The American Guide book series was born, the story goes, at a Washington, D.C., cocktail party in 1935. Among the guests was Katharine Kellock, a writer and relief worker whose social work had landed her a government job helping rehouse families hit hard by the Depression. It was at that cocktail party where Kellock pitched an idea to a WPA administrator: “The thing you have to do for writers is to put them to work writing Baedekers.”
Baedekers were well-known travel guides that originated in Europe in the 1830s. As of 1935, the series had devoted just a single volume to the entirety of the United States (with a section on Mexico); among other things, it alerted visitors that they should prepare themselves for “absence of deference or servility” on the part of “social inferiors.” The United States deserved a series of detailed travel guides written for Americans, Kellock argued. What better job for the newly established Federal Writers’ Project, which was tasked with hiring out-of-work authors?
The architects of the FWP were struggling to figure out what to do with a diverse pool of unemployed writers that included journalists, poets, technical writers, and even geologists. Not only did the FWP need a task that would generate enough work for them all, but it needed one that would allow little room for politicizing; there were fears that lefty authors would use the project to espouse their views. A guidebook series, Kellock argued, fulfilled all these needs.
The powers-that-were agreed. The FWP was officially created in July 1935, and the American Guide series was announced as its lynchpin project. (The FWP would also go on to collect oral histories from everyday citizens, slave narratives, and studies of folklore.) The series, which was published until 1943, was a massive undertaking. At its core was the mission to create comprehensive guides to the 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii were still territories at the time) with sections devoted to history, geography, architecture, the arts, folklore, and more. The books contained descriptions of towns and cities, suggestions for driving tours, and illustrations, photographs, and maps. Over 6,000 writers were tasked with amassing the material for the guides, which were overseen by directors hired in each state. Among the series’ contributors were writers who would go on to distinguished careers, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, and Saul Bellow.
Beyond providing practical advice about where to go, where to stay, and what to see and do, the American Guide books had a loftier goal: to tell a detailed story of the country and stoke national pride in a population plunged into soul-searching by the Great Depression. “Only the WPA guides have the mile-by-mile treatment that calls for a description of all towns and countryside, attractive and unattractive,” wrote Kellock in The American Scholar in 1940. The guides, she said, comprised “the first full-length portrait of the United States.”
The guides—which are occasionally still reissued by publishers today, and whose original volumes have become collectibles—are richly detailed, occasionally critical, sprinkled with oddball commentary, and deeply interested in establishing the individual character of the regions they cover. Vermonters’ attitude of defiance “resulted from the radicalism of hard-pressed frontiersmen”; the “true Californian develops a proprietary interest that prompts him to tell the world about his state”; and the western Kansas farmer is “a gambler, a go-getter.” Washington, D.C., is noted as “the best shaded city in America, perhaps the world,” but also as “more congested and perilous than ... even London or Paris or New York.” In Louisiana, travelers can enjoy frog legs “fried a golden brown and served on crisp lettuce with tartar sauce and lemon.”
The project was acclaimed overall upon publication. A 1938 catalog of the guides prepared by FWP administrators aggregated the praise that was heaped on the publications: “Almost every book shows flashes of inspired writing,” announced Time. Newsweek declared them “magnificent” and The Nation wrote that, “instead of solemnly listing ‘points of interest,’ they have tried to suggest both the brilliance and the ugliness of American life.”
Critics validated Kellock’s vision of a well-rounded national portrait, but there were obvious shortcomings, resulting from biases and the FWP’s nearly all-white staff. Sterling Brown, a poet and Howard University professor charged with overseeing the representation of black culture in the guidebooks, struggled with regional editors over the inclusion and depiction of African Americans; white staff members were often at a loss as to how they should gather material on the lives of black people in their states, and some state directors in the South said they simply couldn’t hire black writers.
W. T. Couch, the white associate director for the guide in North Carolina, objected to the fact that his guidebook didn’t report that few tourist facilities existed for black travelers. Despite these deep flaws, the attempt to present a more nuanced portrait of race in the guides was significant. “That a black man occupied a central role in the federal reconstruction of history was perhaps one of the most radical features of the program, and it left many Southerners seething,” writes historian Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff in Black Culture and the New Deal. “Still state directors were obligated to recognize administrative procedures involving Brown’s review and opinion.”
