Too many historians have a tendency to write in unadorned, dry prose which, no matter how impressive their research, can have a soporific effect. Such writing can make reading a book cover to cover a laborious chore, even if, as Noam Chomsky says of the equally dull New York Times, it contains many facts. Scott Borchert’s recently published Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America is definitely not such a book. Borchert, a former assistant editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, writes with passion and pizazz, while never allowing his enthusiasm for 1930s ink-stained wretches and the Federal Writers’ Project publications they produced to overwhelm his subject matter. His impeccable research makes this essential entry into the history of the 1930s a fascinating read, with buried or forgotten facts jumping off every page.
The Federal Writers’ Project was a division of the first Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration’s New Deal-era Works Project Administration. The WPA was put in place to provide useful paid work for millions of destitute people. The FWP, launched in 1935, operated alongside WPA projects for theater, visual art, and music. It provided a lifeline for thousands of professional and amateur writers (typically employing in the neighborhood of 5,000 people) and produced hefty guides for the then forty-eight states, in addition to the District of Columbia, the Alaska Territory, and Puerto Rico. Guidebooks were also produced on cities and towns, various highways, and locales such as Death Valley.