The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Two writers walk into a bar…

One of the regained pleasures of no longer reviewing professionally is the inalienable privilege of writing about books I haven't read. Thanks to the happy distractions of The Big Read, the universe of books I haven't read isn't exactly shrinking. The two books I most want to read right now are American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work by Nick Taylor, and Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream by Edward Humes. Taken together these books represent two of the best things the federal government ever did for its employers -- i.e., us. As I hope to prove in a follow-up post, the pair also suggests yet another prime suspect in the perpetual Who Killed Reading? inquest, which The Big Read endeavors to interrupt by impolitely resurrecting the victim.

The book that started the American Guides revival.

Every 70 years, it so happens, the federal government does something important for reading and writing in America. In the 1860s, it was the Civil War -- a monumental slaughter (as detailed in Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust?s new book This Republic of Suffering, also under the nightstand), but still trade publishing's most popular perennial subject. Right now, Congress?s gift to literature is The Big Read. In between, in the 1930s, it was the Works Progress Administration, President Roosevelt?s initiative to get America working again.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the WPA was the Federal Writers Project. During the Depression, little different from bricklayers and bridgebuilders, almost all writers were out of work. The FWP stepped in and hired them to write, among other things, the American Guides: a series of travel books to all 50 states, many cities, and any number of deserts, rivers, and other glories. In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck wrote of the American Guides that

The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it. It was compiled during the Depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating.

In addition to introducing legions of Americans to the amazements of their own country, the FWP incubated a cradleful of fine writers. If you'd walked into the Chicago office in 1937, you could have swapped water-cooler scuttlebutt with Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, and the terrific, underrecognized African American writer and critic Margaret Walker, all working side-by-side. Thanks to Jabari Asim, by the way, late of Washington Book World and newly donning W.E.B. DuBois?s old eyeshade as editor of the NAACP?s Crisis magazine, for the tip on Walker this morning at the National Book Critics Circle?s indispensable Critical Mass blog. I don?t know if that all-star Chicago office is a historical novel, stage play or a sitcom, but it?s sure as shooting a book proposal, as I keep telling my pal at the Trib, the Richard Daley biographer Elizabeth Taylor. Sorry, Liz, it?s open season now.

I see I?m nearing my word limit, and I haven?t even gotten to the G.I. Bill yet. Another day. Before I go, though, I just discovered that the American Folklife Center, the Center for the Book, and a whole lot of other jewels of the Library of Congress are hosting a symposium called Art, Culture, and Government: The New Deal at 75 here in D.C. March 13-14, with WPA films screening on the 15th at the National Archives all day long. A herd of Steinbeck?s red ponies and Gram Parsons?s wild horses couldn't drag me away...

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