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Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice An immersive account of the New Deal project that created state-by-state guidebooks to America, in the midst of the Great Depression--and employed some of the biggest names in American letters The plan was as idealistic as it was audacious--and utterly unprecedented. Take thousands of hard-up writers and put them to work charting A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice An immersive account of the New Deal project that created state-by-state guidebooks to America, in the midst of the Great Depression--and employed some of the biggest names in American letters The plan was as idealistic as it was audacious--and utterly unprecedented. Take thousands of hard-up writers and put them to work charting a country on the brink of social and economic collapse, with the aim of producing a series of guidebooks to the then forty-eight states--along with hundreds of other publications dedicated to cities, regions, and towns--while also gathering reams of folklore, narratives of formerly enslaved people, and even recipes, all of varying quality, each revealing distinct sensibilities. All this was the singular purview of the Federal Writers' Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration founded in 1935 to employ jobless writers, from once-bestselling novelists and acclaimed poets to the more dubiously qualified. The FWP took up the lofty goal of rediscovering America in words and soon found itself embroiled in the day's most heated arguments regarding radical politics, racial inclusion, and the purpose of writing--forcing it to reckon with the promises and failures of both the New Deal and the American experiment itself. Scott Borchert's Republic of Detours tells the story of this raucous and remarkable undertaking by delving into the experiences of key figures and tracing the FWP from its optimistic early days to its dismemberment by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. We observe notable writers at their day jobs, including Nelson Algren, broke and smarting from the failure of his first novel; Zora Neale Hurston, the most widely published Black woman in the country; and Richard Wright, who arrived in the FWP's chaotic New York City office on an upward career trajectory courtesy of the WPA. Meanwhile, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, John Cheever, and other future literary stars found encouragement and security on the FWP payroll. By way of these and other stories, Borchert illuminates an essentially noble enterprise that sought to create a broad and inclusive self-portrait of America at a time when the nation's very identity and future were thrown into question. As the United States enters a new era of economic distress, political strife, and culture-industry turmoil, this book's lessons are urgent and strong.


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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice An immersive account of the New Deal project that created state-by-state guidebooks to America, in the midst of the Great Depression--and employed some of the biggest names in American letters The plan was as idealistic as it was audacious--and utterly unprecedented. Take thousands of hard-up writers and put them to work charting A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice An immersive account of the New Deal project that created state-by-state guidebooks to America, in the midst of the Great Depression--and employed some of the biggest names in American letters The plan was as idealistic as it was audacious--and utterly unprecedented. Take thousands of hard-up writers and put them to work charting a country on the brink of social and economic collapse, with the aim of producing a series of guidebooks to the then forty-eight states--along with hundreds of other publications dedicated to cities, regions, and towns--while also gathering reams of folklore, narratives of formerly enslaved people, and even recipes, all of varying quality, each revealing distinct sensibilities. All this was the singular purview of the Federal Writers' Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration founded in 1935 to employ jobless writers, from once-bestselling novelists and acclaimed poets to the more dubiously qualified. The FWP took up the lofty goal of rediscovering America in words and soon found itself embroiled in the day's most heated arguments regarding radical politics, racial inclusion, and the purpose of writing--forcing it to reckon with the promises and failures of both the New Deal and the American experiment itself. Scott Borchert's Republic of Detours tells the story of this raucous and remarkable undertaking by delving into the experiences of key figures and tracing the FWP from its optimistic early days to its dismemberment by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. We observe notable writers at their day jobs, including Nelson Algren, broke and smarting from the failure of his first novel; Zora Neale Hurston, the most widely published Black woman in the country; and Richard Wright, who arrived in the FWP's chaotic New York City office on an upward career trajectory courtesy of the WPA. Meanwhile, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, John Cheever, and other future literary stars found encouragement and security on the FWP payroll. By way of these and other stories, Borchert illuminates an essentially noble enterprise that sought to create a broad and inclusive self-portrait of America at a time when the nation's very identity and future were thrown into question. As the United States enters a new era of economic distress, political strife, and culture-industry turmoil, this book's lessons are urgent and strong.

