An argument for how the WPA Guides devised and shaped America's conception of itself in the 1930s and '40s
In 1935 the FDR administration
put 40,000 unemployed artists to work in four federal arts projects.
The main contribution of one unit, the Federal Writers Project, was the
American Guide Series, a collectively composed set of guidebooks to every
state, most regions, and many cities, towns, and villages across the United
The WPA arts projects were poised
on the cusp of the modern bureaucratization of culture. They occurred at
a moment when the federal government was extending its reach into citizens'
daily lives. The 400 guidebooks the teams produced have been widely
celebrated as icons of American democracy and diversity. Clumped together,
they manifest a lofty role for the project and a heavy responsibility for
its teams of writers. The guides assumed the authority of conceptualizing
the national identity.
In The WPA Guides: Mapping America
Christine Bold closely examines this publicized view of the guides
and reveals its flaws. Her research in archival materials reveals
the negotiations and conflicts between the central editors in Washington
and the local people in the states. Race, region, and gender are
taken as important categories within which difference and conflict appear.
She looks at the guidebook for each of five distinctively different locations
-- Idaho, New York City, North Carolina, Missouri, and U.S. One and the
Oregon Trail--to assess the editorial plotting of such issues as gender,
race, ethnicity, and class.
As regionalists jostled with federal officialdom,
the faultlines of the project gaped open. Spotlighting the controversies
between federal and state bureaucracies, Bold concludes that the image
of America that the WPA fostered is closer to fabrication than to actuality.
Christine Bold is director of the Centre for Cultural Studies and
an associate professor of English at the University of Guelph in Guelph,