Sunday, December 16, 2012

Young People, Passions, and a WGA Screenplay Reading


In the 1930s young people with little experience, like Margaret Walker, Nelson Algren and Richard Wright, got on their feet with jobs as WPA writers. Working for the government on the American Guides, they got a firsthand sense of what creatives can contribute to society.
    Walker was just out of college when she applied to the Writers’ Project. She had grown up in segregated Alabama, a minister’s daughter, and after college she prepared to follow her mother’s path and marry a young minister. But her mother urged her to chart a new course. So Margaret lied about her age and got a spot as a WPA writer, meeting up with other young writers Richard Wright and Nelson Algren.
    Wright, too, came from the South, moving with his mother from Mississippi to Memphis to Chicago where he  found work with the post office despite having just seven years of school. In time he would become the poet of the Great Migration, as Isabel Wilkerson writes in The Warmth of Other Suns (the title comes from Wright).
    What struck me in their letters and writings as I researched Soul of a People was how that moment in Chicago allowed them to connect with other writers across conventional divides of race, gender, age and education.
    The Chicago office, Walker wrote later in Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, fostered “what nobody believed was possible at that time -- a renaissance of the arts and American culture… and some of the most valued friendships in the literary history of the period.” She said in that moment she saw an end to the “long isolation of the Negro artist.”
    Wright mapped his move from Chicago to New York in 1937 as his road to a literary career. “When I go tonight, I will have forty dollars in my pocket,” he told Walker as they rode the El his last night in Chicago, after leaving the WPA office. Wright planned to get a transfer to the agency’s office in Manhattan, but there were no guarantees. “I hope I’m not making a mistake, going this way,” he told Walker.
    It wasn't a mistake. And after he burst on the scene with Uncle Tom’s Children and followed it with the bestseller Native Son (which benefitted from Walker’s research on a murder trial in Chicago), Wright remembered his friends in Chicago. He kept up a lively dialogue with Nelson Algren for years (see this piece in the American Scholar), and mentored other young writers. But Wright was a complex and conflicted personality, and no relationship was easy.
    Their story unfolds against a backdrop of suspicion and controversy that swirled around the Writers’ Project, as Texas congressman Martin Dies led a congressional investigation by the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities. In 1939 he brought his investigation to Chicago, interrogating witnesses and raiding offices across the city. When Dies brandished what he claimed was a list of suspected un-Americans in Chicago, it included 514 milkmen, 144 newspaper reporters, 112 lawyers, and 161 radio workers – people just as likely to be on a list of interviews by the WPA writers for publication in the American Guides.
    These creative, political and personal tensions and vitality lie at the heart of My People, which gets a stage reading in the WGA Screenplay Reading series on January 9, 2013 at the Players Club in New York. I’m thrilled that the screenplay, co-written with veteran screenwriter Jim McGrath, will bring the little-known story of these taut relationships involving Walker, Algren and Wright to a new audience.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Woody Guthrie Goes to Germany


In one of the last hurrahs of the Woody Guthrie centennial, a festival in Germany honored him today. The festival description points up his influence and his mythic stature internationally, and draws links from his Dust Bowl ballads to the Occupy Movement, and from Alan Lomax to Bob Dylan.
    For me it was fascinating to study Guthrie as a key figure in Worlds of Sound: The Ballad of Folkways, and to see how the Folkways label was a key player in his own rise and influence. (You can watch the whole film on iTunes.) I still find parts of Woody Guthrie: A Life haunting. Happy Hundred, Woody. Or rather, Gl├╝ckliche Hundert.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say