30 review for Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

  1. 5 out of 5

    Duncan

    An enjoyable read, and I’m glad it exposed me to the world’s best subtitle: “An Almanac for Bostonians, 1939: BEING A TRULY AMAZING AND EDIFYING 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, the whole compiled in a most Prim and Scholarly fashion by WORKERS An enjoyable read, and I’m glad it exposed me to the world’s best subtitle: “An Almanac for Bostonians, 1939: BEING A TRULY AMAZING AND EDIFYING 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, the whole compiled in a most Prim and Scholarly fashion by WORKERS OF THE FEDERAL WRITERS PROJECT of the WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION IN MASSACHUSETTS and Embellished by the FEDERAL ART PROJECT IN MASSACHUSETTS”

  2. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    It was a roiling and seething experiment, and even its participants could not agree on what it all meant. ~from Republic of Detours by Scott Borchert During the Depression, President Roosevelt's New Deal relief programs paid millions of people to work. White collar workers were also starving, including writers, editors, newspapermen, and college professors. The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was created to employ tens of thousands of writers across America; it is credited for preventing suicide ra It was a roiling and seething experiment, and even its participants could not agree on what it all meant. ~from Republic of Detours by Scott Borchert During the Depression, President Roosevelt's New Deal relief programs paid millions of people to work. White collar workers were also starving, including writers, editors, newspapermen, and college professors. The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was created to employ tens of thousands of writers across America; it is credited for preventing suicide rates among writers. The program not only printed over a thousand publications, it boosted the careers of the 20th c most iconic writers. The FWP conceived of a series of American Guides, filled with a broad range of information, including geography, politics, history, folklore, and ethnographic and cultural studies. They were the ultimate travel guides, providing tours and destinations that were often known only to local people. Author Scott Borchert's uncle had hundreds of the guides and he became curious to know who created them and why. "They carry a whiff of New Deal optimism," he writes, but they also managed to sidestep "those signature American habits of boosterism and aggressive national mythologizing." The Guides offer insight into how Americans saw themselves and their history. Borchert uncovered how the massive program was rife with conflict and struggles. The state programs submitted articles to the D. C. editors. Conflicts arose. For instance, there was a backlash against the term Civil War by Southern states who wanted War Between the States. Readers learn about the life, careers, and politics of the administrators and writers. In the 1930s, socialism was embraced by progressives, and many of the Guide writers were progressives who wrote about labor and attacked racial and economic inequity. Eventually, the program came under attack as a communist vehicle. Tour One introduces Henry Alsberg, friend of Emma Goldman, selected to run the WPA in Washington DC. His first mission was to "take 3.5 million people off relief and put them to work." The quality of the work was unimportant. And yet, the largest publishing houses later testified to the quality of the guides. Tour Two considers how the program worked in Idaho under Vardis Fisher who completed and published the first Guide. Tour Three takes us to Chicago where writers Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Frank Yerby, and Richard Wright were hired. Tour Four goes to Florida where anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston joined a Negro Unit to write The Florida Negro. Tour Five goes to New York City, the most dysfunctional unit. Richard Wright left the FWP in Chicago, where he became friends with Margaret Walker, for New York City where he meet Ralph Ellison. Tour Six returns to DC, the WPA attacked by Rep. Martin Dies, Jr., who contended that the organization was a stronghold of communists intending to create a propaganda outlet. This is a broad ranging history of an era, the program, and the people who ran and worked in it, and its legacy. The Guides legacy includes inspiring authors John Steinbeck and William Least Heat-Moon. I received a free egalley from the publisher through Net Galley. My review is fair and unbiased.

