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  • The American Guide Series:Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification
  • Andrew S. Gross (bio)

The WPA American Guide Series has received a significant amount of scholarly attention, most of it historical or political in orientation rather than literary or cultural.1 This critical bias is not entirely unjustified. Among the most striking aspects of the Guide Series are the institutional conditions that produced it. Federal Project Number One was the Roosevelt administration's unprecedented response to the estimated 26,000 artists put out of work by the Great Depression, 6,000 of whom were writers.2 It was comprised of four separate departments, the most famous being the Federal Writers' Project directed by Henry Alsberg.3 Critics on the right and the left were suspicious of Federal One's enormous centralized bureaucracy.4 Even those generally supportive of relief projects were skeptical of the government's ability to act as patron of the arts. State and local directors and employees chafed against the dictates of Federal editors, who, with very few exceptions—Idaho being the most notable—had final control over both the form and the content of the Guides (McDonald 743).5 The Dies and Woodrum commissions, suspicious of big government budgets and communist plots, finally succeeded in dismantling most of the projects in 1939 (McDonald 305).6 The conflicts marking—and ending—the brief life of Federal One set the terms of subsequent critical evaluations, which tended to ignore the Guide's specific representational strategies, and the way these strategies mapped onto the landscape, and instead focused on the tensions between New Deal political factions: Federal [End Page 85] officials vs. local interest groups, progressives vs. conservatives, capitalists vs. communists, bureaucrats vs. artists, etc.

More recent criticism has shifted the focus from the political conflict surrounding the Guides to the cultural and political work performed by the Guides themselves. In The WPA Guides: Mapping America (1999), Christine Bold argues that the New Deal "harnessed" the "generic features" of the travel guide—"their taxonomic representation of the landscape, their documentary status, and the trope of use," by which she means their practical application—in order to accomplish "particular cultural work: the guaranteeing of a united, harmoniously diverse citizenry; the demarcation of a safe, knowable (and hence controllable) space within all the changes and threats of modernity; and the demonstration of cultural maturity on the international stage" (17–18). Bold's approach represents an important step beyond the historicist orientation of earlier criticism. Since she does not consider culture to be the "reflection" of an economic base, she does not reduce the Guides to "evidence" of a big-government bias. Instead she shows how culture not only reflects but produces politics, paying particular attention to how specific rhetorical strategies transform the landscape.

Bold is correct in stressing the importance of the tour form as a locus of cultural production; however, she does not pay enough attention to the way the Guides are themselves symptomatic of the social space they attempt to manage. The Guides do more than reflect a "big government" bias but less than produce the "harmonious" space that is their ideal. Both the ideals they strive for and the representational forms they deploy are legacies of consumer culture. To restate this point in Bold's terms, the Guides do not simply respond to "the changes and threats of modernity" but mobilize its promises. These are the promises of advertising. What is most striking about the Guides, if only because it has been consistently overlooked, is the way they appropriate commercial forms of representation for government purposes. The American Guide Series is propaganda, but not in the banal sense of representing history from a pro-government perspective. Rather it transforms local culture into a tourist attraction, and the tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty, in order to reproduce patriotism as a form of brand-name identification.7 This cultural-political innovation has outlasted the New Deal bureaucracy that engendered it, impacting even the strongly anti-New Deal bias of contemporary neo-conservatism. [End Page 86]

Automobile guidebooks first emerged as a form of advertising. They were an established genre by the Great Depression because manufacturers had seized on...


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