Sampler from Federal Writers Project celebrates US diversity

Remembering America, edited by Archie Hobson. Introduced by Bill Stott. New York: Columbia University Press. 388 pp. $29.95. ``America is a land of wonders,'' wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his 19th-century classic, ``Democracy in America,'' and few if any books make his statement seem quite so axiomatic as ``Remembering America: A Sampler of the WPA American Guide Series,'' edited by Archie Hobson.

The more than 500 entries in this volume take us from the wild rice harvest in northern Minnesota to the never-go-dry coffeepots in Cajun Country, from the origins of Boot Hill in Kansas to New York, where, we are told, ``the New Yorker cannot get along without his oh yeah. It is his most valuable buffer, knout, pacifier, and bubble-pipe, a necessary protective lubricant in the daily wear and tear.''

The diversity of the book's contents is simply amazing. ``Remembering America'' is divided into seven major subject areas -- The Land and Its Improvements, Work, Everyday Life, The People, Moving About, Higher Callings, and The End -- and within each division are an average of four subdivisions.

In a section called ``Working on the Land,'' we are told about: bronco riders, log skidder crews, dairy ranchers, tenant farming, migratory workers, sheepshearing, celery farming, cornhusking, wild rice harvesting, ``knee'' farming, and cotton chopping. Every section of this book is as wonderfully miscellaneous.

The passages that sing out in ``Remembering America'' were culled by Archie Hobson from the ``American Guide Series,'' produced in the 1930s and '40s under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and written by members of the Federal Writers Project. Both were New Deal agencies.

Guides were done for each of the (then) 48 states, plus Alaska, and there were guides, too, for many of the major cities. The guides, according to Bill Stott's introduction, followed a particular three-section formula:

Section 1 contained an essay on the state's history, economy, arts, and the like; Section 2 described cities and towns of importance; and Section 3 provided detailed road tours on the state's major highways. ``The guides,'' writes Stott, ``were written to serve automobile tourism, which by the late '30s was big business.''

The quality of writing in ``Remembering America'' varies. Some of the prose is flatly expository, other sections employ more adjectives than seems necessary, but none of the writing is particularly bad, and, in any case, the subject matter is of such surpassing interest that it does not matter that much.

The list of writers who worked for the FWP is long, including many familiar and formidable names: Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Loren Eiseley, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Meridel LeSeuer, Jerry Mangione, Kenneth Patchen, Studs Terkel, and Richard Wright.

``Remembering America'' is correctly billed as a sampler, so it's best to sample. Here is a slice of Hollywood: ``At night thousands of names and slogans are outlined in neon, and searchlight beams often pierce the sky, perhaps announcing a motion picture premi`ere, perhaps the opening of a new hamburger stand.''

From Rhode Island we learn that at a ``dog's dinner'' held by Harry Lehr, ``Elisha Dyer's dachshund so overtaxes its capacities that it fell unconscious by its plate and had to be carried home. . . . Preachers throughout the country denounced Lehr for wasting on dog food money that would have fed hundreds of starving people.''

And what about this? ``The self-kick-in-the-pants machine (public invited; no questions asked), set up by Tom W. Haywood in front of his filling station [in Croaton, N.C.] in July 1937, has worn out four shoes in its service to tourists and citizens.''

With a book as devoted to American arcana as ``Remembering America,'' the temptation is to read on and on, to delight in its variety. If you pick it up -- and you should -- I suspect that's exactly what you'll do.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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