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

What Should a New

Federal Writers’ Project Bring?

“As we approach Depression-era unemployment levels, could another [Federal Writers’] Project come to pass?” David Kipen asked, in the Los Angeles Times almost two months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Kipen advised any trade publisher interested in helping to revive the project that “their first call should be to Matt Weiland,” now vice president and senior editor of W. W. Norton.

“I would relish a revitalized Federal Writers’ Project, of any scale, for our time,” Weiland told Kipen. “Vast portions of our country remain shockingly underdescribed”—so much for State by State—“and vast numbers of its citizen-writers remain underemployed. What better time, what fitter moment to engage loads of them in meaningful work and create a detailed and lasting portrait of America in (let us hope) the wake of the pandemic.” 

Long before COVID-19 spread, I’d been imagining how a State by State update or do-over might read. I thought of Missouri after Ferguson, Michigan after Flint. In the case of Connecticut after Newtown, we already have Rick Moody’s response, and it’s a doozy. Reflecting in the New York Daily News on the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Moody does not so much take back his State by State portrait as pretend it doesn’t exist.

In the anthology, Connecticut is “[a] state where a veneer of propriety is belied by the acting-out behavior of citizens and politicians alike… A state that you drive through, on the way to somewhere else, somewhere better.” After the massacre: “Connecticut has done nothing to deserve its infamy. My state is often a state you drive through on the way to more powerful neighbors elsewhere, unassuming, hard-working, undramatic.”

Before, an episode in which a teenaged Moody borrowed his mother’s Oldsmobile to visit a Greenwich classmate with a mansion and a pool: “I took my brother and stepbrother with me. We had all been drinking. I believe we drank the whole way to Greenwich.” The classmate and her mom argued; Moody and his brothers departed. “This episode seems to me now to reek of Connecticut,” he writes, “to reek of the melancholy, desperation, and drunkenness that lie below the pristine surfaces of the richest county in the richest state.” After: “Reading Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau and Whitman in my teens in Connecticut not only kept me home by the hearth, but it also taught me something about how lucky I was to live in an upper-middle-class family in one of the most affluent states in the country.”

Before, in a film about State by State made by Powell’s Books, a voice off-camera mentions one advantage of southwestern Connecticut: “Near a lot…. For instance, you were not far from New York City.” Moody considers this. “The swamps of Jersey are near New York City, too, but nobody lives there.”

Only one other state is described in the anthology as somewhere to drive through, not to drive to: Nebraska. After noting that even the WPA guide to his state opens with an invocation of the traveler rather than the Nebraskan himself, the filmmaker Alexander Payne jokes, “You’re probably just skimming through this chapter on your way to Nevada.” (“One could not imagine the WPA Guides to Maine or Montana or Missouri or even next-door-neighbor Iowa beginning with the words ‘the traveler crossing…’, he adds, “although people certainly cross those states too.”) “Nebraska” is grown-up, down-to-earth, economical, and respectful of the book’s stated aim. What made Payne take the assignment so seriously? I called his production company; he called me back. “It never occurred to me not to.” 

In the years since State by State appeared, the line between fiction and nonfiction has further blurred, even as we continue to expect good journalism to contain no deliberate deceptions; writers as well as characters are now permitted to be unreliable narrators. Meanwhile, “strategic hyperbole” has become increasingly accepted in literary as well as political writing, even when the writer’s ultimate goal is unclear. (F. L. Lucas’s guidance in Style remains sound: “In short, you may ironically overstate, or ironically understate; but I suggest that you should always flee from blind exaggeration as from the fiend.”)

It’s possible that essays written today would be even more misleading. Yet it seems likelier that the events of the past decade would effect, in the words of Barbara Tuchman, “an enforced obedience to reality.” Would a new batch of essays be serious, though, or merely grim? The two are not synonymous. In fact, State by State suggests that to be light, one need not be narrow or self-involved, blithely wrong or banally right. One can be heavy, apocalyptic.

In Jonathan Franzen’s “New York”, for example, we glimpse from a hilltop in Orange County “the whole gray and lukewarm future. No urban. No rural. The entire country just a wasteland of shittily built neither-nor”; in Anthony Bourdain’s “New Jersey”, we are advised that the future is now: “the whole country looks like Jersey.” A good anthology would make room for beauty marks and moles, cadences and jokes, savor and salt. All remain, and all remain interesting. 