I’ve always gotten a strong feeling from walking through cemeteries, but I never realized why until I looked into two very different cemeteries in New Orleans.
    My visit 15 years ago started at New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, St. Louis I. Its tall wrought iron and stone monuments are packed tightly on a grid of narrow graveled paths, and extend block after block. Right away, you can see how it suits the urban traditions of the tradespeople and city elders buried there. On my tour, we found the marble tomb of Homer Plessy, the shoemaker who became famous in 1896 during the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy was a civic-minded Creole tradesman who belonged to two community associations. Those groups supported him in his historic legal fight against segregation.
    These associations were another New Orleans tradition. They arranged picnics and dances, but their most important role was a sort of funeral insurance, to provide a suitable wake and funeral for members. At least one brass band and uniformed mourners would accompany the family on the "last mile" with the body. After standing by Plessy during his lifetime, they walked beside him on his last ride in 1925 on the way to St Louis I.
    Things looked a lot different across town in Holt cemetery near the city park. Begun as a potters field, Holt is the final home of the city's poorest residents. You entered from a community college parking lot, into what at that time looked like an overgrown field. A hand-painted sign says "Holt cemetery".
    Holt wasn't in any guidebook, but I knew that it was where Charles "Buddy" Bolden, the first "king" of jazz, was buried thanks in part to a note at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s fine novel, Coming Through Slaughter. Bolden was famous for his cornet playing and his charm with the women. A five-year-old Louis Armstrong heard King Bolden play and remembered the sound for the rest of his life. (Recently Treme honored him with an episode title, “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.”) But Bolden’s career was cut short in 1906 by mental illness, and when he died in an institution many years later, all but forgotten, he was buried in Holt without ceremony or marker.
    On my visit years ago, I found no sign of his grave. Instead I found a landscape of remembrance very different from St. Louis I, or any other I recognized. Graves in Holt are marked by plastic knickknacks and chinaware, like someone's picnic spot. These personalized markers spring from a rural African-American tradition and are as rich in their way as the marble in St Louis I. At many graves, loved ones have placed cups, saucers, bottles, rugs, bits of plaster. In that tradition, these items create a place where spirits of the departed can take rest and solace for their voyage.
    But like their fellow citizens in St. Louis I, the departed in Holt need a funeral to send them on their way, and many poor families valued burial insurance more highly than health or accident insurance. Again, community associations provided it. Their brass bands nurtured Buddy Bolden's (and Armstrong’s) musical growth and shaped his repertoire. But when he died, there was no band to give him a proper goodbye.
    On Bolden’s 119th birthday, New Orleans made amends and gave Buddy Bolden a proper send-off. Delgado Community College organized the tribute, Stewart Enterprises donated a stone marker, and the Olympia Brass Band led a second-line parade of hundreds of New Orleanians and several television crews. A generation who never knew Bolden turned out to honor his memory because it said something about who they are and where they come from.
    Now, his great-granddaughter said afterward, “he may be at peace.”
    After years away, I stopped by Holt last weekend and visited Bolden’s fine marker, which seemed to honor also the other homemade markers surrounding it – the orange plastic flower, the child’s toys.
    The stone called Bolden “legendary cornet player/ New Orleans jazz pioneer/ And first 'King of Jazz' and included Jelly Roll Morton's description of him: “The blowingest man since Gabriel.”
    This Halloween let’s keep our ears peeled for those spirits.

This is adapted from an article that first appeared in
International Cemetery & Funeral Management magazine. That’s right.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cuban Missile Crisis: When the Cold War Rolled Down the Sunshine State Parkway


