How WPA guidebooks gave Arizona and South Dakota a Sense of their own Statehood

In The Travel Habit, WPA guidebooks by KirilLeave a Comment

I find myself quite interested in the notion of how the writing of such guidebooks might have not just provided the nation with directions on how to travel, but indeed given a nation so rife with strife a better notion of itself; and not only that, but provided individual states with a sense of what was great about their state, what made them special. However, at the same time, in making sure that each state feels their own greatness, it is clear that there is a certain amount of whitewashing going around in terms of the histories of the states.

I can find a foundation for such a claim, of course, in the article by Andrew S. Gross that we read, discussing in part the Arizona State Guide, which he accuses of both whitewashing Arizona history and stereotyping its people.

It is remarkable to read it through the lens of how the Guide itself apparently describes Arizona: “Land of extremes. Land of contrasts. Land of surprises. Land of contradictions.” Extremes, contrasts, contradictions; such terms describe to me not Arizona itself but rather the feel with which the Guide itself was written. We see references to deportations, strikes, labor disputes, Native Americans forced off their land—and at the same time shine a spotlight on the fact that the tourists, and indeed, the guidebooks that led them there, that Arizonans “had a state of unsurpassed charm and grandeur, a romantic history stretching back into the mists of antiquity, and extraordinary opportunities.”

The guidebook drew Arizonans to such conclusions about their state, as they began to see the beauties that a national organization had decided would draw people to travel there, that would bring revenue to Arizona but also across the country, as drivers would need to spend money on other things as well before they could arrive in beautiful Arizona. Fooled into whitewashing their own history, stunned by the “beauties and marvels that hordes of tourists were swarming…to see,” it seems they neglect to notice how simple and stereotyped a portrayal of the average Arizonan must inevitably be, for “assimilated population…does not make for interesting tourism,” “ignorant or prejudiced” as they are (note the irony of the ignorance and prejudice of the statement that Arizonans in general are ignorant and prejudiced—think of the ignorance and prejudice towards Arizonans that this must have given rise to—but if the tourism lined Arizonan pocketbooks, perhaps so much the better).

I found similar things to discuss in even the first few pages of a South Dakota guidebook on, though the stereotypes said of the South Dakotans seem considerably more positive.

South Dakotans are seen as “tenacious people,” “adventuring homesteaders,” describing in detail the sweat they dripped on that land, the calloused hands that wore smooth store counters. South Dakotans, it says, make their own entertainment, depicting a happy, friendly people of strong build and stronger will, with a strong tendency to remain behind in South Dakota.

Native Americans (“Indians”) are addressed only peripherally, as something that might be “expected” by tourists, but it says that there are fewer today, because after the “white adventurers” came, they apparently chose instead to lead “peaceful and interesting lives, foreign to war-whoops and breechclouts. The wars that went on between these “adventurers” and the now-apparently-peaceful “Indians” are not mentioned at all.

But the State itself is described with great beauty—and it is clear how those from other states might come and tell such tales to Dakotans themselves, and of the peaceful Indians, and of the “legendary ‘wide open spaces’”, and make them feel proud that they had settled it, giving them not just a sense of local pride, but pride in their place in the nation as a whole.

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