WPA Guides and Cities of the Imagination – Part 2
Across the country, WPA guides were coming out to a publicity blitz. The guide to California was considered strong enough to become a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. A young artist and poet emigré from Chicago, Kenneth Rexroth, worked an editor for the California guide in its San Francisco office, and typed up hiking routes for the guide on the Sierras. (More on this in the book.)
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Martin Dies, a Texas congressman, led the first House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of the WPA and branded several WPA guides as enemy propaganda for what he considered leftist commentary on labor and race issues. The political tide was turning against the WPA as the federal budget tightened for war. In time, FDR repositioned the WPA guides as patriotic; by 1942 when troops were shipping out for Europe and the Pacific, each G.I. received a copy of the WPA guide to his home state to remind him of the home he was fighting for.
By that point, Vincent McHugh, who had led the WPA guide work in New York, shipped out to the Pacific with the merchant marines.
The WPA experience created a bond among its survivors in later years, although often tinged with bitterness. By the 1960s McHugh was on the West Coast, scraping out a living as a freelancer and occasional teacher. He told fellow WPA survivor Jerre Mangione, “The whole WPA experience seems to have gone uselessly down the drain.”
Yet its creative imprint on McHugh’s work received a revival. His novel inspired by the WPA experience, I Am Thinking of My Darling, got its Hollywood moment in 1968 when a veteran of Marx Brothers films adapted it as What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? The film opens with an aerial over lower Manhattan, descending for closer views of jackhammer operators, traffic, shoppers and businessmen in bars, to the harbor and a freighter from Greece. Instead of the novel’s city planner, George Peppard plays an ad executive-turned-beatnik involved with Mary Tyler Moore, a disenchanted radical.
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to know McHugh in San Francisco, when McHugh would gather with others at Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore along with the Beats’ mentor… Kenneth Rexroth.
McHugh, working with Ferlinghetti and a young Chinese poet named C.H. Kwock, set out to translate classical Chinese poems in a series of chapbooks. They enlisted a former spy and nightclub singer who had done translations for the American consulate in Hong Kong. McHugh and Kwock would visit Mr. Yao, the singer-translator, in a decrepit boardinghouse on the city’s former Barbary Coast, yelling up from an alley to get entry. Yao helped them produce an anthology that a Berkeley professor said had “an architectural beauty that no other translations of Chinese poetry ever did have.”
City Lights distributed the first in the series, Why I Live on the Mountain. In that 1958 collection (reprinted in 1980), McHugh brought one poem from the T’ang dynasty into English with the title, “To Someone Far Away.” The poet recalls a lover he addresses as “pretty darling” and whose fragrance still lingers in his bed. “Pretty darling,” he ends wistfully, “never came back.”
It’s as if McHugh were uniting his Pacific-facing life with the Manhattan he had immortalized in the WPA guide and in his own Darling, a kiss blown to his first-loved city from across the continent, from his last.