The Federal Writers Project was established in 1935 to create work for writers, which it did, but it accomplished a great deal more than that. In the eight years of the project's existence, the writers laboring for it, many of whom later became quite prominent, produced 53 "guides" to American states and cities. These hefty, densely packed volumes made splendid companions for motorists, automobile touring having come quite thoroughly into vogue by the late 1930s, but they also made splendid reading for armchair travelers, who could find in them a remarkably detailed, evocative portrait of America.
Over the years the guides have acquired a certain legend and mystique, all the more so as copies have become more and more difficult to find, so it is a special treat to have the generous selection from them that is provided in "Remembering America." It contains more than 500 brief passages from the guides -- most are only a paragraph in length -- the cumulative effect of which is both to provide persuasive evidence of the quality of the guides and to offer glimpses of an America that by now has largely vanished.
The passages are arranged by general subject matter rather than states or regions; the emphasis tends to be on yarns, anecdotes and folk history rather than scenic description, though some of that is included as well. The canvas is broad: a vivid description of Coney Island on a crowded summer day, sympathetic depictions of southern mill villages and California asparagus pickers, hymns to the might and reach of railroads, a brief history of the Hatfields and McCoys. We go to tobacco auctions, barn raisings, county fairs and band concerts. We get a cooking lesson in Virginia:
"Native to [Brunswick] county is Brunswick stew, a flavorous brew first concocted by a group of hunters. One of the party, who had been detailed to stay in camp as cook, lazily threw all the supplies into a pot, it is said, and cooked the mixture over a slow fire. When his companions returned, cold and exhausted, they found the concoction a most appetizing dish. The time-honored directions for making this luscious meal are: boil about 9 pounds of game -- squirrels are preferred -- in 2 gallons of water until tender; add to the rich stock 6 pounds of tomatoes, 1 pound of butter-beans, 6 slices of bacon, 1 red pepper; salt to taste; cook 6 hours and add 6 ears of corn cut from the cob; boil for 8 minutes."
The style of that paragraph is characteristic of the guides: casual, wry, attentive but detached. The books were first and foremost guides, but they were written by men and women many of whom had more on their minds than the routine description of local landmarks or the dry recitation of state history. No bylines are attached to the guides, but often you hear an individual voice: "An expansive mood is one of the most familiar and sometimes costly first responses to a Florida winter sun. The person noted for taciturnity in his home community often becomes loquacious, determined that those about him shall know that he is a man of substance. This frequently makes him an easy prey to ancient confidence games; sometimes leads to unpremeditated matrimony; and almost inevitably results in the acquisition of superfluous building lots."
"An outstanding institution of early Kemmerer [Wyoming] was the saloon of 'Preaching Lime' Higgins, who claimed that he never served a drink to a man already 'under the influence.' Over the mirror behind the bar hung mottoes: 'Don't buy a drink before seeing that your baby has shoes'; 'Whatever you are, be a good one'; 'Fill the mouths of the children first.' One patron remarked that he liked Preaching Lime's place because he could repent while sinning and 'get the whole thing over at once.' "
Delights such as this abound in "Remembering America"; Archie Hobson has made a wise, varied, often surprising selection from the guides, and Bill Stott has tied it all together with brief, illuminating introductions. In one of these he remarks: "The guides are preoccupied with fortune. Their view of America is of a fortuitous, that is a random, land. And their warmest sympathy goes to the vast majority of Americans whose fortune, in both senses of the word, has been mediocre at best." That is in every respect an accurate description of the guides, and it goes a long way toward explaining why they remain, a half-century after their inception, so pertinent and readable; the land has changed, to be sure, but in the America of the 1930s we can still see ourselves.