Friday, December 30, 2022

Republic of Detours by Scott Borchert

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This is yet another book that was a random find on the featured books shelf. Several months back, I read America Eats!, which is about a forgotten project taken on by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. A bunch of material was gathered and written, but largely forgotten or lost after World War Two caused the cancellation of the FWP before publication. That got me interested in the greater history of the FWP, which seemed like a fascinating idea that got lost in the bigger narrative of the Depression and the New Deal. 


The FWP was part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program designed to put unemployed people to work on public projects, thus addressing the biggest problem of the Great Depression: a quarter of people out of work. While cash payments were certainly a part of the social safety net created during the 1930s, a bigger focus was on getting people back to work. After all, there is a greater sense of dignity from a job than from a handout, and millions of people were having their labor wasted in the fruitless search for employment. (Side note: I am a conservative by temperament, and because of this, I believe one thing we need more of are jobs that pay a good wage. If the private sector continues to fail or refuse to provide them, then I see plenty of public projects that we could be doing, putting people to work in the process. Let’s start with nationwide public transportation, a necessary step in weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels.) 


The story of how Borchert decided to write this book, which is a history of the travel guides which turned out to be the most significant project the FWP completed, is fascinating. 


Borchert’s great uncle, Frederick Board, collected the guides during his lifetime, often multiple copies. Years later, when Uncle Fred died, his kids discovered the collection in a corner of the attic, and decided that they were the sort of thing Scott would enjoy, and dropped them off. At the time, he just set them aside - he was a college sophomore and had other concerns - but returned to them years later. After initially considering trying to find the remaining volumes to make a complete collection, Borchert instead decided to research how the guides came to be. Fascinated, he eventually decided to tell the story of the project, not so much as a complete history, but as a series of stories featuring significant people involved in the project. 


Some of the names are pretty obvious choices: Henry Alsberg, head of the project; Nelson Algren, whose communist views eventually led to pushback against the project; and Martin Dies, the congressman who initiated the first Un-American Activities Committee, eventually to become infamous as a weapon in the hands of Joseph McCarthy. 


But other names were less expected, and perhaps even more fascinating: Vardis Fisher, the renegade farmer and novelist from Idaho, who nearly single-handedly wrote the guide for that state; Zora Neale Hurston, whose career was launched during her FWP years; and Richard Wright, another African-American author who got his start in the FWP. 


Borchert’s perspective is generally in line with the New Deal, with some ideological sympathy for those to the left of Roosevelt. He certainly has no love for Dies, McCarthy, and other crusaders for jingoistic purity. I tend to fall into this camp as well. Even though I was raised in a subculture that loathed the New Deal (while refusing to see how much they benefited from it, as well as the later Great Society programs), I have come to understand how much better all of our lives are because of a government that does at least something to benefit everyone, not just the wealthy. As I have learned more of the history that my Fundie curriculum either glossed over or outright lied about, it has become obvious that most of what we take for granted in our modern world came from the New Deal, and certainly not from the Robber Barons deciding to be charitable. I mean, things like the abolition of child labor, the 40-hour week, paid sick time, access to at least a minimum of health care through Medicaid, unemployment payments, drinkable water, drivable roads, flood control and irrigation projects, workplace safety regulations, the system of trails in our national parks and forests……the list is nearly endless. 


With that in mind, the book opens with a quote from historian Lewis Mumford


“More public good has come out of the bankruptcy of the economic order than ever came regularly out of its most flatulent prosperity.”


This was written in 1937. We now stand in a similar position, where the utter bankruptcy of our current economic order is becoming ever more apparent. We cannot sustain exponential growth - not environmentally, and not socially. The key for us going forward will be to make sure that public good comes out of this. 


Moving on to the idea of the Guides, Borchert describes in the prologue just how “sprawing” and all over the place the guides were, with history and culture and general weirdness. I love how he puts it:


They guided tourists across the land but also into the national character, into a past that was assembled from the mythic and the prosaic, the factual and the farcical. The tours seemed less accessories for motorists than rambling day trips through the unsorted mind of the republic.


In setting the stage for the project, Borchert gives an accurate and harrowing account of the damage of the Depression, as of 1933, the worst year. 


Gone since 1929: three quarters of all financial assets, $7 billion in bank deposits, half of the gross national product. Hundreds of thousands of homes were lost to foreclosure. A quarter of the total workforce was unemployed. Marriage, divorce, and childbirth rates all plummeted - consequences of the Depression’s paralyzing effect on daily life. 