  3. 4 out of 5

    James Beggarly

    Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. During the height of the depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal is coming up with numerous ways to get people back to work, including the idea of hiring out of work writers in every state and for each state to write a guidebook, coordinated by the directors of the program in D.C. What follows is individual portraits of the overall project and how a few individual states put their books together and some of the wonderful writers who worked on them. (Zora Neale Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. During the height of the depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal is coming up with numerous ways to get people back to work, including the idea of hiring out of work writers in every state and for each state to write a guidebook, coordinated by the directors of the program in D.C. What follows is individual portraits of the overall project and how a few individual states put their books together and some of the wonderful writers who worked on them. (Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright) The book is richly researched and told in wonder and great humor as this seemingly impossible project somehow gets completed.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    There's some ambivalence in toy four-star rating here, because if it weren't for the many lengthy tangents, Scott Borchert's interesting dive into the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project is five-star material. Yet, it may be the tangents that give readers a more complete picture and better understanding of the times — of what the United States was truly like — in the 1930s, when the nation's government gave research and writing jobs to the destitute on relief. I hadn't realized that the Great Depr There's some ambivalence in toy four-star rating here, because if it weren't for the many lengthy tangents, Scott Borchert's interesting dive into the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project is five-star material. Yet, it may be the tangents that give readers a more complete picture and better understanding of the times — of what the United States was truly like — in the 1930s, when the nation's government gave research and writing jobs to the destitute on relief. I hadn't realized that the Great Depression had so many looking to Communism for answers to the crashed U.S. economy, and that writers and journalists were no different than people in other career paths in that regard. The in-fighting between various groups with those Communist leanings was news to me as well. What was reassuring was that the brutality of Russia's leaders turned many writers and journalists away from Communism. "Republic of Detours" offers detailed examples of the potholes that the project steered around, with significant time reporting the racial bias that plagued the writing of the American Guides, the FWP's primarily and eventually hugely successful output. The Federal Writer's Project was racially integrated, but not in most of the southern states. Reading this work of nonfiction may help one understand what it meant to be black and intelligent or poor white in a privileged white society, and those of us who have watched and listened to the race-baiting and fear-mongering about immigrants by politicians the past several years will find little solace in learning that back in 1935 a member of Congress was claiming that immigrants were "hundreds of gangsters, murderers and thieves." Sound familiar? Nativist voices clamored for cleaning up "our country," but Borchert writes: "The idea of holding a mirror up to America was little trite and yet it implied a sophisticated and important argument: that the country was whatever appeared in the reflection, an aggregate of particulars, a multitudinous assembly that could not be reduced to, or erased by, some abstract nationalist. 'Our country,' they might have said, was whatever federal writers found out there." As the FWP staff researched and wrote tours of the then 48 states, what they offered readers, in Borcheret's estimation, was "Americanness," and "it wasn't the exclusive property of whites from the old stock" nor an abstract notion bestowed by divine favor. "It was a composite," he wrote, "bluntly and unapologetically inclusive," adding, "the American Guides left no mistaking that 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 oceans in chains." The success of the project is rightly measured in that thousands who were out of work had paying jobs and their salaries then went into bringing the U.S. economy back, but also that the tours of the states and cities and the stories of the American people were so well received. Borchert suggests that that success in some ways led to the appreciation of American culture and the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts. Readers who have been paying attention will note that the conservative voices today who call for the defunding of National Public Radio, for example, are an echo of the conservative voices that tried to fight the Federal Writer's Project in the 1930s.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Eric Grunder

