'Republic Of Detours' Revisits A Group Of Quirky, Depression-Era Guides To The States

Jun 16, 2021

It sounds like the premise for one of those classic screwball comedies of the 1930s: Thousands of out-of-work writers are hired by the United States government to collaborate on books. What could possibly go wrong?

But as Scott Borchert reveals in his new book, Republic of Detours, the amazing thing about the Federal Writers' Project was just how much went right.

The Federal Writers' Program was a New Deal initiative cooked up to get novelists, reporters, librarians, teachers and poets working during the Great Depression. On average, it employed 4,500 writers a month, many of them working on guidebooks for the then-48 states.

A few of the illustrious "broke writers" given a hand by the project were Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and John Cheever. Borchert cheekily refers to this list of famous alums as "the potted roster" that every book on the project necessarily cites.

What he pulls off in Republic of Detours is a dynamic and discriminating cultural history that speaks to both readers who know something about the project and those who don't. Like the American Guides these Depression-era writers worked on, Borchert's book teems with colorful characters, scenic byways and telling anecdotes; his own writing style is full of "verve" — the much prized quality that so many of the guides themselves possessed.

Throughout Republic of Detours, Borchert also makes a timely case for viewing these guidebooks — assembled in part out of the narratives of formerly enslaved people and histories of "economic struggles" — as presenting a "multitudinous" national story that was directly at odds with the Euro-centric, "whites only" one cherished by nativists. That tug of war between two visions of America, as Borchert recognizes, has only intensified today and makes his excursion into the Federal Writers' Project and the American Guides it produced much more than a nostalgic road trip.

Borchert takes inspiration in structuring Republic of Detours from the idiosyncratic waywardness of the guidebooks themselves: His chapters are dubbed "Tours," and they circle around key figures like, for instance, Henry Alsberg, a lawyer and journalist in his 50s, who was at loose ends when he was appointed by Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration, to direct this work relief project.

Alsberg and his team quickly came up with the idea of guidebooks because such collective writing assignments would "absorb a maximum number of jobless workers from the relief roles." Speaking at a Federal Writers' Project staff meeting, Hopkins stressed that the welfare of human beings came first; their literary qualifications came second. Consequently, one of the principles of the Federal Writers' Project was that it regarded writing "as a craft like any other — or, better yet, as a form of labor."

That inclusive definition attracted some peculiar applicants. In New York, Borchert tells us, "a mail carrier applied because he was 'a man of letters.'" Despite its generous ambitions, however the project was restrictive when it came to race: Borchert acknowledges that while "[s]ome of the most talented Black writers in the country were concentrated in the New York City and Chicago offices ... of roughly 4,500 FWP workers in February 1937, only 106 were Black."

One of the most compelling writers whose story Borchert recovers in the book is that of Vardis Fisher, a temperamental, little known novelist who directed the project in Idaho and pretty much wrote that state's guide himself. Driving around the state, Fisher would stop at nightfall and then write untilmidnight. He captured places like the marshy islands of Henry's Lake, where legendary Native American burial grounds "vanished and reappeared with their cargo of dead." Clearly, like so many of the other American Guides, Fisher's was a hybrid between a reference volume and a work of literature, "a book that could rest in your car's glove compartment or on your nightstand."

In 1938, the Federal Writers' Project was investigated as "un-American" by a congressional committee led by the nativist Texas Rep. Martin Dies Jr. The committee claimed the American Guides offered "a splendid vehicle for the dissemination of class hatreds." With its funding slashed in 1939, the project limped along to complete publication of all the planned states' guides. The overarching mission of the Federal Writers' Project — to, in its fragmented way, tell a more diverse and inclusive national story — is, of course, a project that's still ongoing and still fiercely contested.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, one of the most idealistic of the New Deal programs was inaugurated. This one not only aimed to give white-collar workers jobs but also to define America for Americans. A new book called "Republic Of Detours" by Scott Borchert tells the story of the Federal Writers' Project. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: It sounds like the premise for one of those classic screwball comedies of the 1930s - thousands of out-of-work writers hired by the United States government to collaborate on books. What could possibly go wrong? The amazing thing about the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal program cooked up to get many novelists, reporters, librarians, teachers and poets working during the Great Depression, was just how much went right. The Federal Writers' Project employed on average 4,500 writers a month, many of them working on guidebooks for the then-48 states. A few of the illustrious broke writers given a hand by the project were Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and John Cheever.