Fifty years ago this week, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought a Cold War nuclear threat to millions of American homes. To mark the anniversary, the National Archives issued a new mobile app that lets you listen to JFK's briefings about the aerial photographs that found Soviet warheads in Cuba. But for 13-year-old Tim Warburton, the Crisis appeared as a traffic phalanx rolling down a Florida highway. 
    His parents had divorced and his father, restaurauteur Barclay Warburton III, was restoring himself by refurbishing a yacht, the Black Pearl, in a Florida boatyard. He brought his son for months to help. That October, the ride back to his father’s place after school in Boca Raton seared on Tim’s brain the sight of a southbound convoy of U.S. armed vehicles and personnel.
    "I remember the Sunshine State Parkway completely packed in the southbound lanes with military trucks, men, missiles," he says. "It was unbelievable."
    The U.S. administration was scrambling to respond to a threat. By October 26, Kennedy was prepared to invade Cuba to remove the Soviet missiles. The next evening the high tensions led to a clandestine huddle of emissaries from Kennedy and Krushchev at a Chinese restaurant in Washington, DC (now the Walgreen’s where I buy razor blades). The following day, both parties stepped back from the brink.
    The harrowing episode left many people searching for another path, including Frank Braynard, then on the staff of the American Merchant Marine Institute. Braynard, who loved the great sailing ships that had all but disappeared from the ports, and Nils Hansell, an I.B.M. employee and kindred, met in Braynard’s office at 11 Broadway and hatched a plan named Operation Sail. The name evoked romance and intrigue of an intelligence effort, an absurd contrast with outmoded sea transport, and the hope for an effort to foster international goodwill.
    They wrote to anyone who might help. Officials began to champion the idea. From Albany, Governor Nelson Rockefeller issued letters to foreign dignitaries inviting them to join Operation Sail 1964, "a project to bring the great school sail ships of the world" to New York. Hansell's I.B.M. connections led to an invitation from the White House staff. In 1963 Kennedy signed on. "Sailing has given me some of the most pleasant and exciting moments of my life," Kennedy wrote. "Thus I am looking forward to Operation Sail. The sight of so many ships gathered from the corners of the world should remind us that strength, discipline and venturesome men still can find their way safely across uncertain and stormy seas."
    Kennedy would never see that spectacle, but two years after witnessing the defense machinery pass their boatyard, the Warburtons father and son sailed the Black Pearl to New York. In July 1964 New York hosted the first Operation Sail where dozens of sailing ships from around the world came together alongside the futurescape of the World's Fair. Warburton remembers the Fair and the AT&T videophone exhibited there.
    Operation Sail gave him memories of great square-riggers gathered at the Verrazano Bridge and Burl Ives, a family friend, singing sea chanties up the Hudson. One clear, painful memory involves a side competition among the ships: a rowing contest of dinghies. "We had a terrible boat," he laughs. "I was an oarsman, and we were last. By a long distance."
    But the tall ships had a powerful effect on the father. "That was his conversion," Tim told me for a book on Operation Sail. The 1964 event marked the end of the Black Pearl's days as the yacht of a playboy and the start of its mission as a sail-training vessel for young people.
    The sight of these ships gathering in the wake of the Missile Crisis (and the shadow of Lyndon Johnson's doomsday '64 election campaign ad, Daisy) hit home. Barclay Warburton saw the sailing ships' arrival as a way for a new generation to meet each other across borders and learn how others live. Warburton dedicated much of his life to creating the American Sail Training Association, a group that pursued that mission. Another Operation Sail brought the ships to New York and other U.S. ports this summer (including the Indonesian vessel Dewaruci, on its last epic seven-seas journey), where the vessels of a bygone era paraded once again, ghostly reminders of other showdowns.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Occupy, Looking Back a Year Later

On the anniversary of the Occupy movement, a look back at how it appeared in three cities up the East Coast in the fall of 2011.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ginseng-hunting Season


This month’s Adirondack Life magazine includes an article celebrating the ginseng tradition of the northeastern mountains. That’s right: the plant perhaps best known in America as a Chinese herb or a southern wild medicinal plant has, for millions of years, grown wild up all the way into Canada. The article features Bob Beyfuss, expert ginsenger and champion of “simulated-wild” ginseng, an approach that gives the plant space to grow in the forest without use of chemicals or the intensive methods of ginseng farming. He is also a presence in my book Ginseng, the Divine Root, which Algonquin Books has released as an e-book. Today’s post is adapted from the book.

Bob Beyfuss says the tattoo on his arm was a midlife crisis: a full-color, life-size illustration of a huge five-prong ginseng plant, from leaves to root. Ginseng diggers everywhere talk about prongs – the bracts that branch off from the main stem and give a rough idea of the plant’s age. One-prongs are a year old, two-prongs are two years, and a four-prong generally signals a plant four years old or older. After four years, a plant rarely adds prongs, so to tell the age you have to dig up the root and count the scars that gather on its neck, one every year. Beyfuss had a botanical illustrator paint the image from one of his own plants, a nine-year-old. Then a tattoo artist needed most of a day to transfer the illustration to Beyfuss’ arm. There it is: a flush of leaves on his shoulder in rich greens, the red berries full, and the brown, branchy root only slightly smaller than it should have been.
    Beyfuss has been involved with ginseng for nearly 30 years, starting at a low point in his life. In 1984 his marriage had just ended and he was going back to school for a master’s degree, and he felt old among the other graduate students. He was commuting two hours each way from his day job in Greene County. With the added strain of studying, he was a wreck.
    He started taking ginseng, chewing a bit of root daily, and found that despite getting less sleep, he could keep going through a full schedule of work, study, and almost-daily racquetball games. Ginseng seemed to cut his stress load, improve his energy, and, he thought, help him to lose weight.
    Beyfuss hoped that with simulated-wild ginseng, he could help revive a New York tradition in which families supplemented their income with native species from local forests in ways more ecologically sound than conventional dairy farms, which invest a great deal of energy, resources and antibiotics to grow animals that are not well-suited to these hill slopes.
    One September day we were in the Catskills where he likes to hunt the plant. Suddenly, standing amid stinging nettle and blackberry prickers, he knelt down. There it was. “Four prong,” he said.
    This was the first ginseng of the season. It was indeed a four-prong, with several clusters of leaves off the central stem – a good-sized buck in ginseng terms – but it did not stand out from the shrubs and the jack-in-the-pulpits nearby. Yet we were in a ginseng patch.
    “The more you look, the more you see,” Beyfuss said. Almost immediately, he pointed out another, just a bare stem. Although deer had nibbled off the leaves (deer and wild turkey love ginseng), Beyfuss could identify the plant by its central stem and the remaining bracts.
    He has hunted American ginseng throughout its range, which at one point stretched to the eastern edge of Nebraska and down into Florida. As you go south through the plant’s native range, down the Alleghenies through the Appalachians to Georgia, the indicator plants that signal its presence change. Blue cohosh gives way to black cohosh. Galax springs up.
    Pressed to explain ginseng’s allure, words fail him. He can’t articulate the feeling he gets from hunting shang, except to say that it “reinforces the primeval connection between humans and plants.”
    Later we crossed the road and re-entered the everyday world, stopping in a driveway to retrieve a fertilizer spreader for his friend. You could tell, as Beyfuss settled into the car, that the rest of the day would be routine after the magic of the first hunt of the season.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Food and Our Stories

