Republic of Detours

by Scott Borchert

reviewed by Kevin O'Kelly

From 1935–1943, the United States government did something unprecedented in its history: it hired thousands of destitute writers and paid them to write. What was even more unusual about the Federal Writers’ Project—as the agency that employed them was called—was that its expectation of any writing being produced was secondary to its mission of providing these writers (and the historians, editors, and librarians the FWP also employed) with paychecks. Harry Hopkins, the director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and founder of the FWP, said simply of the project: “They’ve got to eat just like other people.”

The FWP provided a real lifeline for many; devastated by his lack of employment prospects, Nelson Algren actually attempted suicide before being hired. For others, the FWP brought self-respect after years of unemployment. At the agency’s peak, around 6,500 people were on its payroll.

Republic of Detours is journalist Scott Borchert’s account of the FWP’s short life, a story of irascible writers, unmanageable egotists, and of one of the most idealistic enterprises in American history, told with eloquence, verve, and wit.

And while publishing may have been a secondary goal of the FWP, publish it did. Its flagship publication was the American Guide series, a collection of guidebooks (of a sort) to each of the forty-eight states and the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. But these guides were far from being a precursor to Fodor’s. They were, writes Borchert, “a mélange of essays, historical tidbits, folklore, anecdotes, photographs, and social analysis [ … ] they barely mentioned diners, motels, and gas stations. They were rich and weird and frustrating.”

But for all their “weird and frustrating” qualities, the American Guides were loved—by the general public and by historians and critics such as Lewis Mumford, Bruce Catton, and Bernard DeVoto. Their popularity prompted the FWP to commission additional guides to twenty-seven US cities.

Further, the appearance of the American Guide was more than an event in the American publishing industry. It was a reflection of a nation coming of age. A country that had historically considered Europe the fount of culture was finally acknowledging, in a way it never had before, the cultural riches within its borders, in all their splendid variety. Every guide included not just sites to be visited but detailed histories of each state and commentary on the distinctive facets of its culture. The guides did nothing less than introduce a nation to itself.

The FWP went on to expand the mission of the American Guides with its Life History and Folklore projects. Field researchers did oral history interviews with former slaves; Nelson Algren wrote down the conversations he had with immigrants and dockworkers in Chicago bars; Zora Neale Hurston collected information about the folklore of Black communities in her native Florida. The message was clear: “America belonged to everyone who lived there, whether they were born on its soil or arrived yesterday, whether their ancestors sailed on the Mayflower or watched that ship from shore or were carried over the ocean in chains.”

In addition to being fascinating and moving, Republic of Detours is at times unexpectedly, understatedly funny. When Franklin Roosevelt was presented with a copy of the American Guide to Washington, D.C., which, at 1,141 pages, weighed five pounds, he asked if it came with its own steamer trunk. The writers of one of the FWP’s ancillary publications, the 1939 An Almanack for Bostonians, were arguably having too much fun when they wrote the subtitle:

BEING A TRULY AMAZING COMPENDIUM of fact and fancy, designed primarily for the DELECTATION of those who live within the Shadow of the Bulfinch dome, but one which may be used with Profit and Pleasure by dwellers in the outer Darkness of Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea, Newton, and even more OUTLANDISH PLACES [ … ].

Borchert is also delightfully illuminating on the day-to-day operations of the FWP—on how the agency worked, or, in some cases, didn’t. After Vardis Fisher, the author of a forthcoming guide to Idaho, had repeatedly rejected all of the head office’s editorial suggestions, the FWP’s director sent his assistant George Cronyn to Boise to compel Fisher’s cooperation. Fisher met with Cronyn, got him extremely drunk, put him back on the eastbound train, and then sent the unrevised manuscript back to the publisher.

Republic of Detours is also invaluable as a window into the political and cultural conflicts of Depression-era America. Borchert’s accounts of infighting among American leftists about the Soviet Union, the feud between Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, the hearings of the Dies Committee (the precursor to the House Committee on Un-American Activities), and brawls in Manhattan taverns give the book a sense of immediacy and engagement lacking in many books on the period. Borchert has written an absorbing, moving account of a fractious, idealistic, and all-too-brief episode in American history.

Published on September 13, 2022