “very, very white” people; “Iowa” about Mexicans; “Missouri” about Bosnians.

If Weiland is right that Americans are largely ignorant of their own country (“So many mirrors and yet we know ourselves so poorly!”), it may be worth spelling out just how egregiously these portraits miss the mark. According to census information available at the time, Iowa ranked among the ten whitest states; Kansas did not. Arizona was nowhere close. Phoenix was the nation’s sixth most populous city; Lydia Millet never mentions it. Reporting on the Bosnians of St. Louis—less than one percent of the population of a state that is 11 percent Black (using the book’s statistics)—Jacki Lyden quotes a newspaper editor named Suki on why he thinks his fellow immigrants have prospered in the city:

Missourians would rather have Bosnian workers than blacks’—but that, in his judgment, is because the Bosnians work very hard and take pride in what they’ve done for the city. If there is a prejudice helping them, he says, it is an American phenomenon, not the Bosnians. His wife, Mirsada, puts it this way: ‘The reasons Missourians trust us is that we didn’t come here to lie, we came here to tell the truth, and even in Bosnia, a lot of the truth is prohibited. But here we have no discrimination and no jealousy. And that’s why we can live here and buy houses.’

The last thing we yearn for after this bewildering analysis is a chat with the city’s white mayor, but that’s what we get. And Francis Slay “cannot say enough good things about them”—the Bosnians. Theirs, Lyden concludes, is “an American success story.” On State by State’s “Foreign-Born Population” table, Missouri ranks 40th. (I got into the habit of flipping to the anthology’s fascinating tables, which appear at the back of the book.) “Why leave home if home is here?” Jayne Anne Phillips writes of West Virginia, the only state that, according to “Population Increase 1950–2000”, lost residents during those years. “You don’t leave your place because the going is tough any more than you’d leave your child if he was troubled or in trouble.” Phillips may have received a bulletin at this point, for in the next paragraph she allows that the talented “often leave home,” and “[t]hey’re one reason West Virginia is steadily losing population.” Might the decline of mining be the main one?

Outliers those essays are not. “Arkansas” recalls a 1990s bumper sticker war—”Speak Up for Liberty” vs. “Speak Up for Decency”. The essay is deft, shrewd, funny; the state is not essentially, fundamentally, distinctively purple. “Louisiana” takes us along on New Orleans ghost tours: “The city’s record, its contemporary histories, the lives of so many of its people, are mostly lost, washed away. Only the ghosts remain.” Spooky if true. What of the state?

“Kentucky” steers clear of thoroughbreds, the Derby, coal mining, bourbon, bluegrass, and (then as now) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Idaho” manages not to contain the word potato. Would the editors have accepted an essay on New York that more or less left out the state? About California we needn’t wonder: William T. Vollmann tells us that “Mr. Sean Wilsey…expressed concern that I might not have sufficiently emphasized (a) the positive and (b) the Pacific Coast,” so Vollmann returned to work. John Hodgman, however, was allowed to claim that “no one ever” feels at home in Massachusetts, where Wilsey, a Californian who attended boarding school there, has said he himself did not

“What would someone who has never been to America make of it from [these essays]?” Weiland asks in his preface. That reader might well be enchanted. See the country through its writers’ eyes: “For me, Mississippi has been a sweet experience of surpassing natural beauty and smart, gentle, talented gals and pals.” Wisconsin, also sweet: “[I]n most situations, Wisconsinites adhere to a certain unshakeable kindness.” Ditto Michigan: “Most Michiganders I came in contact with were unconditionally generous, always willing to give a helping hand to someone in need….” Illinois, sweeter still: “Every car will stop” if you run out of gas on I-57 in January. “Every car.” Georgia: “life is [even?] easier down here.”

But after reading about Connecticut (“[a] state where the preeminent approaches to life are rectitude and hypocrisy”), New Jersey (“a state that smells”), Maine (“just a lot of fat people hanging out in the rain”), Massachusetts (“ours is a tradition of exclusion”), and the mixed bag that is Rhode Island (at once “paradise” and “the heart of darkness”), a foreigner would likely conclude that the Northeast is the armpit of America. Even bad weather in New England is somehow worse: the cold turns Michiganders into poets, but it makes Mainers mean. Still, anyone seeking a state where residents “have souls instead of psyches, vegetable gardens rather than blogs” will be drawn to New Hampshire, and Vermont, where the “typical Vermonter” is “homosexual”, may appeal even to some who are straight.