In his new book on the Federal Writer's Project called "Republic Of Detours," Scott Borchert cheekily refers to this list of famous alums as the potted roster that every book on the project necessarily cites. What he pulls off in "Republic Of Detours" is a dynamic and discriminating cultural history that speaks to both readers who know something about the project and those who don't. Like the American guides those Depression-era writers worked on, Borchert's book teams with colorful characters, scenic byways and telling anecdotes. His own writing style is full of verve, the much prized quality that so many of the guides themselves possessed. Throughout "Republic Of Detours," Borchert also makes a timely case for viewing these guidebooks, assembled in part out of ex-slave narratives and histories of economic struggles as presenting a multitudinous national story that was directly at odds with the Eurocentric whites-only one cherished by nativists.

That tug of war between two visions of America, as Borchert recognizes, has only intensified today and makes his excursion into the Federal Writers' Project and the American guides it produced much more than a nostalgic road trip. Borchert takes inspiration in structuring "Republic Of Detours" from the idiosyncratic waywardness of the guide books themselves. His chapters are dubbed tours, and they circle around key figures like, for instance, Henry Alsberg, a lawyer and journalist in his 50s who was at loose ends when he was appointed by Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Projects Administration, to direct this quirky work relief project. Alsberg and his team quickly came up with the idea of guidebooks because such collective writing assignments would absorb a maximum number of jobless workers from the relief rolls.

Speaking at a Federal Writers' Project staff meeting, Harry Hopkins stressed that the welfare of human beings came first. Their literary qualifications came second. Consequently, one of the principles of the Federal Writers' Project was that it regarded writing as a craft like any other - or better, a form of labor. That inclusive definition attracted some peculiar applicants. In New York, Borchert tells, us a mail carrier applied because he was a man of letters. Despite its generous ambitions, however, the project was restrictive when it came to race. Borchert acknowledges that while some of the most talented Black writers in the country were concentrated in the New York City and Chicago offices, of roughly 4,500 workers in February 1937, only 106 of them were Black.

One of the most compelling writers whose story Borchert recovers here is that of Vardis Fisher, a temperamental, little-known novelist who directed the project in Idaho and pretty much wrote that state's guide himself. Driving around the state, Fisher would stop at nightfall and then write till midnight. He captured places like Henry's Lake, known for its marshy islands that rose and sank, legendary Native American burial grounds that vanished and reappeared with their cargo of dead. Clearly, like so many of the other American guides, Fisher's was a hybrid between a reference volume and a work of literature, a book that could rest in your car's glove compartment or on your nightstand.

In 1938, the Federal Writers' Project was investigated as un-American by a congressional committee led by the nativist Texas Representative Martin Dies. The committee claimed the American Guides offered a splendid vehicle for the dissemination of class hatreds. With its funding slashed in 1939, the project limped along to complete publication of all the states' guides. The overarching mission of the Federal Writers' Project, to, in its fragmented way, tell a more diverse and inclusive national story is, of course, a project that's still ongoing and still fiercely contested.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan reviewed "Republic Of Detours" by Scott Borchert. On tomorrow's show, we'll speak with Katherine Eban about the fight to uncover COVID-19's origins. She reports in Vanity Fair that those who pushed for transparency say toxic politics and hidden agendas prevented scientists from learning the origins of the virus and investigating whether a lab in Wuhan might have been the source. I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.