More different than alike

Searching for national identity in State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 24, 2008

In 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) as part of the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration (WPA). The FWP put the nation’s Depression-era writers back to work by sending more than 6000 journalists, novelists, and poets — including John Cheever, Kenneth Rexroth, and Studs Terkel — out across this great land to describe the country as they saw it. The most important legacy of the FWP were 48 state guides (plus volumes about the Alaska Territory, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia), published between 1937 and 1942.

Now, with the nation poised, perhaps, to plunge into another deep economic chasm, comes a new book directly inspired by those FWP guides. State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Ecco), is an anthology of 50 essays by 50 writers, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, and a powerful reminder that, despite the intractable antipathy between red and blue, despite the creeping sameness imposed by chains and big boxes, despite the fact that 81 percent of its citizens feel the US has gone off the rails, this is still a wondrously diverse country, with great cause for self-confidence.

The FWP wasn’t extraordinary just because it put a lot of creative people back to work, says Weiland. Rather, he says, its real value came from the way the stories told by those writers, researchers, and archivists — Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Nelson Algren among them — helped “reawaken a sort of raw American patriotism” after the gut-punch of the Depression.

The state guides’ motto was “To describe America to Americans.” And those were the same marching orders Weiland (deputy editor of the Paris Review) and Wilsey (a McSweeney’s editor-at-large) took when they sat down at a New York City watering hole and started compiling a list of contributors.

“From the start, we knew we wanted a mix of different kinds of writers,” says Weiland. “We wanted the book to be as unruly and cacophonous and strange as the country itself.” So, casting a wide net, the pair started assigning states to their favorite writers, including George Packer (Alabama), Rick Moody (Connecticut), Dave Eggers (Illinois), Heidi Julavits (Maine), John Hodgman (Massachusetts), Jonathan Franzen (New York), Susan Orlean (Ohio), and Jhumpa Lahiri (Rhode Island).

The volume also includes thoughtful chapters by two graphic novelists (Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel draw on their experiences in Oregon and Vermont, respectively), a musician (Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein offers an impressively moving evocation of Washington’s wet verdure), and a chef (Anthony Bourdain pays loving tribute to New Jersey, with wit as caustic as the chemicals hovering over the “Garbage State Parkway”).

America is “interesting and varied and deep,” says Weiland. The aim here, he says, was to “get some of that particularity down on paper, even down to jokes and recipes and ways of talking.”

Of course, every so often someone like Sarah Palin comes along to remind us all that a state such as Alaska, with its moose burgers and meth labs, really is a place apart. But seen at a glance, it generally seems that vast swaths of North America have become ugly jungles of Blockbusters, Best Buys, Wal-Marts, and Targets.

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