The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Book Jacket

Republic of Detours
How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America
by Scott Borchert
15 Jun 2021
400 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Genre: History, Science & Current Affairs
Critics:
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An immersive account of the New Deal project that created state-by-state guidebooks to America, in the midst of the Great Depression―and employed some of the biggest names in American letters.

The plan was as idealistic as it was audacious―and utterly unprecedented. Take thousands of broke writers and put them to work charting a country on the brink of social and economic collapse, with the aim of producing a rich and beguiling series of guidebooks to the forty-eight states. There would be hundreds of other publications dedicated to cities, regions, and towns, plus voluminous collections of folklore, ex-slave narratives, and even recipes, all of varying quality, each revealing distinct sensibilities.

All this fell within the singular purview of the Federal Writers' Project―a division of the Works Progress Administration founded to employ jobless writers, from bestselling novelists and acclaimed poets to the more dubiously qualified. It was a predictably eclectic organization, directed by an equally eccentric man, Henry Alsberg―a disheveled Manhattanite and "philosophical anarchist" who was prone to fits of melancholy as well as bursts of inspiration. Under Alsberg's direction, the FWP took up the lofty goal of rediscovering America, and soon found itself embroiled in the day's most heated arguments regarding literary representation, radical politics, and racial inclusion―forcing it to reckon with the promises and failures of both the New Deal and the American experiment itself.

Scott Borchert's Republic of Detours tells the story of this raucous and remarkable undertaking by delving into the stories of several key figures and tracing the FWP from its optimistic early days to its dismemberment by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Along with Alsberg and a cast of New Dealers, we meet Vardis Fisher, the cantankerous Western novelist whose presence on the project proved to be a blessing and a curse; Nelson Algren, broke and smarting from the failure of his first novel, whose job saved him from a potentially grim fate; Zora Neale Hurston, the most published Black woman in the country, whose talents were sought by the FWP's formally segregated Florida office; and Richard Wright, who arrived in the chaotic New York City office on an upward career trajectory, courtesy of the WPA. Meanwhile, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, John Cheever, and many other future literary stars found sustenance when they needed it.

By way of these and a multitude of other stories, Borchert illuminates an essentially noble enterprise that sought to create a broad, inclusive, and collective self-portrait of America at a time when the nation's very identity and future were thrown into question. As the United States enters a new era of economic distress, political strife, and culture-industry turmoil, this book's lessons are urgent and strong.

"Borchert's vast research and appreciation of this stellar group [of writers] shows what government nurturing of artists can accomplish in even the worst of times." - Booklist (starred review)

"A fresh history of the 'unlikely birth, tumultuous life, and ignoble death' of the Federal Writers' Project (1935-1943)...Borchert provides interesting, detailed portraits of FWP life and how office politics and pressure from the left (strikes) and right (redbaiting, threats of defunding) jeopardized the endeavor. A well-documented, engaging history of a program that treated writers as valuable citizens." - Kirkus Reviews

"[A] wide-ranging and deeply researched study of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP)...Though long-winded at times, Borchert's lucid prose brings the FWP and its colorful personalities to life. Literature and history buffs will learn much from this immersive portrait of 1930s America." - Publishers Weekly

"A joy to read, this book blends riveting life narratives of luminous authors put to work by the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project with absorbing portraits, both geographic and social, of Depression America. Through an engagement with the history of 48 state guidebooks, we gain a bracing account―ever more germane―of the country's riven politics and fraught questions of race." - Ira Katznelson, professor of history and political science at Columbia University and author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

"[T]he book you're holding is a serious work of history...It is the story of the Federal Writers' Project, the desperate and talented writers it employed, and the idiosyncratic books they created...It's a story of great consequence, and Borchert has done it justice by writing an account worthy of sharing shelf space with his subjects." - Colin Asher, author of Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren

Scott Borchert is a writer and former assistant editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, and his work has appeared in Southwest Review, Monthly Review, the Rumpus, PopMatters, Brooklyn Magazine, and elsewhere.

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