About nine months ago, I tripped upon the WPA American Guide series at Wessell & Lieberman Booksellers, Inc.and decided to collect them. As a refresher, the WPA hired writers to compile stories, facts, folk songs, and travelogues about locales all across the nation–from states, to landmarks, to cities. There are approximately 1,000 volumes. I own six so far. I’m not the only one inspired by the series. Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, the editors of State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, compiled a modern day equivalent. They asked 50 writers to prepare an essay about a state. Some of the writers were natives, others transplants, and a few visited to give a fresh look at the state. Weiland and Wilsey’s conviction is that Americans are largely undescribed, and despite the repetition of Starbucks, Gap and Walmart across our nation,
[t]he fifty states differ in landscape, topography, and weather; in political outlook, cultural preference, and social ideals; in accent, temperment and sense of humor. . . The fifty states themselves have individual places in our collective imagination, and they offer their natives a mind-set, even a world-view. For all of the talk of identity in American life, the personal fact that defines American lives as much as gender, ethnicity, or class is where you’re from, which more than anything means your state.
As a Californian who can’t imagine living anywhere else, I read William Vollmann’s California essay first. I didn’t like it, in fact I almost stopped reading the book. Much of it felt like a re-hash of what is written over and over again–Owen’s Valley per “Chinatown,” sensationalizing San Francisco, four paragraphs into the essay the author mentions The Day of the Locust. Yawn.
Yet, as a fan of “This American Life,” I moved on to Montana written by Sarah Vowell. Within five pages, I discovered a sense of place and culture that I didn’t feel after spending two weeks boating, hiking and touring the state. That is the purpose of State by State, to paint a word portrait, and Sarah Vowell fulfills it. Guess what? Clark County in Nevada is named after a Montana businessman who opened a supply store on his railroad line between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, a supply store that grew up to be Las Vegas. Without Ms. Vowell’s essay, I never would have known the importance of the Montana State University traveling Shakespeare program. Every summer acting troops travel across the state performing Shakespeare and other classics outdoors for free. An alumnus of the program, Bill Pullman remarked that the audiences from
isolated towns . . . really felt compelled to think about the stories and the characters from Shakespeare. They weren’t going to the performance to just say they went or for the sheer entertainment. They wanted to think about how a character in the play might be like some parts dealer they had known or how chance can bring calamity in short order.
I wish I had that level of concentration and commitment every time I went to the theatre.
I wonder if my reaction to the California essay would have been different if I weren’t a native. I read David Eggers essay on Illinois and loved it. I laughed by the end of the first paragraph describing how “Land of Lincoln” is the best license plate slogan (apparantly points were given for alliteration); therefore, Illinois is the best state. Who else has ever worked in sex appeal when talking about Lincoln? But if I was an Illinoisan, maybe I would sigh that the essay started with Lincoln (what, him again?) and then yawn when it moved to Chicago and Oprah. As an outsider, I enjoyed every word.
Matt Weiland describes us as a nation “united by rhetoric and musket nearly 250 years ago, reaffirmed in [our] unity by rhetoric and rifle a century later, and bound together today as tightly as any confederation on earth–somehow stubbornly resist blending into a single undifferentiated whole.” As I read these essays, learning about history and lore across our nation, I saw some of myself, but a different world also. As a nation, we’re at a time of making significant decisions and while State by State doesn’t discuss those issues, the opportunity to learn about each other, to see a different perspective, helps enrich the conversation.
Two hundred and thirty-three years ago, many families gave up their lives and livelihood so that we could develop into the nation we are today. Take some time and read about who we are with State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America.