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Published by EH.Net (May 2024).

Scott Borchert. Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America. New York: Picador, 2022. x + 385 pp. $20 (paperback), ISBN 978-1250849083.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Samuel Barbour, Lincoln Land Community College.

 

The American Guide series comprised 50 volumes, one for each of the 48 states, plus one each for New York City and Washington, DC, published between 1937 and 1940. Each Guide was compiled by a separate unit within the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). By 1941 there were 286,967 Guides in print and nearly 3.5 million FWP publications in circulation, including stand-alone local guides, anthologies, and pamphlets. A Depression-era work relief project, the FWP employed between 4,500 and 5,200 people in an average month to research tour routes through every state, noting the people and places along the way. Republic of Detours, by Scott Borchert, is the story of the FWP and gives us a portrait of economic reform at the ground level.

This is the first book from the author, formerly an assistant editor for the book’s hardcover publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic, among other publications, and the book’s style will likely feel familiar to readers of newsstand stalwarts. In the prologue, Borchert describes finding the collected American Guides on a long-neglected bookshelf in the attic of his grandparents’ house in rural Connecticut. Fascinated by his discovery of a national literary project he had never heard of, he sets out to investigate.

It turns out the idea for the American Guides originated with a smaller-scale tourist’s guide to Connecticut, a project created out of the Civilian Works Administration in 1934 and made possible by funding from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration run by Harry Hopkins. Having taken note of the success of the Public Works of Art Project begun in 1933, Hopkins would champion literature and the arts in the overall strategy of work relief when he was given charge of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935. The WPA’s first set of work relief projects, known as Federal #1, included visual art, theater, music, and writing. The Federal Writers’ Project was initially given the task of creating “The American Guide,” patterned on the earlier Connecticut guide and on Baedeker, a popular German brand of tourist guide. Henry Alsberg, a middle-aged New York writer, editor, and sometime correspondent of Emma Goldman, was made the FWP’s national director at the recommendation of Tex Goldschmidt, assistant to Jacob Baker, who was the assistant to Harry Hopkins.

Alsberg’s adventures as part of the bureaucratic machinery of the New Deal provide one of the book’s primary threads. Borchert does an admirable job describing the institutional dynamics of the FWP, and, by extension, the New Deal more generally. The Project was not simply a work relief project for those left unemployed by the substantial contraction of the publishing industry during the Depression. The purpose implicit in the creation of the Guides would be to present a vision of the United States under the New Deal and a positive response to its critics and political opponents. In this sense, the FWP’s many writers, editors, and field researchers acted as what economist Evelyn Forget calls “knowledge brokers” (2018).

Part of implementing economic policy is communicating its aims and methods to the public. It is the role of knowledge brokers to mediate between economists doing research and policy design and economic agents engaged in daily life (Forget 2018). We can recognize the role of a Simon Kuznets or a Frances Perkins in economic history readily enough, but it is in accounting for how New Deal policies became woven into the narrative fabric of the country that Borchert makes his contribution to the literature.

Republic of Detours is a history by way of synecdoche somewhat in the manner of J. Bradford DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia (2022). The whole story would be impossible to tell in a single volume, so Borchert focuses on Alsberg and four of the Project’s better-known contributors: Vardis Fisher, Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright. Along the way we are introduced to a wide-ranging cast of lesser-known characters, including bureaucrats, folklorists, academics, communists, reactionaries, and cranks.  As the book’s title suggests, Borchert’s account of the FWP brings out the anarchic flavor of a subject that resists summarization while offering the reader anecdotes and amusing details such as one might drop into casual conversation.

Borchert uses the contrasts between his quartet of authors to facilitate discussion of some of the notable tensions that emerged in the FWP. Fisher and Hurston, both already established writers at the time they joined the FWP, had also done graduate work at elite universities (Fisher in literature at the University of Chicago, Hurston at Columbia in anthropology). Fisher, a fiercely independent novelist raised on a western homestead, was responsible for much of the Idaho Guide, but later swore off most of the FWP’s work. Hurston, having established herself as part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s, would tangle with Howard University professor Sterling Brown, FWP’s head of “Negro Affairs,” over an account of a racist massacre in Florida. She would likewise later distance herself from the Project’s work.

Algren and Wright both joined FWP’s Chicago office. The two had met earlier in leftist writing circles and shared an interest in the lower rungs of society. Many of the people working for the FWP, especially in larger cities, belonged to one leftist party or another. Wright spent six months in 1937 as the Harlem correspondent for the Daily Worker, New York City’s Communist Party newspaper, and was a party member until 1939, when the USSR allied itself with Germany. He would join the New York City office in 1938 and contribute memorably to the FWP’s literary anthology American Stuff. Both Algren and Wright would benefit as writers from their experience with the FWP and would later speak well of their time there.

“Why,” asks DeLong in Slouching, “did the Great Depression not push the United States to the right, into reaction…or fascism, as it did in so many other countries?” (2022). Borchert asserts that the FWP was “anti-fascist by design” and that this purpose has been largely overlooked by historians. Although DeLong recognizes that the US moved politically to the left with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Borchert shows the New Deal at its most radical: actively rewriting the American dream and redefining who it was for by simply trying to describe it as it was.

Borchert’s work comes at a curious moment for the publishing industry, journalism in particular. One might wonder at the possibilities of establishing a national project for local news outlets – but considering the opposition to the FWP, much of it related to its association with leftist politics and racial inclusivity, and which would hinder it throughout and ultimately bring it down, one would likely conclude that such a project would be all but impossible today. Nevertheless, Republic of Detours sheds light on what institutional change looks like in practice with reference to one of the most important eras of policy reform in US history. For those with an interest in American economic history, it’s worth a look.

References

DeLong, J. Bradford. 2022. Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. Hachette UK.

Forget, Evelyn L. 2020. “2018 HES Presidential Address: Folk Wisdom in Economics.” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 42 (1): 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1053837219000580.

 

Samuel Barbour is an instructor of Economics at Lincoln Land Community College. He has published research in the history of economic thought, as well as occasional creative works.

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