    Republic of Detours is Scott Borchert's account of a little-know slice of FDR's New Deal: The Federal Writers' Project. This was Roosevelt's white-collar answer to the blue-collar WPA that built dams and roads and sewers during the Depression of the 1930s. The basic idea of both was to put Americans to work and for the FWP that included out-of-work writers and editors regardless of their skill and energy levels. What the FWP was to ordered produce was a series of "guides" to each state. Such lum Republic of Detours is Scott Borchert's account of a little-know slice of FDR's New Deal: The Federal Writers' Project. This was Roosevelt's white-collar answer to the blue-collar WPA that built dams and roads and sewers during the Depression of the 1930s. The basic idea of both was to put Americans to work and for the FWP that included out-of-work writers and editors regardless of their skill and energy levels. What the FWP was to ordered produce was a series of "guides" to each state. Such luminaries as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston at various times found themselves collecting a FWP paychecks, but they seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. That resulted in the production of uneven guides by uneven staff, but guides that to this day give a valuable glimpse into America before World War II. Borchert's book is like the guides: uneven. He too often gets lost, or loses his readers, in the minutia of the people and events he describes. His chapters are divided into people and places. For example, "Zora Neal Hurston, Florida" addresses her FWP work there and then digresses into a whirlwind of other actors and events. It can be off-putting. These criticisms are not meant as a blanket dismissal of the book; rather a warning that non-historian readers will face some sections of heavy rowing. The value of the book is it chronicles a New Deal activity that has gotten little attention and it reminds us of the extraordinary diversity of FDR's shotgun approach to attempting to push this country out of the worst economic collapse of the 20th century.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Nann

    I am sure I was aware of the American Guide series at my hometown public library: thick volumes with black-and-white scenic photos and pages of dense, small print. I learned about them in the government documents class I took in library school. The guides were in the collections of all the libraries where I worked -- at least for the regions where those libraries were. The Federal Writers Project was a WPA entity created to put underemployed and underemployed writers to work. In the process the I am sure I was aware of the American Guide series at my hometown public library: thick volumes with black-and-white scenic photos and pages of dense, small print. I learned about them in the government documents class I took in library school. The guides were in the collections of all the libraries where I worked -- at least for the regions where those libraries were. The Federal Writers Project was a WPA entity created to put underemployed and underemployed writers to work. In the process they documented America local history and geography -- with creativity and bias that, in retrospect, has charms but at the time were subject to attack by anti-New Dealers. (U.S. Rep. Martin Dies' investigations were the precursor to McCarthy's HUAC of the 1950s.) Borchert tells the story through the experience of FWP executive director Henry Alsberg and regional project directors/writers Vardis Fisher (Idaho), Nelson Algren (Chicago), Zora Neal Hurston (Florida), Richard Wright (New York). It's a tale of people and politics and Borchert keeps the many strands from getting snarled. A good history! And now I will reread the Illinois guide that I got at a library used book sale.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    The book is about the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s - early 1940s. It was a program designed to employ thousands of unemployed writers during the Depression. The project's mission was to write guidebooks for each of the 48 states. Of course, agreement on what constituted a guidebook was only one of the initial problems. This is a fascinating story, well written, and it will talk about writers that became quite famous. Of course, conservatives hated it. Congressional Republicans put togethe The book is about the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s - early 1940s. It was a program designed to employ thousands of unemployed writers during the Depression. The project's mission was to write guidebooks for each of the 48 states. Of course, agreement on what constituted a guidebook was only one of the initial problems. This is a fascinating story, well written, and it will talk about writers that became quite famous. Of course, conservatives hated it. Congressional Republicans put together a commission to ferret out communists from the WPA, but took a special interest in the writers project. There were communist party members writing these guides, but little ended up in the books the FWP published. The book touches on some of the attitudes toward minorities and immigrants held by conservatives then. An advantage to reading history is to see that things that happen to us aren't always new. As I write this segments of our population are anti-immigrant, against free trade, even anti-science. Read enough history and you'll realize we've been here before and got through it. Hopefully, in this case past performance does predict future performance.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    I can't say enough good things about this book. A brilliant chronicle of an incredible program for writers that produced an astonishing amount of "content," but also failed in many ways (typical of the time) to champion the voices of women or people of color. Borchert's writing is the star here; this story could be mundane, or cynical, or could get too deep into the weeds of the politics of the time, but somehow, Borchert balances all of these with joy and enthusiasm for his subject, a sense of I can't say enough good things about this book. A brilliant chronicle of an incredible program for writers that produced an astonishing amount of "content," but also failed in many ways (typical of the time) to champion the voices of women or people of color. Borchert's writing is the star here; this story could be mundane, or cynical, or could get too deep into the weeds of the politics of the time, but somehow, Borchert balances all of these with joy and enthusiasm for his subject, a sense of awe at the accomplishments of the project, and a quiet melancholy that lurks in the background as we the readers know so many details yet to come... So many times, I stopped reading to lean over to my wife or to text a friend, and tell them how jealous I was of Borchert's writing and the style of this book; the way he, like the writers in the FWP, was able to weave peculiar oddities into the larger narrative, or how he wrote his uncle and himself into the history... I can't say enough good things about this book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    John

