13. THE AMERICAN GUIDES: IDAHO VERSUS WASHINGTON, D.C.

The American Guides were slowly beginning to take shape. Even the dueling radicals came to understand that they had to show some progress if the project was to continue and they were to keep their jobs. The field supervisors were in charge of whipping various state operations into shape, and the prodding by hard-nosed supervisors such as Katherine Kellock, who was determined to see the guides fulfill her original vision, began to produce results. The territory Kellock oversaw was the Southeast, from which she wrote fiery memos describing inaction and incompetence. One of her first actions was to jettison the American Guide manual as impractical. She told the state director in South Carolina to ignore the 1,500-word weekly writing requirement in favor of producing hard information. And the information, she emphasized as she moved from state to state, was to be lively and engaging. Her biggest challenge was to convince some state directors they weren’t producing dry government manuals that would gather dust but books, real books, books meant to be used, to be read for pleasure as well as information, and to be talked about.

The Federal One headquarters were now located in mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean’s former mansion in northwest Washington. Crystal chandeliers hung over the desks occupied by the Writers’ Project editors, who at last were starting to receive, in scuffed manila envelopes bearing postmarks from across the country, the troves of information they had anticipated at the outset. Alsberg and his staff saw just how rich the guides could be and felt vindicated. Tom Fleming at the Bancroft Library, writing his sketches of California history, was one small cog in what was now a functioning machine, and other writers and researchers—at Bancroft, across the bay in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, moving throughout the state—were adding more and more material. They were looking at California’s past and its present; at its geology and conservation programs; its climate, flora, and fauna; its Indian tribes and archaeology; transportation; agriculture; industry, commerce, and finance; labor; education; public health and social welfare; sports and recreation; newspapers and radio; folklore; literature; music and theater; art; architecture; and, uniquely in the case of California, movies.

Other writers were compiling pictures of the state’s major cities, with descriptions of their landmarks and points of interest. Still others drove between cities and small towns, watching the car’s odometer as they made notes and measured driving distances for a series of tours that ranged the 780-mile length of California and touched the borders of Oregon and Mexico. Photographers were recording contemporary scenes; archivists searched files for historical photographs and prints; draftsmen drew the kinds of maps that would allow urban explorers to make the correct turn at the right corner.

Work like this was going on all around the country. Until the Federal Writers’ Project, America had been defined largely from abroad by writers such as Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America and Englishman Findlay Muirhead in the Baedeker United States. But the depression had brought a new level of introspection. The nation seemed determined to take a new look at itself, and just as Federal One painters were seeking out America in bucolic farms and troubled cities, playwrights were exploring it through Living Newspapers, and composers were making new American music, the Writers’ Project was finding and revealing new evidence of its multilayered richness. This was the project’s unstated genius, not only in the guides but in other writings from slave narratives to folkloric studies. When all this was compiled and printed, Americans would be able to see America anew.

And now, deep into 1936, a race began. Alsberg and his staff determined that for political reasons, the Writers’ Project guide to Washington, D.C., would be their debut volume. Washington: City and Capital would quiet the project’s congressional critics and prove to the doubters that serious work had been proceeding after all. Then came word from Idaho, where western novelist Vardis Fisher was the state director, that his own manuscript was almost finished and a publisher, the Caxton Press of Caldwell, Idaho, lined up.

Fisher had worked against overwhelming odds to put the Idaho guide together. He had a tiny staff, no office space or furniture, and a state WPA administration who had tried to sabotage him by assigning him former mental patients and spies looking for dirt. As a result, he had done most of the work on the guide himself, including driving the state’s roads for the tour section.

Anybody who had read Fisher’s early works might have known he would be difficult to manage. The heroes of his books were rugged individuals, both men and women, who had carved lives out of the Idaho frontier. In fact, he was one of them—albeit one with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago—and he had displayed his individualism throughout most of his work on the project. The guide formats were supposed to be uniform—for example, following north-to-south and east-to-west directions to describe the tours. But Fisher said most of the traffic in Idaho moved south to north, and wrote his tours up that way. There were other editorial squabbles as well, but Washington was sufficiently impressed with the quality of Fisher’s writing to let them be. George W. Cronyn, who was Alsberg’s associate director and oversaw the project’s editing, even told him he was “raising Guide writing to the plane of permanent literature.”

However, when Fisher announced that the Idaho guide was ready to go to press, Alsberg suddenly tried to delay its publication. He threw revisions at its author by the thousands, and Fisher reacted with the obstinacy of a dug-in homesteader. He enlisted Idaho senator James P. Pope, who told Alsberg the guide’s publisher would back out if there was a delay. Next Alsberg tried persuasion. He called Fisher to impress on him the need to bring out the Washington guide first, then some other large-state guides; Idaho would come eventually. Fisher cursed into the telephone and refused to budge. Alsberg’s final step was to send an editor to Idado with still more revisions and corrections and a demand to review the photos Fisher had selected. Fisher would later describe the confrontation in a thinly veiled scene in his autobiographical novel Orphans in Gethsemane. In it, the editor rejected all of Fisher’s photo choices, even shots of Idaho potatoes, but was then plied with liquor by Fisher and his publisher until they got him drunk enough to haul him to the railroad station and pour him on a train back to Washington.

Fisher won in the end. Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture, was published in January 1937. It contained 431 pages, of which Fisher himself had written 374, all of the photographs that Fisher had selected, and fifteen maps. It covered everything about Idaho: its Indians, plants, animals, hunting and fishing, natural resources, agriculture, businesses, and industries. It included chapters of ghost stories and folktales. And it served notice in Fisher’s vivid opening paragraph that it intended to debunk western myths found in “these villains with the Wild Bill moustaches, these apple-cheeked heroines agog with virtue, and these broad adolescent heroes who say ‘gosh ding it’ and shoot with deadly accuracy from either hand.” They were “remote in both temper and character from the persons who built the West,” he wrote. “They are shoddy sawdust counterfeits.” Fisher’s eloquently vigorous style resonated from the first page to the last—and by virtue of WPA rules against naming individual authors, his name appeared nowhere in the book.

This very first WPA guide attracted a great deal of attention; Alsberg and his staff in Washington had to have been relieved, if not elated, at the notices. There were rave reviews in papers from the New York Times to the Salt Lake Tribune, and most of the reviewers praised it for bursting the limitations of its form. A very perceptive article in the weekly Saturday Review noted just how much it had achieved. If the rest of the guides equaled Idaho’s, wrote editor Bernard De Voto, they would “heighten our national self-consciousness, preserve valuable antiquarian material that might have perished, and facilitate our knowledge of ourselves.”

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