The sad thing is, this was all preventable. The Depression had multiple causes, but key ones were gross human malfeasance: a stock market bubble which was allowed to expand without regulation, followed by a crash; failure to insure bank deposits, resulting in a run on the banks; adherence to the Gold Standard; the tariff trade war that crushed global trade - these and other botched policies fueled a perfect storm that mostly crushed working-class people. 


Then, the initial government response was to ignore things. Rely on private charity (quickly overwhelmed) and state and local government (also quickly overwhelmed.) And the feds took a while to respond in any helpful way. 


Herbert Hoover confronted the crisis with monetary tinkering, protectionism, limited public works, bank bailouts, and heaps of optimistic exhortation. But when it came to direct relief for the jobless, he upheld the federal government’s tradition of neglect. 


It is no mystery why this failed. Most of the effort was to prop up the rich, who had, again totally predictably, gone into asset protection and hoarding mode. Little to nothing was done to keep working class people from starving. Even Roosevelt took a while to find enough traction for direct relief. At the heart of the issue, of course, was whether the government had any duty to provide for its citizens - or was it there to protect the property of the rich only. But, despite the protests of the Republicans, public sentiment turned. Here is an interesting incident the book notes:


In July 1935, as the WPA was coming into being, Fortune magazine conducted a survey with a simple question: “Do you believe that the government should see to it that every man who wants to work has a job?” A solid majority of upper-class respondents opposed this view. But, to the chagrin of Fortune’s editors, 81 percent of the lower-middle class, 89 percent of the poor, and 91 percent of African Americans agreed. 


Damn. It is difficult to find a more striking illustration of the corrosive effect that wealth has on a person’s morality. “I got mine, sucks to be you” is the motto of the rich and always has been. And what could be controversial about the idea that people who want to work - and most of us do! - should have access to a job? And for that matter, access to a job that is compensated enough to live without deprivation? 


This theme recurs throughout the book. Early in the project, Sherwood Anderson wrote a book, Puzzled America, which was influential on parts of the guides. In it, he notes that everywhere he went, people believed that America was “a rich land, and that everyone deserved to share in its riches, to own it and improve it.” One young woman he quotes says, “Everywhere I go people crying out, not first of all for food, clothes, and comforts - but for work, work, work.” 


Again, another passage hits the same theme:


People across the country, standing outside foreclosed homes and shuttered factories, were reaching the same conclusion - they were beginning to question their beliefs about the course of progress, the nature of prosperity, the value of the old ideas.

This is what is freaking my parents’ generation of white people out so much. My kids’ generation is questioning all those beliefs. Particularly Reaganomics. The evidence is entirely too clear that the decisions of the 1980s have cratered their future, just as the decisions of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties led inevitably to the Depression. 


In the chapter centering on Vardis Fisher (there is a lot more than just him, as in every chapter about an individual), Borchert expresses a truth that needs to be said loudly and often. 


The myths of an individualistic, hardscrabble West had always concealed the reality of an active state - activity that most of all appeared in the form of land grants to railroads and homesteaders, and military forces deployed against Native inhabitants and restive laborers. The New Deal just made that arrangement more visible, even though the details changed. 


Stolen land, massive corporate welfare, public works for irrigation and transportation, military bases - the “Wild West” was a government creation, and government sustained and often continues to sustain it. 


Ah, and Vardis Fisher. What a total character. I may need to read one of his books just because of his personality. A total cantankerous, self absorbed, witty, and brilliant force of nature. One of the most hilarious passages in this book is the feud between Fisher and his editors. Fisher saw no point in being a salesman for the region he wrote about, whether it was calling Pocatello “the ugliest of the larger Idaho cities” or saying unflattering things about a mountain and the senator it was named for. 


Near the end of the book, Borchert takes a look at what happened to the people featured in the book, and Vardis Fisher ended up, well, check it out:


The remainder of Fisher’s life was dominated by an ill-advised series of ten didactic novels, The Testament of Man, that were something like chronological guidebooks to the universe, beginning with the dawn of consciousness and culminating in…Vardis Fisher. 


That’s laugh out loud unintentional comedy factor right there. 


The chapter on Zora Neale Hurston is all about the South and the unique ways the FWP worked there. FDR commissioned a report on the South, and found some depressing - and familiar - information about conditions. 