The Algonquin blog this month offers a mouth-watering take on food stories, and a deal on 7 of them for e-readers. Have a look and reflect on how our gatherings over meals and our memories of food influence our sense of ourselves.
    Some of us live closer to gathering our food and herbs than others. My friend Bob Beyfuss posted an exhilarating response to the start of ginseng harvest season in upstate New York this month. It shows how for him, experiencing ginseng habitat each fall helps reinforce all the natural history and medicinal knowledge that he's learned. So taste and how it connects to memory goes past Proust's bite of the madeline, into the forest or the community garden. However you slice it, enjoy.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Constitution vs. Guerriere: A Doctor’s Log, War of 1812


Two hundred years ago this month, a first major sea engagement of the War of 1812 took place in the Atlantic about 600 miles east of Boston.
    August 19 dawned cloudy with freshening breezes, and for the crew of the USS Constitution, another day isolated on the sea. At 2 pm, though, a sail was spotted to the south. An hour later, as Constitution closed in, the other vessel’s outline became a frigate. Captain Isaac Hull cleared the decks for action. The surgeon, Dr. Amos Evans, carefully arranged his sinister-looking instruments in the cockpit.
    The cannon fire started suddenly. Amid the din and fog, the British ship’s mizzenmast soon toppled, slowing her down considerably. Constitution surged across her bow and let loose first one raking broadside, then turned for another. The ships collided, the British frigate’s bowsprit tangling in Constitution’s rigging.
    Constitution’s first lieutenant, Charles Morris, and her marine lieutenant, William Bush, were shot down—“Mr. Morris first jumped on the Taffrail with an intention of boarding her and was instantly wounded in the parieties of the abdomen,” Evans wrote in his journal. Bush rushed in after and immediately took a musket shot to the face.
Constitution v. Guerriere became a favorite theme.

    The battle ended quickly as the captain of the HMS Guerriere surrendered. But Dr. Evans’ work was just getting underway. He was soon joined by his British counterpart and side by side they worked in Constitution’s cramped cockpit, kneeling over writhing and groaning men, cauterizing wounds, setting bones, and amputating limbs. One gunner recalled a man who had his leg amputated say simply, “You are a hard set of butchers.”
    The surgeons worked through the night. Even as they attended to the wounded, in the morning they looked up to see the Guerriere as it gave its last gasp. The American crew got all the prisoners of war off and set the enemy ship ablaze. She soon blew up spectacularly.
    Then it was a matter of getting everyone to shore. Nine days later, a lookout sighted Boston lighthouse. By August 31 they had anchored there. Recorded Evans:
As we passed Long Wharf were saluted with huzzas by a great concourse of people from that place and the different Merchant vessels. Commander Decatur… came on board… and the vessel was crowded all day with citizens – boats surrounded us, huzzaing, &c.
How to reconcile the long, tedious days at sea with the sudden violence of battle, and the crowds and celebration on shore? More from routine than necessity, Evans still began each journal entry ashore with the weather:
September 5. – Wind from N & E—cold rain. Were honoured with a superb dinner at Faneuil Hall by the citizens of Boston to-day. Much order and decorum were preserved on the occasion. Several excellent Patriotic toasts drunk… In the Gallery, fronting the President’s chair, was a model of the Constitution Frigate with her masts fished and the Colours as they flew during the action… A band of musick played in the Gallery, and every toast was honored by several guns from the street.