At the same time when the FWP was preparing the first American Guides, another guidebook project was underway: in 1936, the first Negro Motorist Green Book was published—a guide to New York restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that were welcoming to black travelers. The brainchild of Victor Hugo Green, an African American postman from New York, the Green Book (as it was known) would eventually go national and become an essential resource on safe places for black travelers in the Jim Crow South. In an introduction to a 1949 edition, the Green Book’s eventual demise was discussed optimistically: “It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication, for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
I grew up in Vermont, surrounded by green mountains, sprawling farmland, and a population rich in cows and white people. Indeed, the US Census Bureau reports that the population of the state of Vermont is, staggeringly, 95.1 percent white. The 1937 book Vermont: A Guide to the Green Mountain State, from the American Guide series, includes a chapter titled “Racial Elements,” which begins plainly, “The people of Vermont are, and always have been, predominantly of English stock.” It notes that without new land tracts to develop—as in the West—or the kind of factory towns found in other parts of New England, Vermont remained “relatively unaffected by the waves of foreign immigration that have swept over almost every settled section of the country since 1930.”
A closer look at census information from the last few decades shows that the state’s demographics are finally shifting, however slowly. Beyond the growing diversity among younger generations—Hispanic and black populations in Vermont have doubled since 2000—there have also been excellent programs developed to welcome asylum-seekers and new immigrants to the whitest state in the country. More than 6,000 refugees have settled in Vermont since the 1980s, many from Bosnia, Vietnam, Somalia, Bhutan, Iraq, Congo, and Sudan.
While photographing a story last year, I got to know some of the refugees who had moved to Burlington and called the Old North End neighborhood home. They have opened new businesses and restaurants in recent years, making the area vastly more vibrant. For immigrants in a new culture, finding access to basic comforts, such as foods from home, is not always easy. I was told about the difficulty of finding goat meat, for example—a mainstay in many African, Asian, and Caribbean diets—in a region where only the milk and cheese from the animal are more generally distributed. The same is true for vegetables such as daikon, African eggplant and corn, amaranth greens, and bitter melon, as well as various herbs and flowers.
This was when I first heard about New Farms for New Americans, an organization located on the Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington, not far from where I grew up. NFNA has conducted research and worked closely with Somali Bantu, Bhutanese, Burundian, Burmese, and Vietnamese farmers and gardeners, among others, providing education and training for those who may be unaccustomed to growing in Vermont’s climate. (The state has a notoriously short growing season, from late April to early September.) NFNA teaches skills to those interested in venturing into trades in agriculture and maintains a community garden space for refugees and recent immigrants, where they can grow native crops to support their families and friends. I thought that was a wonderful thing, and I felt compelled to visit.
When I contacted NFNA last September, they let me know that their annual harvest festival was coming up and extended an invitation for me to attend with my camera. I visited during the days leading up to the festival to meet and photograph a few of the farmers, as they completed what was likely their last big harvest of the season. The air was beginning to cool and the leaves felt like they could turn at any moment. Though there was often a language barrier, I was met with openness by the farmers I spent time with. On the day of the festival, there were live music, kids’ games, and a delicious, potluck-style spread, much of which was made with ingredients harvested in the days prior. I quickly understood how significant these plots of land are—not just for the sustenance, but for the difference that having such a community has made in growing a feeling of “home.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recalled the American Guide book. The chapter on agriculture includes a brief visual introduction, featuring a selection of the expected photographs: a cow, a dirt road, a snowy farm, a granite quarry, a local post office. A few pages later, and there again was “Racial Elements,” which ends with a bleak portrait of migrants to the state: “The foreign elements in Vermont have made no appreciable contribution to arts or manners and no changes in the ways of living—or of thinking—of Vermonters.” It was a sentiment that was starkly different from the Vermont that I have known. What would today’s American Guide say? I imagined the new chapters being written for Vermont, and the increasingly diverse new generation that would write it more beautifully.
Shane Lavalette would like to thank AALV and NFNA staff and volunteers, Thato Ratsebe, Alisha Laramee, Ruth Baldast, Edward Lincoln, and the many farmers and gardeners, including Menuka, Khada, Thal, Dirgha, Judith, Pius, Hadija, Dahir, Fardowsa, and Hsara.
Please consider supporting New Farms for New Americans by sponsoring a family with a donation of any size. A $100 donation will sponsor one new family to lease a full plot for the next growing season, and a marigold and zucchini will be planted in your honor
Photographer Shane Lavalette was born in 1987 in Burlington, VT. He holds a BFA from Tufts University in partnership with The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lavalette’s photographs have been included in exhibitions at the High Museum of Art, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Aperture Gallery, Montserrat College of Art, The Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Musée de l’Elysée.
Explore Federal Project no. 2
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During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.
The American Guide to the New Vermont
Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.
Letting Sleeping Children Lie
Leanne Shapton reconsiders motherhood after seeing a photograph of children asleep during a square dance.
The Afterlives of Slaves
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Portraits of Hard Living in America
The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.
More Federal Project No. 2
This Land Is Your Land
During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.