scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Local histories, rewritten

Looking back at the Federal Writers Project.

Greg Betza for The Boston Globe

Consider these chapter headings: Haverhill (“Hardscrabble to Hats and Shoes”); Medford (“Rum, Ships and Homes”); Taunton (“Largest City for its Size”); and Williamstown (“Buckwheat, Barley and Gentlemen”).

Consider this assortment of facts: Nonresidents in the 1930s could operate cars in Massachusetts for 30 days without a permit but thereafter had to provide one. No person could set or maintain a fire in the open air of the state “unless the ground is substantially covered by snow.” The installation of officers and the drum parade of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company occurs on the first Monday of June on Boston Common.


And consider this assessment of the local denizens: “Many symbols have been devoted to explain the Bay Stater. He has been pictured as a kind of dormant volcano, the red-hot lava of one eruption hardening into a crater which impedes the next; as a river, with two main currents of transcendental metaphors and catchpenny opportunism running side by side; as any anti-social discord consisting mainly of overtones and undertones; as a petrified backbone...”

This can only be the guide to Massachusetts produced by the New Deal’s Federal Writers Project.

Now Scott Borchert has written a guide of his own. “Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America” is as inviting, compelling, comprehensive, and endearingly quirky as the volumes it celebrates and explains.

“These books sprawled,” Borchert writes, by way of introducing the series that gave work, at one point, to 6,686 Americans during the years of the Great Depression. “They hoarded and gossiped and sat you down for a lecture. They seemed to address multiple readers at once from multiple perspectives. They ranged to hundreds of pages. They contained a melange of essays, historical tidbits, folklore, anecdotes, photographs, and social analysis — along with an abundance of driving directions thickened by tall tales, strange sites and bygone characters.”


But they were more than an act of literary art. They also were an employment program. And those who were employed comprised as varied a group of Americans as the readers of these volumes. They did not have to be professional writers, though many were. They were, as Borchert put it, “flawed, diverse, desperate, promising,” with the New York State project engaging a “melange of surly reporters, soused novelists, and incurable weirdos.”

At the start the goal was modest enough: a five-volume work called an “American Guide.” There were no boundaries, only men and women who respected no boundaries. Let Borchert count the ways:

“Everything was relevant: the manual mentioned fish hatcheries, topography, lookout towers, polo grounds, church choirs, gold rushes, band shells, aquariums, famous ballads, soil conditions, homes for the aged, slum-clearance programs, plantation manors, navy yards, epidemics, folk customs, battlefields, flood, welfare associations, raids and wars and famous authors and so on.”

Eventually the plan metamorphosed and metastasized, with several separate volumes, one for each of the 48 states, several for cities, even more. One of the earliest volumes was for Massachusetts, and for good reason. “The Bay State had a meaning in a sense that many states did not, and that meaning was, in the thirties, very much in play,” Borchert argues, and then he explains: “A guide to Massachusetts, with its lofty place in the nation’s history and mythology, was inevitably a book about the fundamentals of the American character.’'


The historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and the Harvard law professor (and future Supreme Court jurist) Felix Frankfurter were among the advisers to the Massachusetts volume, which was directed by Clark University’s Ray Billington, later to be a distinguished historian of the American West. Billington was much moved by his own workforce: “To watch their bleak, downcast eyes, their broken spirit, their air of sullen defiance, was a heartbreaking experience.”

Not everyone was enthralled with the product of their toil, released in 1937. Conservatives loathed the treatment of the state’s labor movement, written by Merle Colby, whom the Globe accused of being a member of the Communist Party. (He denied this.) Critics noted that the volume devoted more attention to the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti than to the Boston Tea Party or the Boston Massacre. Republican Governor Charles F. Hurley disavowed his earlier support for the work and suggested it be burned on Boston Common. He later said he was only kidding.

It is hard to say whether the project had a greater effect on its readers or its writers. “The FWP not only kept them alive but kept them in the writer’s trade; it harnessed their energies and, whatever their individual life stories, put them to work as surveyors of the places that formed them,” Borchert writes.

Among those writers were Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. Of course there were labor disputes, personality conflicts, political strife, tensions, and tantrums. There also were Communists, really.


Borchert’s brilliant account of how Representative Martin Dies Jr., whose chairmanship of the House Un-American Affairs Committee won him historical opprobrium, took on — or more, precisely, attempted to take down — the project is a discordant coda to the surprise symphony of the American Guides series. “The attitudes and assumptions that drove him were pervasive and well established,” Borchert writes, “and yet they were inimical to the portrait of America, and the loose definition of American identity, that the FWP was busy assembling: in the crowded and inclusive guidebooks, the life histories, the ex-slave narratives, the ethnic studies.”

And yet the FWP writers, and Borchert himself, got so much right, including this assessment of the local population: “Skillful of hand, sharp as a bargain, stubborn of mind, the Bay Stater possesses a character which with its mixture of shrewdness and idealism is often labeled hypocrisy. He exhibits a strong tendency to conform — provided he thinks conformity is his own idea.” True more than three-quarters of a century ago, and perhaps today as well.

REPUBLIC OF DETOURS: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

By Scott Borchert

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 400 pages, $30

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.