September 27 – Walked around town with Lt. Contee & saw many pretty girls, coming from & going to church. Cool & cloudy in the evening…
By October 2, a Boston theatre had adapted the surprise victory for the stage in a short piece called “Guerriere & Constitution.” It ran after the main show, The Foundling of the Forest. Evans bought his ticket and afterward pronounced the new work “a very foolish, ridiculous thing.”
    There was an election that fall, too. Marylander Evans received “very disturbing news” reports from home of the outcome for Congress: “What a farce! And what miserable dunces the people are to be so easily gulled! … I am sick of this rascally world.”
    Still Evans returned to his duties on the Constitution. Back at sea he conducted experiments to determine the ocean’s currents, and savored simple pleasures. On November 19 he wrote, “Eat the albacore caught yesterday. I found it an excellent fish.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Digging Up History and Making It Fresh

Earlier this month our first Neighborhood Profiles workshop wrapped up a blast of discoveries, lives and upturned hideaways, from Washington’s old Brookland monastery and tavern west to Route 66 and on to the Kentucky-Tennessee border. I was lucky to have a group with wide-ranging curiosity and skills for exploration, and help from George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media for trying out new tools for local historians and storytellers. It was indeed a blast.
    Our venue itself was dripping with history: the Old Naval Hospital, recently converted into the Hill Center. Less than a year into its new life, it already draws a range of local groups its halls, which date back to the Civil War. It had high ceilings and odd transoms that peer down into the rooms from grand stairwells. The room across the hall from ours was the Walt Whitman room.
    Thanks to The Writer’s Center and the Hill Center for their support in creating the workshop. Hope to see you there the next time we offer it. For more about the workshop see my post on the Writer's Center blog.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Secret Life of a Powder Monkey and Other 1812 Transformations

The ships of another age arrive in Chicago and the Great Lakes this week. As they mark the 200th anniversary of the 1812 war, my thanks to the folks at NY Bound Books for showcasing the story of Samuel Leech, the boy caught in a brutal battle on the far side of the Atlantic who found himself reliving it in NY harbor many years later, and others who remade themselves. http://www.newyorkboundbooks.com/2012/08/10/bicentennial-of-a-forgotten-war/

Friday, July 27, 2012

77 Down the Road: An Anniversary

Today marks the anniversary of the start of the Federal Writers’ Project (under the WPA) by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. Several recent items string together to signal the effort’s surprisingly long influence across the years. First, a recent post by NY Bound Books does a wonderful job noting the WPA writers’ influence on how New York life and history get portrayed still.
    Then Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and other books, invokes the WPA writers in her new Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which aims “to force this country’s crisis of poverty and economic insecurity to the center of the national conversation.” Check out her recent thought-provoking interview with Amy Dean.
    Shifting to the individual writers and their lives after the WPA, Richard Wright scholar Jerry Ward, blogging from China about “Richard Wright and 21st-century Questions,” notes how we’re still learning the range of what Wright learned and wrote in his twenties while he was a WPA writer in Chicago and New York.
    Even this week’s New Yorker brings a glimpse of the creative legacy of these writers. In David Remnick’s profile of Bruce Springsteen, the rock star, speaking about writers that have affected him, notes two WPA alumni in the space of two lines: John Cheever, whose WPA editing job helped him survive the Depression, and Saul Bellow, who gained his first job as a writer with the WPA when he was just out of college. “I was a big John Cheever fan, and so when I got into Chekhov I could see where Cheever was coming from,” Springsteen tells Remnick. “And I was a big Philip Roth fan, so I got into Saul Bellow, ‘Augie March.’ These are all new connections for me.”
    Happy to report that you can now watch Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story in full on the Smithsonian Channel online. The filmmaking team is very pleased that this doc, supported with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as six state humanities councils, is now freely available to the public. See America this summer.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day Sails

As the U.S. observes Memorial Day, tall ships evoking the Age of Sail visit New York City. My post on National Geographic's travel blog tells of how those ships' crews recall a way of life and and different forms of service.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hitting the Road with WPA Audio Tours

