We Produced Americana | Newberry

We Produced Americana

There are hidden corners in every government: some make important decisions every day but just aren’t known (intentionally) while others just work away at some modest job that somebody deemed important (I’d say something like the Teenage Toenail Thickness Office, but it’ll turn out to be a thriving department with five thousand employees and monthly online statistics reports.) Others can be quite famous and then disappear into the mists of history.

Once upon a time, there was an outfit called the Works Progress Administration (later the Work Project Administration.) This was not a teeny project. By 1943, when World War II made it obsolete, it had found jobs for 6.5 million people. Its goal was to make sure at least one member of every household was gainfully employed. Buildings and roads built by WPA workers still abound.

As always, it was not easy to find a steady income for people in the arts. THAT was the goal of a subset of the WPA called Federal Project Number One, which was broken into five sections: one for actors and directors, one for musicians, one for artists, one for writers, and one for researchers. This last was the smallest group, and probably the one most noted at the Newberry. These folks sat in dingy courthouses to transcribe aging handwritten documents into something more accessible. They earned thereby the blessings and curses of generations of genealogists, both for transcribing these old papers OR for frequently reading the original handwriting incorrectly. Other researchers went out into the field and interviewed the elderly about what life before and during the Civil War was like.

The other four branches had their successes and their controversies: the kind of thing that always happens when a government funds creative work. Post Office murals, federally sponsored plays, dance projects: all were under intense scrutiny by the sort of people who intensely scrutinize, to make sure no propaganda for The Wrong Ideas gets into work paid for by taxpayer dollars. (Taxpayer Dollars are an odd breed, and just HATE being spent for the wrong thing.)

Here at the Book Fair, we see a lot of books which came out of the Federal Writers Program, one of the four branches, and probably one of the biggest targets of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. One of the constant sources of irritation was a bestselling project that LOOKS harmless today.

This was the American Guide Series, a set of travel guides for each state in the Union, some larger regions, some cities, and basically any place that a guidebook could be written about. These were intended to be miniature encyclopedias for visitors to say, Dubuque, Iowa. These guides included write-ups on any town of any size, the rivers, and historical sites, with routes and maps. (If you collect the American Guide Series, you really, really want those maps, which were frequently left in glove compartments.) Many of these went on being reprinted long after the Federal program ended: the publishers knew they had a reliable seller on their hands.

Each guide was done by people who lived in the region being covered. (They skipped Chicago, somehow, but Nelson Algren worked on the guide to Galena, Illinois.) This could lead to trouble with elected officials. Since this was a Franklin Roosevelt project, Republican elected officials were especially on the watch, and, anyway, elected officials prefer books which proclaim their state is perfect and everyone should come there and spend money. The Governor of Massachusetts objected to some history of labor difficulties in the Massachusetts Guide: this wound up enhancing sales. The author of the Guide to Tulsa, Oklahoma (Jim Thompson, later famous for his gritty crime novels) was so frank about how much influence the oil industry had on local government that he was denounced as a Communist and fired from the project. (The book on Oklahoma was thus headed up by one of his assistants, Louis LaMoore, who would change his name to Louis L’Amour and also write novels.)

Nowadays the books either collect dust in bookcases, or are featured in fans’ collections, or are reprinted and used as travel guides (The books are 80 years old, but mountains don’t move.) They covered all 48 states plus Alaska and Puerto Rico (No one going through a winter in Washington D.C. would have approved sending money to people writing about why you should visit Hawaii.) You will find these in Collectibles at the Book Fair (unless the map is missing or the previous owner used it so much it had to be taped back together. Then look in Travel.)

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