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

The Drive-Through


Let us grant that for most of these novelists and journalists, State by State was, if not necessarily hackwork, certainly not their main work. “I can write nonfiction out jogging,” the novelist Ann Patchett once told an audience. (And probably she can: Patchett doesn’t ask us to believe that everyone in Tennessee is left-handed or makes a mean tiramisu.) But even if they’d composed their essays out skydiving, peer pressure alone should have discouraged abject hooey.

When Jack Hitt, to name just one writer, suggested in “South Carolina” that state pride is nonexistent, wasn’t he worried about “Texas”? He should have been: “When I lived there, I heard more rhetoric about being a Texan than I heard in any of my previous residences about being a Delawarean or a Hoosier or Chicagoan or even an Iowan,” writes Cristina Henríquez. “The only other place in the world where I’ve seen people exhibit such chest-thumping pride is Panama.” 

The editors, if no one else, must have cared about State by State, and according to Weiland, they did. “I mean no dishonor to any of the writers to say that we worked very closely with them all to revise as much as possible, to make every piece as lasting and solid and convincing as possible,” he told Bookslut. “I think they saw very quickly we wanted to make a book that would still be read decades from now … and that meant working with them very seriously and very closely, and not even taking their A-minus work, but pushing them for their absolute best.”

The editors are not the first fools in the lit biz with an inflated notion of what they’re up to, a former colleague emailed me, joining a chorus that insisted I learn to be above it all. (None of these rather ardent advisors claimed to have read the book; most had chums who had contributed to it.) But State by State is the work of 50 writers, not one lone crackpot; if indeed it reveals how they see America when they aren’t trying all that hard, I find the default view possibly more interesting rather than less. No. Move on. Ignore it.

Reviewers could have done just that. They did not. “It’s been reviewed in pretty much every place it could possibly be reviewed,” Weiland told Bookslut. “Except, for the record, my hometown paper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune.” It would be more accurate to say that State by State was featured almost everywhere (even the Star Tribune soon weighed in with a capsule rave), and proclaimed not a failure on its own terms but superb— “actually kind of great” (Time); “greater than the sum of its excellent parts” (The New York Times Book Review, which touted the anthology on its podcast); “impressive” (The Boston Globe); “charming” (Chicago Tribune);  “ideal nightstand reading” (Salon); “[a] fascinating collection” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer);  “a euphoric collection” (Denver Post); “an antidote to the oversimplifying red state/blue state rubric” (Los Angeles Times); “an achievement” (The Stranger); “a sign of progress, a ray of hope” (The New York Observer); a best book of the year (NPR, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice).

Full disclosure: PopMatters liked it, too. Thanks to my paperback’s blurbs, I’d had from the outset a sense of State by State’s reception. But I never doubted that attention had also been paid to the book’s falsehoods, chasms, distortions, and indulgences; perhaps they’d been presented as “minor faults in an otherwise excellent work,” as Elizabeth Hardwick had it in “The Decline of Book Reviewing“. I was wrong. I half expected the Brits to be tougher (New Statesman had not held back on The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, another Weiland/Wilsey anthology). I was half wrong. The Spectator thought the “results … a little mixed”, but The Independent liked State by State so much that it signed off with a recommendation for President Obama: “If the new American administration is serious about its cultural diplomacy and its use of soft power, it might want to let the rest of the world in on what America looks like from the inside…. The state department could do a lot worse than issue every embassy with a box or two of State by State.” 

At the same time, teachers were assigning the book or thinking of doing so. There was the economics professor Tyler Cowen, who put State by State along with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America on a list of eight books he was considering for a summer session graduate course at Berlin’s Freie Universität. There was Gene, a high school teacher, who turned to The Millions to help him determine which of four contemporary books he should assign the “really intelligent” students in his 21st-century literature class. “I think State by State is the best,” a contributing editor responded, “since it showcases so many great writers.”

There was Calhoun, a private school in Manhattan, which required its upper-school students to read 15 of the essays over the summer. (“I don’t have the impression that our students cared very much about this assignment,” the school head at the time replied when I wrote to ask what the students made of the essays.) There was the Wisconsin high school that welcomed Weiland and two of his writers for a reading. “I wasn’t sure what high school students would make of it,” Weiland told Bookslut, “but we were careful to select the pieces with the most drinking and the most sex.”

Return, for a moment, to Weiland and Wilsey’s original intentions. “[W]e agreed that we didn’t want the book to become a kind of beauty contest full of partisan arguments for the superiority of one’s own state,” Weiland writes. “We wanted the good, the bad, the ugly.” They also wanted details: “What are each state’s particularities and idiosyncrasies, their prejudices and biases, their beauty marks and moles, their cadences and jokes?”