In a new twist on the WPA guide tours, Ohio Public Radio has launched a series of downloadable audio tours, following routes mapped out in the 1940 WPA Guide to Ohio. It just started the 23-part series, which will continue through the summer - each week a new tour. Read the whole story here. Then download the series here. Way to go, Ohio.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Modeling the WPA Experience in an Online Game


Filament Games, based in Madison, WI, has been working with Spark Media on a concept for a cross-platform game to put young people in the shoes of the 1930s WPA writers as they went from joblessness to national service, putting American life into a series of  guidebooks. To start, the designers have crafted in Soul of a Place a slice of the WPA experience documenting life along the Lincoln Highway, the interstate precursor to Route 66, as it goes through Pennsylvania. There WPA workers contended with hostile locals, legal threats (one town didn’t like how it was portrayed in the WPA guide and the city council planned a lawsuit) and the difficulties of depicting a massive teapot diner roadside attraction in Bedford, PA.
    Not far to the south of Bedford, incidentally, stood the town of Chaneysville, already a ghost town by the 1930s and later immortalized in David Bradley’s prize-winning novel, The Chaneysville Incident. It tells the story of a black historian in the Bedford area who uses the historical detective tools employed by the WPA writers to uncover an incident involving his father’s death, racial tensions and a deeper mystery.
    In another part of the game prototype, users have the task of assembling a newsreel about the Chicago World’s Fair.
    Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Chance Find in a Bookstore in Istanbul

Amid the shelves of Simurg Bookstore in the Beyoglu section of Istanbul, Kiran finds the 1939 WPA Guide to New York City with illuminating traces of Muslims' lives and history in America. Read the full post on the Islamicana blog here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When America Faced the Sea

Thanks to Ken Ackerman, the brains behind Viral History, for letting me post about another era of national crisis, and a new group portrait of everyday Americans doing extraordinary things during the War of 1812. Check out the post featuring Long Islander Joshua Penny here. The new book comes out next week!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Characters in the Neighborhood

See my guest post about neighborhood profiles and a new workshop, on The Writer's Center blog at First Person Plural.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Happy Diamond Jubilee, WPA Guides - Starting in Idaho

This week 75 years ago, amid the Great Depression, the first in a series of quirky travel guides to America came out. Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture was not the debut for the American Guides that federal officials had planned. Idaho had less than half a million residents and few people were planning to go there. But Vardis Fisher, a novelist and unemployed professor who had taken the reins of the tiny Idaho Writers’ Project, was a most unusual travel editor. He had big ambitions for his novels and their epic sweep of life in the Rockies, and this government-sponsored foray into nonfiction travel writing -- to keep his family alive during a terrible economy – was also ambitious.
    Fisher shows two elements of writing about a place. First, consider it the center of the universe. Even if nobody else considered Idaho the center of anything, Fisher wrote with conviction and humor of its odd shape and its mountains and conveyed the feeling that in Idaho, you found the universal human condition. Second, bring it alive through the stories of people who live and struggle there.
    In the same way, a young Richard Wright, working as a WPA writer in Chicago in January 1937 when the Idaho book came out, was discovering through his research in Illinois the idea that Black America – marginalized culturally and economically – was the heart and test of the American dream. Zora Neale Hurston held the same conviction about the folk culture of the Florida Gulf Coast, and was about to publish her novel putting a black woman literally at the center of the storm, with Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Janie’s struggle with men and the hurricane.
    The WPA guide to Idaho became a critical success. “An almost unalloyed triumph,” one reviewer called it. And as Fisher had hoped, it helped to create a national audience for his fiction. His next book was Children of God, the historical novel about Idaho pioneers that would be his bestselling book.
    As the 75th-anniversaries of the WPA guides unfold, writers intrigued by place and history are continuing their legacy. Use the new tools now available – for oral history, for online research that delves into local landmarks and documents (many found in the appendix to Soul of a People) – to push toward new discoveries at the center of the universe.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bound for Tulsa

The NY Times editorial about Oklahoma finally embracing its rambling son, Woody Guthrie, with a study center for his archives didn't mention his fellow exiled Oklahoman friend Jim Thompson, or Bound for Glory. But it did note the currency and poignancy of his songs like "Deportee" and that they could be heard recently on the lips of Occupy protesters. As the archive will reveal, there's more to Guthrie than folk songs, even though that's plenty.
    Guthrie is featured in the Smithsonian documentary by Spark Media, Worlds of Sound: The Ballad of Folkways, which I happily worked on.