Report on Economic Conditions of the South was a portrait of appalling lows and disturbing highs. The South was far behind the rest of the country in per capita and gross incomes, tax collections, public services, basic education, sanitation infrastructure, and access to running water. It surpassed other regions in farm tenancy and sharecropping, illiteracy, water-borne diseases, catastrophic flooding, and malnutrition. The report concluded that the southern poor resembled “the poorest peasants in Europe” - though it did not address the racial hierarchy that generated and helped to perpetuate such widespread impoverishment. 


Here we are, nearly 100 years later, and the same things are all true, including the root cause of racism. 


The Southern guides sparked a bit of controversy for the same reason. There was simply no way to write about the South without mentioning Jim Crow, racial exclusion, and white supremacy. It was the elephant in the room. And it also affected operations, because segregation kept African American writers from the same units and white writers. Again, we are seeing similar dynamics in our own time, with Southern states particularly eager to ban non-white perspectives on history, through book bans, restrictions on teachers, and a general war against the strawmen of “wokeism” and “critical race theory.” Shh! Don’t talk about race in a way that makes white people look bad. Ignore the realities non-whites face, and silence their voices. 


Unfortunately, one major stain on FDR’s legacy is his failure to address the race problem in the New Deal. 


If the New Deal rested on three visible pillars - immediate economic recovery, deeper social and economic reform, and a realignment of the political landscape - then collaboration with the racial structure of the South was a shadowy fourth pillar. 


I sympathize with FDR - he needed the votes of Southern Democrats to further his agenda at all. But still, it is disappointing in retrospect, and must have been frustrating to African Americans at the time. 


An example of how black people were thrown under the bus during the New Deal is that three major legislative acts - the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Wagner Act (unionization), and the Social Security Act - all excluded domestic and agricultural workers. Guess which categories most black workers in the South fell into? That’s right: domestic and agricultural workers. 


It is easy to forget it now, but black people (and to a degree, other racial minorities) were intentionally excluded from social security, from the right to a union, and to subsidies for jobs. 


I should mention one great line from Hurston herself: “Folklore is the boiled-down juice of human living.” On a related note, I recently acquired a copy of her books on folklore - I hope to read and review it in the near future. 


The chapter on Richard Wright is excellent as well, and illuminates the black experience in the North. (I highly recommend Wright’s book Black Boy (American Hunger) for this and other reasons.) Wright got his start writing for communist magazines, before breaking with them over authorial freedom. He scraped by during the Depression, thanks in part to the FWP, which freed him to develop his voice. Borchert describes some of his magazine writing after he moved to New York. 


Wright’s portrait of Harlem for New York Panorama isn’t as dire as the one that emerges from his articles for the Daily Worker. But it doesn’t overlook the “handicaps and penalties” imposed on its residents by the racial order, from the repression of slave insurrections to the inflated rents, inferior schools, and discriminatory practices of the current day. 


Hmm, any of those sound familiar today? 


The whole chapter on how Martin Dies pretty much took down the FWP, and how he set the stage for the McCarthy witch hunts 20 years later, is depressing. Dies was a nasty racist and xenophobe, very much a part of the Klan revival of the 20s and 30s. He wrote vicious screeds against immigrants, complaining about all the people from southern and eastern Europe, from Asia, from Mexico - and used the same arguments Trump and today’s GOP (and too many leaders of the Religious Right) continue to make. They dilute the “pure” racial stock. They steal jobs from “real Americans” [that is, white ones], they are “gangsters, murderers, and thieves” - oops, he left out “rapists”... And of course he complained about “socialists” - meaning New Dealers and Civil Rights activists, naturally. And he hated the Federal Writers Project. Borchert explains why:


Dies’s America was an abstraction, inspired by a Christian God and realized by white British colonists and inherited by select descendants. It was the rhetoric of exceptionalism overlaid on blood and soil - the essence of American Nativism…The attitudes and assumptions that drove him were pervasive and well established, and yet they were inimical to the portrait of America, and the loose definition of American identity, that the FWP was busy assembling: in the crowded and inclusive guidebooks, the life histories, the slavery narratives, the ethnic studies. That American scene was treated mournfully and playfully as often as it was celebrated; it was unapologetically diverse, permanently changing, shaped by economic struggles, tinged with class conflict, and welcoming of immigrants. It implied a vision of nationhood, and a subtle idea of patriotism, that was firmly grounded in the details of American life - a sensibility that arose from an engagement with specific places, communities, incidents, stories, roads, and rituals. The idea of holding a mirror to America was a 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 nationalism. 


