Living Books

In The Travel Habit, WPA guidebooks by Jaxx3 Comments

Personally, I find that the WPA Guides served as a nice idea to kill two birds with one stone, if you will. One, they put writers to work and 2. They served as a push to get people to travel, for if you had the guide to New Orleans then why not travel New Orleans? I’m a bit mystified, though, because I don’t exactly understand how these writers went about documenting the states they were assigned. I mean, how do you put literary people in charge of directions, in charge of writing the cut-and-dry sentences that tell people exactly what they need to know to get around a city.

Then again, I think that writers are exactly the kind of people who should be writing travel guides. They can make the words jump off the page and transform into 3-dimensional buildings, landmarks, and other attractions that encourage travelers. This talent of writers made the guides better, in my opinion, and worthy of being known as literature. The tour part of the guides, for example, especially showcase this special writing. In Andrew Gross’ “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,” he states that:

The tour form is the most practical part of the Guides, since it was designed to direct drivers through the landscape, from attraction to attraction, without the help of maps. The editors were explicit about what they saw as the tour’s literary and historical significance.

The director of the project even states, “’The tour form is a difficult form; it is like a sonnet; but, if you can learn it, you can be more interesting in the description of a tour than in any novel’” (Gross). Though skeptical at first, I am positive that this assertion is true after reading the WPA guide to the city of New Orleans,

The buildings on Levee, Chartres, and Royal Streets were constructed of brick, faced with lime or stucco, and had roofs of tile and slate. Those in the rear were made of cypress with shingle roofs, and were so combustible than an ordinance had to be passed forbidding the further erection of timber buildings. As a precaution against flooding during rainstorms the houses were set on pillars, leaving a kind of cellar on the surface of the ground. flights of stairs, vestiges of which remain to this day in the Vieux Carre, encroached upon the banquette, a sidewalk four or five feet wide, constructed of bricks with a retaining wall of cypress planks. (17)

Just reading these few sentences makes me feel as if I have been transported into the city in a novel that takes there. What beautiful, rich lines. Reading these lines make me wonder if Gross’ assertion that “the Guide consistently privileges the perspective of the outsider, suggesting…that it is the tourist (not the inhabitant) who recognizes the true value of the state” is true. Are those who live in the places the guides are written about able to recognize the value in their homes? The beauty that lurks behind every sidewalk? Or is this ability reserved for the tourist who, in reading these guides and traveling to these places, can view cities in America as not just another city but as something completely magical and special? These guides make cities living books and allow us to step into their words and experience the places for ourselves: “The itinerary is a narrative” (Gross).


  1. Great post. I personally think writers or “literary people” are quick well suited to develop a deep understanding of an area. I feel like it’s not dissimilar to a writer exploring a theme in depth. The theme in this case would obviously be the city.

  2. I like your point about WPA guide being “a nice idea to kill two birds with one stone.” I think the guides did a particularly effective job in creating patriotism. On one hand, it features the best nature and infrastructure of the country, and at the same time captures the best talents and most interesting American people. On the other hand, the fact they either helps create or strengthens the brand names of each state and aims to improve the entire economy with more tourists bringing in capital and increase transactions. The country is built upon transactions, and in this way the patriotism is fully exercised.

  3. I agree with the two birds one stone notion. It clearly showcases the beauty and landmarks of a specific town which incites people to visit and stimulate the economy. It also builds pride in the city and allows people to believe their own towns are capable of being prosperous. Too many people were trying to leave their cities in search of another, yet this led them to believe they could profit where they were.

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