The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) between 1937 and 1942, is one of the best-known projects of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested driving tours and accompanying essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions also have their own WPA guidebooks.
Each guide was written by a team and published anonymously. Several now-famous American authors got their start working for the FAP. Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston were among those who survived the Great Depression as writers of the American Guides.
Less renowned and anonymous writers deserve equal credit. They were a careful and inquisitive bunch with a wide range of talents and interests. The wealth of knowledge conveyed in each guide is astonishing. From architectural history, economic research, fishing and hunting, folklore, regional foods, cooking, Native American history, literature, regional language differences, botany, geology, race relations, labor movements, to women’s rights—there was someone at the FAP who could write with authority on it.
I first became interested in the guides in the 1980s when I was a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brandeis University. In that pre-internet era, finding the WPA guides presented quite a challenge. It took me nearly five years searching used bookstores around the country to amass a complete set of the 48 state guides and many regional and city guides—most of them first editions.
The guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity of the country at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guides are as much fun to read today as they must have been for travelers in the 1930s.
For years, I considered writing about the guides, but it was not until last November, after 20 years as a lawyer, 25 more as a teacher, and the last three as a student of fine art photography that I hit upon a format for doing so. After completing my MFA I found the time to travel and decided to use the guides as inspiration for where to go. Going back to their delightful mélange of cultural and historical essays and suggested back roads seemed a wonderful way to explore the country. Reportedly John Steinbeck hit the road with the WPA guides when he embarked on a 10,000-mile road trip with his poodle in 1960, memorialized in his travelogue Travels With Charley: In Search of America.
The project has been endlessly fascinating. Remarkably, much along the routes remains unchanged, at least in the places I have visited so far. Yet, much has changed—some things for the better, others distinctly not. Old houses in Maine that were derelict in the 1930s are now beautifully restored homes for wealthy summer residents. Once sleepy towns and small cities are today engulfed by sprawl and strip malls. The encouragement that the guides gave to sightseeing by automobile—tourism being a way to lift the economy—now seems positively regrettable, cars being no longer a novelty but a bane.
One thing that should never be regretted is the American Guide Series itself. Not only do the guides provide invaluable historical source material and interesting routes for tourists, they also express trenchant but subtle criticism of injustice in our country. The writers exposed racism, anti-unionism, poverty, and inequality when they saw it. Without comment, they let the statistics speak for themselves. But their message was clear: this country could and should do better by its people.
The idealism and open-heartedness with which the FWP explored our country’s diversity, geography, and challenges led me to want to follow in their footsteps. So far, I have completed eight photo essays with the guides as a travel companion. I cannot think of a better way to see this country.
The state guides truly remain fascinating, and also useful. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation has created tours based on our state’s version, and has opted to add others as well. One can learn more here: https://revisitwa.org/about/.
This made me think of a little 1930s softcover book I’ve had for decades, picked up in a secondhand bookshop in the late 70s: ‘A Bachelor’s Guide To New Orleans’. It’s illustrated with wonderful block prints and is marked as a WPA project. I’ve long wished to scan it, but it doesn’t open flat and I’m afraid I’d destroy it if I tried.