WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels With the WPA State Guides: New York State Guide – Thomas Paine

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state 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 that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

Abraham Lincoln once greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” A similar claim can be made for Thomas Paine and the American Revolution.

Good writers can do that.

Before Common Sense was published in January 1776, the American colonists nurtured grievances against the British Parliament but, by and large, they remained respectful and loyal to the king, mistakenly believing that he had their best interests at heart. Thomas Paine’s brilliant essays destroyed that illusion with their scathing take-down of King George. Paine changed the narrative dramatically, calling King George a “Royal Brute.” His eloquence broke the sentimental bonds that tied the colonists to Britain, and the rest is history. Here’s how he did it:

“The King […] hath shown himself such an inveterate enemy to liberty, and discovered such a thirst for arbitrary power, [that] he is not a proper person to say to these colonies, “You shall make no laws but what I please?!” [I]s there any man so unwise as not to see, that (considering what has happened) he will suffer no law to be made here but such as suits his purpose? [T]he whole power of the crown will be exerted to keep this continent as low and humble as possible. [W]e shall go backward [;] we are already greater than the King wishes us to be, and will he not hereafter endeavor to make us less? [T]he King [is] the greatest enemy this continent hath, or can have.

Where, say some, is the King of America? I’ll tell you, friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Great Britain. [No] naked and untutored Indian, is less Savage than the King of Britain. [H]e hath wickedly broken through every moral and human obligation, trampled nature and conscience beneath his feet, and by […] insolence and cruelty procured for himself an universal hatred.”

Common Sense was first published in January 1776, and sold almost 500,000 copies in the colonies (whose total population was only 2.5 million.) Paine donated all of the profits of this book to support the Revolution. The ringing first line of his subsequent essay, The Crisis, was read aloud to the troops at Valley Forge in 1776 and at army camps throughout the War. It is justly familiar even now: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Paine’s words reportedly persuaded George Washington to forswear his allegiance to Britain and inspired Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence. John Adams said: “[W]ithout the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”

At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress, in gratitude, gifted Paine a thirty-acre farm in New Rochelle, New York, and he lived there for a few years in the early 1800s. But he wasn’t much of a farmer and he eventually went bankrupt. In his last years, he boarded with a friend on Grove Street in Greenwich Village. His funeral, in 1809, was a sad, sparse affair with a bedraggled cortège of six mourners. A lonely death to be sure, but immortality in the power of his words.

Paine’s farm in New Rochelle is exactly as desribed in the New York Guide. Now set now among the tony houses of a New York suburb, the site includes the original Paine’s farmhouse (complete with an unnerving, life-size wax sculpture of Paine at his writing desk), a few outbuildings, a small field, and a lovely stream.

Paine is clearly appreciated there. Abutting the site is a large monument inscribed with many of his most renowned phrases and a small museum housing even more Paine memorabilia:

“The Thomas Paine Monument […] enclosed by iron fence consists of a bronze bust on a square granite column. [It was] originally erected 1839 and was restored 1881. The monument stands close to the site of the grave in which Paine was originally buried.

The Paine Cottage is a two-story post-Colonial frame house with shingle exterior and rough stone foundation. [Its] collection includes Franklin stove given Paine by Benjamin Franklin and the chair that Paine always used when writing.

The Museum, a two-story structure of natural stone was erected 1925 by the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. Ground for the building was broken by Thomas Edison, an ardent admirer of Paine’s writings. The museum contains a number of Paine’s personal effects including the State papers he carried to the Second Continental Congress after Howe captured [Philadelphia] in 1777, Paine’s Rainbow Flag which he proposed as an international symbol [to be] used by neutral ships in time of war, photostatic copies of Paine’s extant letters and first editions, Paine’s death mask and the mutilated fragments of his gravestone.”

P. 246, NY Guide

The Grove street property, however, is a dump. Shut tight and crumbling on a quiet street in Greenwich Village, it looks much worse for the wear. The New York Guide mentions the site, but, with only a small plaque to mark the spot, it goes pretty much unnoticed in the bustle of the city around it:

“On narrow Grove Street, just west of the square, at No. 59, a bronze PLAQUE memorializes the site where Tom Paine, greatest literary force of the Revolution, died in 1809. It was then the home of Mme. Nicolas de Bonneville, whose husband befriended Paine after his release from prison in France.”

I stop by often to pay my respects, but I’ve never encountered another visitor.

Fern L. Nesson April 1, 2121