    Wonderful story, perhaps a little leisurely but well read by Yen and easy to follow even with the speed upped to 1.5. Borchert gives at least some of the women and/or African Americans who worked for the FWP generous dues, and continues his story up to the establishment of the NEA and the deaths of select significant figures. Lots of great anecdotes, lots of memorable characters--this is a history of the project, so there's relatively little about the actual contents of the books it produced...a Wonderful story, perhaps a little leisurely but well read by Yen and easy to follow even with the speed upped to 1.5. Borchert gives at least some of the women and/or African Americans who worked for the FWP generous dues, and continues his story up to the establishment of the NEA and the deaths of select significant figures. Lots of great anecdotes, lots of memorable characters--this is a history of the project, so there's relatively little about the actual contents of the books it produced...and he nicely avoids the temptation to just start listing titles or bibliographical details.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    I received an electronic ARC of this book via NetGalley. This is a well-written account of the Federal Writers' Project and the people who shaped it. It's certainly interesting and readable, but probably most enjoyable for a reader who already has a particular interest in the program. It is certainly informative and worthwhile, though at times it is far more a biographical account of the people involved than the program itself. I received an electronic ARC of this book via NetGalley. This is a well-written account of the Federal Writers' Project and the people who shaped it. It's certainly interesting and readable, but probably most enjoyable for a reader who already has a particular interest in the program. It is certainly informative and worthwhile, though at times it is far more a biographical account of the people involved than the program itself.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Izzy

    It is nearly a 5 star book, but I don’t think the epilogue holds up as well as the account of the FWP and the Guides to America. What a wealth of knowledge of how the New Deal interacted with the arts, and also how Roosevelt’s coalkition worked, and dint’t work. I realize more about McCarthy’s antecedents with Martin Dies. The stories of Viddis Fisher, Nelson Algren, Zora Neal Hurston, Richard Wright and Henry Alsberg himself are discursive as is the title of the book but fascinating.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rob Neyer

    The book meanders, as it probably should (considering the subject, but winds up both tidily and artfully. Woulda been four stars for me if author hadn't stuck the landing so well. The book meanders, as it probably should (considering the subject, but winds up both tidily and artfully. Woulda been four stars for me if author hadn't stuck the landing so well.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Joann

    An extensive account of the Federal Writers Project. Interesting but, ultimately, tedious.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jeri Gabrielson

    I thought this would be the text of what they wrote but it’s really about the structure of the program.

  15. 5 out of 5

    John Machata

    A somewhat catch as catch can book for me. Overall, quite interesting and entertaining, but some chapters were more engaging than others.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Craig Barner

    Review to follow

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kathy Petersen

    I had a nodding acquaintance with the Federal Writers Project and always wanted to know more. Borchert's book told me a great deal, packed with facts and details and characters. I had a nodding acquaintance with the Federal Writers Project and always wanted to know more. Borchert's book told me a great deal, packed with facts and details and characters.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Frank Mancino

  19. 4 out of 5

    Caleb

  20. 4 out of 5

    Diane

  21. 5 out of 5

    Diane

  22. 4 out of 5

    Chuck Weinstock

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nicole Marie

  24. 4 out of 5

    Repiston

  25. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Lawlor

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bridget Ryan

  27. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  28. 4 out of 5

    Whitney W

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kris

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jim Dertien

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