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American Modernism on Display

Tourism and Literary Form in the Works Progress Administration’s Guide Series

Meg Wesling

Pages 427 - 450


Between 1936 and 1941 the Federal Writers’ Project produced guides to all forty-eight states, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, as well as to several cities and regions. Though numerous wellknown and important American authors contributed to the American Guide Series, the books themselves have been almost ignored by literary critics and scholars working with the American Guides have generally regarded them either as busywork to keep people employed during the Great Depression or as government propaganda meant to forward a particular vision of American patriotism and national bounty. This essay makes the case for reading the American Guides as literary texts, texts that engaged with the genres of regionalism and modernism, and texts that tell us something about the literary scene of mid-twentieth-century America. I start by situating the American Guides within the colonial politics of guidebooks and tourism, considering the ideological work that the guides performed. I then extend that focus to analyze how the texts subvert the guidebook genre’s realist representational strategies to embrace an experimentation and epistemological uncertainty that is at the heart of literary modernism. Finally, by focusing specifically on Zora Neale Hurston’s role as editor of ‘Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State’, I draw connections between her literary work and her work for the Federal Writers’ Project to argue that such guides present a sort of ‘crisis modernism,’ a set of texts whose realistic representational strategies belie the epistemological crises that underpinned them. Through such a reading, I argue, we expand our understanding of what mid-century American modernism looked like, and we better interpret the political, cultural, and literary import of the massive undertaking of the Federal Writers’ Project.


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