Mic drop. This is literally the central argument between Left and Right in our country today. Who is a “real American”? Who gets to participate in democracy? Who has rights? Is it everyone? Or just the white, male, heterosexual, fundamentalist Christians? It is the exact same argument that we have been having since our nation was founded - indeed before that! 


Need another quote that is on point? How about this one from congressman Meyer London, commenting on the Un-American Activities committee? 


“The worst of it is that every movement, every new idea, every new suggestion, every new thought that is advanced is immediately denounced as Bolshevism. It is not necessary to argue any more with a man who advances a new idea; it is enough to say ‘That is Bolshevism.’” 


We are seeing the exact same thing from the Right Wing today - any new idea, any suggestion of change - it’s all “socialism and communism.” And therefore need not be actually debated or addressed - it can just be destroyed by government power if needed. 


The first effect of Dies’s agitation was that the WPA started requiring workers to certify that they were not “communists or Nazis.” This is a pretty clear violation of free speech and association rights - workers should not be punished for their beliefs. (And remember, this is different from attempting to overthrow the government or refusing to do their jobs.) In this context, there is an interesting letter from one anonymous writer to FDR. 


“The accusation has been made that some of us are radicals. Some of us are. I am a communist. And I am a communist because I am an American.”


That writer further noted his pride in America because America “beat the living hell out of reaction and created a free democracy.” We forget sometimes that the founding of our nation wasn’t about a preservation of social hierarchies - quite the opposite, despite the limitation of democracy to white males. The progress toward greater social, political, and economic equality is not in fact anti-American. It is arguably the most American thing possible - a true fulfillment of the best of our aspirations. 


The FWP was, in the long view, just a short-lived program, but it did raise some important questions and influenced eventual policy. The core dispute about its mission was this: did the FWP exist primarily to give jobs to writers? Or was it something more: a government patronage of artists? As early as 1935, the argument was made by congressman William Sirovich that it should be the latter, and indeed, made permanent and expanded. He envisioned a Department of Science, Art, and Literature, a cabinet level agency, which would serve the role that wealthy patrons did in the past, allowing for the creation of art by talented artists, without the problem of commerce. 


While this proposal failed, the later establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as countless state and local subsidies for artistic endeavors show the long-term influence of the FWP. It is certain that a number of great writers were assisted in their careers during a time of deprivation - and indeed the 1950s through 70s - the heyday of government funded artistic endeavors - show an explosion of art and music and literature in the public consciousness as a result. 


Borchert notes near the end of the book that calls to revive this kind of work-relief program for artists seem to recur during every economic crisis. 


These calls, it seems to me, are less policy proposals than protests against the way creative artists are undervalued and neglected in the United States. Someone who says we need a new FWP is really indicting the entire state of our culture and government, just as those writers and intellectuals who supported the Communist Party candidates for president in 1932 were throwing curses at the whole rotten system. To call for an exceedingly improbable goal, in other words, is to denounce the conditions that make such a thing improbable. 


So: should there be a new Federal Writers Project? Perhaps the best answer is this: If enough people, by virtue of simply being alive in the United States at this moment, had secure, good-paying jobs, with plenty of free time in which to realize their full potential, then a new FWP might not be necessary. That is, maybe the problem is not the lack of an FWP but the underlying conditions that continue to demand one. Maybe calling for a new FWP is both too much and far, far too little.


I think this is a good observation. The real question of our time is why, given that productivity has expanded dramatically during my lifetime, the bottom 99 percent - nearly all of us - have seen a reduction in real wages along with a reduction in free time? Why do all the gains go solely to those at the top? What should have happened is we all should have higher incomes and more free time, and we would be able to thrive. 


Is that a communist thing to say? According the the Right Wing, it is. So be it. I think it is basic human decency, as well as the key to a thriving society. If all of us had sufficient income to live on, and enough time to pursue the higher things of the mind and spirit, our nation would be a better place. 


Republic of Detours is a fascinating book, and makes me inclined to seek out one of the guides in the future. Along with other books I have read over the last few years about the Depression and the New Deal, it makes me appreciate just how much of what I currently enjoy is relatively new to human history, and the result of hard work by so many who refused to settle for growing inequality and the relentless grinding of the faces of most people by those with wealth. May we create a better future for our descendents as they did. 


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