A month before the 2012 Republican presidential caucuses, The Atlantic published Stephen G. Bloom’s “Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life”, an essay that does almost exactly what Weiland and Wilsey had asked of their contributors, right down to delivering a story (“the more personal the better”) that captures the essence of the state. Bloom wrote about his yellow Lab:

"I can’t tell you how often over the years I’d be walking Hannah in our neighborhood and someone in a pickup would pull over and shout some variation of the following:
‘Bet she hunts well.’
‘Do much hunting with the bitch?’
‘Where you hunt her?’To me, it summed up Iowa. You’d never get a dog because you might just want to walk with the dog or to throw a ball to her to fetch. No, that’s not a reason to own a dog in Iowa. You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat. That’s the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president."

The outcry was immediate. Iowans designed and sold anti-Bloom t-shirts, wrote letters and seized on errors. (Iowa was only 91.3 percent white, not 96 percent! It was a 1976 New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg, not a 1967 cover by Sol Steinberg, on which Iowa did not appear!) The Atlantic ran rebuttals, “A Defense of Stephen Bloom’s Right to Describe”, and a statement from the University of Iowa’s president (“Stephen Bloom ‘Does Not Speak for the University’”).

The novelist Elizabeth McCracken, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, tweeted the article’s “oddest line: ‘Hats are essential.’” (Bloom describes the local farmer’s tan as “a blanched forehead above a leather-cured face.”) On an NBC Rock Center segment, Willie Geist lectured Bloom on his piece’s aesthetic failings: “I think for people reading it … it’s not the problems you raise, which are valid—rural poverty, poor economy in certain parts of the state. Those are all valid concerns. It’s the way you do it.” 

“I’m sorry, Willie,” Bloom replied. “This is the way I do it. This is called satire. This is called parody.” The article is neither. But given the circumstances, an impulse to say any old thing seemed almost as understandable as Iowa’s outrage. “By the time this essay is published I will already be in hiding, probably in a mid-sized sunbelt city, living under a pseudonym, and receiving no packages”: the joshing opening sentence not of Bloom’s “Iowa” but of Heidi Julavits’s “Maine.” When an interviewer asked Julavits about the actual response to the essay, she said there hadn’t been any. Bloom, on the other hand, having received sinister threats, was in fact in hiding in another state at the time of his Rock Center interview. 

Whenever I was advised not to criticize Weiland and Wilsey’s anthology, I thought of the oddly gleeful open season on Stephen Bloom, who in 2020 won the country’s top award. for teachers of journalism. (How easily a well-connected person could have called State by State’s bluff, but then a well-connected person probably wouldn’t have.) Mostly, though, I recalled how an earlier generation wrote about the states.

I’m not referring to the WPA guides, with which, because they are book-length, dry, deliberately impersonal, Weiland and Wilsey’s anthology can’t be compared. A little more than a decade before the Federal Writers’ Project, however, The Nation rounded up 48 (no need yet for 50) novelists and journalists and assigned each of them a state and an essay. The contributors to “These United States“, as the series is called, included Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, and a relative youngster who signed himself Edmund Wilson, Jr.

“I presented no specific formula except a general purpose to bring out, in whatever way the author desired, the state’s individuality,” the series editor, Ernest Gruening, recalled. Did the writers care about the project? One assumes that, like State by State’s contributors, they had other, more important work underway. Did they report on their intimate adventures and druggy glory? No, but of course “the long-winded personal angle…so popular nowadays,” as a character in Alice Munro’s “Silence” thinks of it, was not so popular then; those determined to unburden themselves did so somewhere other than in a state portrait. (If you’re interested in the erotic life of Edmund Wilson, consult his journals. From The Twenties: “I began to address myself to her bloomers, but she made me stop.”) Did they do the assignment? Yes, overwhelmingly. 

Stunning as it was to go from, say, Ha Jin’s “Georgia” (Jin writes about book collecting and his house, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch with a half-finished basement and a carport) to W.E.B. Du Bois’s (“It is usual for the stranger in Georgia to think of race prejudice and race hatred as being the great, the central, the unalterable fact and to go off into general considerations as to race differences and the eternal likes and dislikes of mankind. But that line leads one astray. The central thing is not race hatred in Georgia; it is successful industry and commercial investment in race hatred for the purpose of profit”), I was equally struck by the extent to which my time with the Nation essays reinforced even my lesser objections to the contemporary anthology.

When I read Sinclair Lewis on Minnesota—the Mayo Clinic, the Farmer-Labor party, the flour mills, the misunderstood Scandinavians, “a bookshop publishing the first English translation of the autobiography of Abelard”—I was freshly incensed by Philip Connors’ complaint in State by State that a radio variety show had already covered the subject: “What can anyone say about Minnesota in the face of thirty years and perhaps a thousand performances of A Prairie Home Companion?”

