The documentary Soul of A People: Writing America’s Story (2009), tells the story of the Federal Writer’s Project, commissioned during the Great Depression of the 1930s, to collect the experiences of everyday Americans, through the form of guidebooks to cities and states, among other genres.
This project brought together well-known, and soon-to-be-well-known writers and artists, including Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, Dorothea Lange and Zora Neale Hurston to document their cities and hometowns and to create guidebooks like this, one of my favorite of all time:
I’ve been thinking a lot about guide books and travel writing, normally at the bottom of the literary heap, considered low-brow, and nowhere near scholarly; throwaway fare, worthy only of that most terrible of pests: ‘the tourist.’ And yet:
I have decided to write my dissertation using the form of a guidebook to thinking “experience” in “the city”, organized as a series of walking tours. Each walking tour takes the wanderer through a series of different cities via artwork created in/for/about each city. The guidebook content derives from “field notes” created in the form of a weblog. Technically, what I am doing is “retrofitting” the older-yet-not-quite-obsolete guidebook technology with the newer ‘blog’ technology.
Guidebooks provide a perfect form for working with experience in the city. Creating a guidebook involves having encounters with the sights, sounds and tastes of the city, and then listing the circumstances, and providing directions, by which others might have similar encounters. Often, guidebooks focus on experiencing the monumental—museums, public works, ‘heritage’ sites—assuming that it is the monumental that shapes the city; that provides its heft, distinguishing one place from another. And yet guidebooks, in the very condition of their use—on holiday, on a business trip, on a plane, or a train, in motion—are also the modern desire for urban-nomadic life, actualized.
The formatting of guidebooks is often different from other genres of books about cities, such as novels, histories, or academic monographs. They are often designed less to be read, than used. Guidebooks, like field guides to nature, tend to contain plenty of drawings, photographs and maps. Text in such books is not often organized into long paragraph blocks that run for pages and pages, but often into columns and short paragraphs, broken up by blank spaces, or small images, or large bold titles. This sort of formatting makes it simple for users to locate key information about a given area, and orient themselves quickly, and in motion. Guidebooks are not designed for overly thoughtful contemplation, but for sideways glances. Yet the best of writers and the most perceptive of artists, found in the form of the guidebook a way to bring to their cities to life.
See the impact of Zora Neale Hurston’s contribution to the the WPA’s Florida Guide on her hometown, Eatonville, Florida.
If the video doesn’t play, click here to watch on youtube.