On the other hand, the international reader with common sense and a steady diet of good books would probably ignore much of what State by State says about the country, and marvel instead at what it reveals about the culture. “The artist dare not fail to see the whole when he sees with the whole of him,” William H. Gass writes. Too many of these writers could not, or would not, keep in mind the whole of either state or country. Encouraged to be personal, they were instead solipsistic, with predictably topsy-turvy results. Phoenix isn’t the only big city that’s missing: in “Michigan”, Detroit is just an airport, “Florida” refers merely to “the parties” of Miami, and “Maryland” reduces Baltimore to what its author, Myla Goldberg, made of the city as a suburban kid on shopping trips (“a bastion of poverty and crime”).

We get a full page on the nine anonymous racist notes that Jhumpa Lahiri’s mother received while working at an elementary school in Rhode Island, along with a puzzling clarification that the school later shut down “for reasons having nothing to do with what happened to my mother.” (The essay was written less than a decade after the massacre at Columbine High, which remained open.) A terrible story, but does Lahiri think her mother would have fared better among the smart, gentle, talented gals and pals? In the land of universal roadside assistance? When it comes to racism, how does Rhode Island compare with, say, Alabama? George Packer’s essay on that state, incidentally, is about its “secret liberal history” and stars the white liberals in Packer’s extended family.

All of the above would be quite enough to sink State by State, yet there’s an additional curiosity: the compulsion of many a writer to self-identify as a veteran of puberty (“raging puberty” in Florida) and/or chemically assisted ups and downs. Stories of youth or sex or sexual orientation may be very much to the point, of course, in the literature of place. Not long before the writer Robert Leleux moved from Huntsville, Texas, to New York City to attend college, Matthew Shepard, “a young gay man to whom I bore a marked resemblance, was slain in Laramie, Wyoming, a town to which Huntsville bore a marked resemblance. I couldn’t swing a dead cat around without somebody telling me how terrified they were that I was going to get clubbed to death. Right and left, people actually said to me, ‘I’m just so terrified you’re going to get tied to a fence and clubbed to death.’ And then they’d give their heads a wistful little shake, like they were already planning my big gay funeral.” 

The disclosures in State by State, alas, are of another kind. Some writers just let them drop (“I might as well say that we drank a lot, and snorted a lot of crystal meth….” “I would have loved a goat to know what love was and was eager to explore bodies with anyone, any age, any race, any sex”). Others strain to establish the relevance of their confessions. “I suppose the swimming suit hubris could happen anywhere,” Louise Erdrich admits of an incident involving a bra-let too big for her breasts, “but only in North Dakota could a girl find salvation and start a new life in the blazing heat of a sugar beet field.” We hear less about hoeing beets than we do about the bathing suit, the local pool, her crush on a swim coach.

Alison Bechdel and the von Trapp family both ended up in Vermont and for the same reasons: “presence of hills, absence of Nazis.” Bechdel thus confides that her “earliest erotic experience” occurred when she was four and watching The Sound of Music. In “Maine”, Heidi Julavits tells us what it’s like to do drugs “on a semi-regular basis”: after a while, she reports, “your terror of the come-down creeps closer and closer to the apex of your druggy glory, until the moment when you’re nearing your happiest is also the moment most tinged with terror and apprehension because you’re about to begin the long descent.”

Julavits isn’t discussing drug use in her state, just speculating as to why a farmer—a stranger—took his own life in the summer rather than the winter: “You survived the worst and now you kill yourself?” But reflecting on those past highs, she believes she understands: “If you had to pull the plug, maybe the perfect ending place is on the upswing.” Fortunately, Julavits stops short of counseling leaf peepers at peak foliage.

One may assume that the confessions in State by State exist mainly to jolly us along so that we’ll sit still for the nitty-gritty. But then one notices what is and isn’t here: seven paragraphs on a San Francisco S&M dungeon but not a sentence on California’s prisons; two pages on watching hog coitus in North Carolina (do Iowa hogs do it differently?) but nothing on the forced sterilization of human beings; a confirmed report of “drinking and sex” in North Dakota but no mention of the availability of abortion. There is nothing on the death penalty, either, unless you count a reference to the electrocution of a white man in Alabama for the lynching of a Black man in 1981 and a Dave Eggers joke about executing fourth-offense mispronouncers of “Illinois”.

Virtually nothing on education, and one tidbit is strange: Lydia Millet claims that her local public elementary school in Arizona “suffers such a high rate of absenteeism that it’s in danger of being shut down; also it seems to have a small evangelical church attached to it.” Might the school be the Sun & Shield Christian Academy—now closed, never public? She’s in a better position than I am to nail this down. 

We do learn that quite a few of the writers attended private school.