When I read Clara Stillman on Florida, I was newly unaccepting of Joshua Ferris’s excuse for skipping an overview of that state: “I’m afraid if I tried it, everyone would be asleep before I even had a chance to list all the state’s counties.” Stillman, like many of her colleagues, goes in not for listing but for productive generalization, telling us about the naturalists’ Florida, and the tourists’, and the one its residents regarded as “the best of the bad States.” (She wrote before the influx of seniors, who rate seven words with Ferris: “cottonheads throwing bocce balls in retirement communities.”) For Black Floridians, the only public library was a reading room in Jacksonville, and in Miami, there was a 9PM curfew. “In all South Florida there is only one high school, so called, for colored children,” Stillman writes. “The equipment for this school did not include chairs.”

I never dozed. If anything, the portraits were energizing: they heightened my curiosity along with my critical sense. The writers are not only more serious but funnier—witty rather than jokey. Cather on Nebraska’s push for assimilation: “Our lawmakers have a rooted conviction that a boy can be a better American if he speaks only one language than if he speaks two.” 

Ruskin defines the good book of the hour, as distinct from the good book of all time, as “simply the useful or pleasant talk of some person whom you cannot otherwise converse with, printed for you. Very useful often, telling you what you need to know; very pleasant often, as a sensible friend’s present talk would be.”

These United States’ hour was almost a century ago, and by no means did all of the writers transcend the prejudices of the period. Along with Du Bois’s superb “Georgia” are essays on Alabama and Mississippi that are neither pleasant nor sensible, and though we read a great deal about the Klan in the South, there is nothing on the Great Migration to the North. But if the Nation essays are very much of the time in which they appeared, State by State’s seem out of step with the 21st century.

A portrait of the country is not a bid for suburban swing voters. Why so much about relatively affluent areas? Redlining and its effects are one of the countless major subjects that either don’t come up or are given short shrift. On the whole, rather than grappling with the issues and injustices of the present, the writers seem to prefer taking a stand on past atrocities. (You’ll be relieved to learn they’re against them.) “Welcome to Idaho,” Anthony Doerr writes. “We … have an escalating methamphetamine crisis, looming water disputes, massive agribusiness feedlots, and hour-long lines to eat dinner at The Cheesecake Factory.” That’s that for current affairs, and Doerr gets on with his salute to the “old-school, bad-ass” Tukudeka tribe, attacked by the U.S. Army in 1879.

How do we become a serious people again?” Dave Eggers asked in The Guardian shortly before the 2020 election. “We still have enlightened humans inhabiting our land, thinking profound thoughts in labs and universities, even though in most other ways we’ve become the world’s silliest people.” Needless to say, American writers are implicitly among the enlightened. But it wouldn’t hurt Eggers and his colleagues to read both These United States (the essays were later collected) and its reviews, which are as tough-minded as the essays themselves.

The New York Times lauded the “remarkable absence of preciosity, of muck-raking for its own malicious joy, of virtuous contempt for the villagers back home”, but thought a couple of the contributors “hit too hard and too uncritically to be interesting.” The New Republic marveled that the writers had “not only been persuaded to write entertainingly, which is not so difficult—but to pack into their pages a surprisingly large amount of solid information about America and American life.”

The most incisive review, by Henry Seidel Canby, appeared in The Nation itself:

[M]ost of the criticisms of economic and social deficiencies made in these chapters apply to national or sectional conditions and have very little reference to the life of a State. It was to find what savor and salt remained in our State divisions, to discover what assets decentralization would find in them if it ever got under way, that the editor devised this series; or at least that ought to have been his reason if one judges by the results. … To complain as Mr. Mencken complains, or Mr. Wilson, or a dozen others of the effects of industrialism, is simply to enter a general complaint, and contributes little to knowledge.

Almost 70 years after the series was launched, Christopher Lasch devoted nine pages of The True and Only Heaven (1990) to the portraits and their authors, whom he thought snots. It’s not clear whether Lasch took poor notes or let his thesis get the better of him, but his summaries of the essays are less than reliable. And yet, in quarreling at length with These United States, Lasch paid the book the compliment of serious attention. His colleague Daniel H. Borus proceeded to read the essays himself, found them “remarkable”, and in 1992 brought out a new edition of These United States with Cornell University Press. Difficult to imagine a historian reissuing State by State in 2078.

In a paragraph of his preface acknowledging “others who have had the same idea”, Weiland praises John Leonard’s “stylish” These United States sequel, published in 2003, but strangely neglects to mention the original. The second These United States—not as good as the first, not as nutty as State by State (though showing, here and there, tremendous potential)—was largely ignored. Its finest entries deserved better. I especially recommend Michael Tomasky on West Virginia and Walter Kirn on Montana.