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 Read the rest of this entry »