When I write about America in the 1930s (as I did in my biography of the covert operative Edward Lansdale and am now doing in a biography of Ronald Reagan), I invariably turn to the guidebooks produced by the federal government in that era. They are full of vivid descriptions delivered with plenty of brio. This, for example, is from the guidebook for San Francisco: “When the other cities of the Coast were still hamlets in forest clearings or desert cow-towns, San Francisco was ‘The City.’ It is ‘The City’ still.” But while I appreciate the guidebooks as valuable historical sources, until now I had little sense of how they were produced.

Scott Borchert, a former book editor, capably and entertainingly explains the backstory of these “rich and weird and frustrating” books in “Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America.” He discovered the “American Guides” courtesy of an uncle who bequeathed him a set. Cracking them open, he found that these “musty relics” were “crowded with beguiling wonders.” “Where had these books come from?” he wondered. “Who created them? I needed to find out.”

In outline, the story is simple enough. They were produced by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a tiny subsidiary of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), created in 1935 with the task of putting Americans back to work during the Great Depression. While most WPA workers were building or improving public infrastructure, there was also provision for unemployed artists, musicians, actors and writers. “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people,” exclaimed WPA Director Harry Hopkins.

The Federal Writers’ Project employed only about 5,000 workers a month, compared with 2 million a month for the entire WPA. But they included future literary stars such as Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Studs Terkel. It was very much to the project’s credit that in the days of segregation it also employed immensely talented African American writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright (who wrote his masterpiece, “Native Son,” while on the payroll).

Keeping notoriously individualistic writers engaged in a collective enterprise was no easy feat — and there would be plenty of backbiting and office politics in the FWP. The New York office, Borchert writes, “was the most conspicuously dysfunctional”; it was full of competing cliques of aggrieved writers belonging to “thirty-some unions and splinters of unions.” “If a worker was fired,” Borchert writes, “a picket would usually appear outside the project office.”

In charge of the whole unwieldy enterprise was Henry Alsberg, a rumpled former foreign correspondent and relief worker turned unsuccessful playwright and novelist. With his extensive contacts in New York literary circles and his left-wing but anti-communist outlook, he seemed the perfect candidate to run the FWP. His first task was simply to figure out who qualified as a writer. He took a broad view of the occupation, hiring not only veteran scribes but also “clerks and recent college graduates and teachers — people who’d never published a thing and never planned to.”

“A story circulated,” Borchert writes, “about an overflowing toilet in a state office and the four editors — all plumbers by trade — who sprang up to fix it.”

Once the FWP was up and running, Alsberg had to decide what all of his employees would do. A young staffer named Katharine Kellock came up with the answer: create a series of guidebooks. This would employ a lot of writers and produce books that people could actually use. Alsberg tasked his writers with reporting on their own communities, describing everything from fish hatcheries to folk customs, soil conditions to slums, in an audacious bid “to catalog the American scene in all its aspects.”

The first guidebook to reach print covered Idaho and was written by the cantankerous novelist Vardis Fisher. Fisher produced now-forgotten works such as “Toilers of the Hills” and “In Tragic Life” that had strong reviews but poor sales. He was in need of an income, and the FWP provided it by appointing him as its state director. There were not many high-quality, unemployed writers in Idaho, so Fisher did most of the work himself: “He bought a Nash automobile and set out to log around eight thousand miles of Idaho’s roadways, and write the tour copy for the guide, alone.” His authorial voice, Borchert writes, was “by turns sardonic and invigorated, occasionally somber, but rarely flat.”

Alsberg had hoped that the guidebook to Washington, D.C., would be the first to see print, but Fisher — “the bad boy of the Project” — beat him to the punch by contracting with a local publisher to bring out “Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture” in January 1937. This would set the pattern for the whole project, with commercial publishers such as Houghton Mifflin and Random House bringing out the FWP’s guidebooks, generally to favorable reviews and decent sales. “By 1941,” Borchert reports, “there would be 268,967 copies of the main American Guides in print.”

By then the project was nearing its end. It was a victim not only of the end of the Depression but also of anti-communist witch-hunting by conservative members of Congress. There were, naturally, plenty of Communist Party members, Trotskyites, anarchists and other radicals in the FWP, especially in the New York office, but there is no indication that the guidebooks were intended to be, as the House Un-American Activities Committee charged, “a splendid vehicle for the dissemination of class hatreds.” That was the stuff of right-wing fantasies. House investigators were even caught planting and photographing communist literature in the New York office.

Alsberg, as a friend of the famous radical Emma Goldman, was an easy target for the red-baiters even though he had been expelled from the Soviet Union for his critical writings. He was fired in 1939, and federal funding for the FWP was cut back. The project was finally terminated a few years later.

But while the FWP is gone, it is not forgotten. Its enduring monument remains the “American Guides,” described by the critic Alfred Kazin as “an extraordinary contemporary epic” that uncovered “the collective history of the country.” With this whimsical, well-researched book, Borchert has done full justice to this forgotten literary achievement and the eccentric, often quarrelsome characters who created it.

Republic of Detours

How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

By Scott Borchert

Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
385 pp. $30