I’d like to think that the writing cultivated from a current Federal Writers’ Project would be better—more mature—simply because the writers are older. (Five writers are no longer with us, all of them gone too soon: Bourdain, Barry Hannah [“Mississippi”], Tony Horwitz [“Virginia”], Randall Kenan [“North Carolina”], and David Rakoff [“Utah”].) I fear, given a growing ageism in the arts that is anti-intellectual as well as repellent, that Twitter would claim the opposite, and call for a project with no contributors over 50, or 40, or 35.

On the other hand, and as the Nation contributors proved—they were younger on average than State by State’s, yet seemed more grown-up—a writer needn’t be pushing 60 not to be puerile. Nor, for that matter, should it take tragedies or Donald J. Trump to make writers serious. It’s worth recalling where America was as a country at the time State by State appeared, how things seemed to Americans then. As his second term concluded, George W. Bush had already been named by many historians the worst president in American history; we were only seven years past 9/11; the great recession was underway. It’s not clear why jaunty attacks, superficial panegyrics, random reportage, and puberty memoirs were any more appropriate in 2008 than they would be now. 

“I believe as a nation we have touched the cultural bottom and are ready to be smart again,” Ann Patchett wrote in The Wall Street Journal on 17 January 2009. Her optimism had everything to do with the new administration: “When President-elect Barack Obama announced on 60 Minutes that he’d like to see poetry readings in the White House, I found myself thinking that change was going to come.”

I wasn’t so sure. If Auden is right that poetry makes nothing happen, neither do poetry readings. But Obama was very much on my mind, too, especially after I learned that Wilsey had presented him with a copy of State by State at an October 2008 event. As the candidate opened the anthology and began reading, Wilsey talked about the Federal Writers’ Project. 

“Yes, I know about it,” Obama said and kept reading. He was, Wilsey reported in The Guardian, “engrossed”. (After a few minutes with the book I was possessed.) 

Wilsey received an invitation to the event after donating his half of the advance for State by State to Obama’s campaign. I never gave Obama anything but a couple of votes, but I wished I’d been able to deliver in person a preview quiz, the guessing game with which I opened. He might have aced it: though he knows the country, he also knows the culture and is decidedly with-it himself. But how would Obama have explained the answer key to kids—say, his daughters? And how would he have explained it to adults, including those of us whose critical sensibilities were formed by many of the WPA and Nation writers?

Look—it’s not as if it’s Sarah Palin claiming all Montanans love the bard; it’s Sarah Vowell. (Recall that the candidate for Vice President referred to Alaska as “a microcosm of America”.) Relax, folks, it’s only culture. Obama was in a tricky position: he believes in good education, good history, good literature. But he is also a supporter of the nation’s writers, and while in the White House had several, including Dave Eggers, visit over lunch. 

Even as I long for the insights of an off-the-record Obama, it might be more fun to give my quiz to Joe “No Malarkey” Biden and Dr. Jill Biden. They too are deeply familiar with the states but less with-it, less measured. And Dr. Jill (if I may) would feel entitled to mark up the sentences even though she’s only a writing teacher, not a journalist or novelist. 

A writer friend once described State by State in an email as “so, how shall I say, just passing through, even with comparison to [the Nation essays].” Exactly, and therein, for writers and readers alike, are lessons worth pursuing. In any case, I think of him whenever I come across a State by State essay in a different anthology (Lahiri’s “Rhode Island” appears in the latest Norton Reader) or see the book cited. Last summer I found this reference in a newly published monograph by a professor of English at Montana State University

[M]uch of the vibrant Shakespeare culture in Montana took place at the turn of the twentieth century, and the love affair between residents of this region and Shakespeare’s works has not waned even in the twenty-first century. A case in point is a book entitled State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (2008), which features a map of the country with icons to epitomize what each state is known for. Iowa has an ear of corn, Arizona a cactus, Kentucky a racehorse, and so on. Surprisingly, Montana is emblazoned with Shakespeare’s face. Why? ‘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.’

A dozen years after its publication, the anthology serves as scholarly evidence. Still, my friend isn’t wrong. Like all bad books of the hour, State by State will pass. 

Can we say the same about the habits of mind?

As I handed it to him I was thinking ‘We, all of us, did this for you.’ I think you can see that in the picture.”

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