Happy Diamond Jubilee, WPA Guides – Starting in Idaho
This week 75 years ago, amid the Great Depression, the first in a series of quirky travel guides to America came out. Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture was not the debut for the American Guides that federal officials had planned. Idaho had less than half a million residents and few people were planning to go there. But Vardis Fisher, a novelist and unemployed professor who had taken the reins of the tiny Idaho Writers’ Project, was a most unusual travel editor. He had big ambitions for his novels and their epic sweep of life in the Rockies, and this government-sponsored foray into nonfiction travel writing — to keep his family alive during a terrible economy – was also ambitious.
Fisher shows two elements of writing about a place. First, consider it the center of the universe. Even if nobody else considered Idaho the center of anything, Fisher wrote with conviction and humor of its odd shape and its mountains and conveyed the feeling that in Idaho, you found the universal human condition. Second, bring it alive through the stories of people who live and struggle there.
In the same way, a young Richard Wright, working as a WPA writer in Chicago in January 1937 when the Idaho book came out, was discovering through his research in Illinois the idea that Black America – marginalized culturally and economically – was the heart and test of the American dream. Zora Neale Hurston held the same conviction about the folk culture of the Florida Gulf Coast, and was about to publish her novel putting a black woman literally at the center of the storm, with Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Janie’s struggle with men and the hurricane.
The WPA guide to Idaho became a critical success. “An almost unalloyed triumph,” one reviewer called it. And as Fisher had hoped, it helped to create a national audience for his fiction. His next book was Children of God, the historical novel about Idaho pioneers that would be his bestselling book.
As the 75th-anniversaries of the WPA guides unfold, writers intrigued by place and history are continuing their legacy. Use the new tools now available – for oral history, for online research that delves into local landmarks and documents (many found in the appendix to Soul of a People) – to push toward new discoveries at the center of the universe.