A Republic of Variety
State by State, A Panoramic Portrait of America began as essentially a road trip compressed into a book. In the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project was created. The project hired many of the most famous authors to write for them, like Richard Wright, an author who was also the founder of the South Side Writers Group which included Margaret Walker
and Arna Bontemps,
Wallace Stegner, a famous novelist who was awarded the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and incidentally achieved the rank of Eagle during his Boy Scout experience, and even Studs Terkel, a well-known writer, actor, historian, and broadcaster who ran the Studs Terkel Radio Program.
The Federal Writers’ Project was a clever method the government used to employ writers during the Great Depression. It was one of the greatest writing projects in history and a large section of the project was the State Guides. They consisted of forty-eight books on the then forty-eight states of America, each containing over five hundred pages of writing. Although State by State was inspired by the State Guides, it is not meant to correct it. Instead State by State gives a much smaller and shorter essay on each state, honoring the FWP through the attention to America’s identity found in statehood, yet aiming for brevity and perspicuity.
Matt Weiland is the Senior Editor of W.W. Norton and Company. Other than State by State, he has co-edited with Sean Wilsey,
and co-edited with Thomas Frank, Commodify Your Dissent: The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age (1997). Sean Wilsey is an author, his most famous books being the memoir, Oh the Glory of it All, and more recently, the co-author of Hello Molly, a memoir by Molly Shannon the actress and comedian.
After living abroad, Weiland had a sudden interest in America: “I was moving back to America after four years of living abroad. I was hitting the Americana hard:
I read Moby-Dick and Huck Finn again, and I gorged on the Preston Sturges films and Will Eisner comics and the aching Old Time music that is heavy on banjos and beards” (xiv).
A few years prior to the creation of State by State, America had gone through the great tragedy commonly known as 9/11 but through this terrifying time, Americans came together. Weiland notes how in America, “the lives lived here remain strangely and surprisingly underdescribed” and that “sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind us so”(xiii).
Inspired by American sights, books, and films, Matt Weiland envisioned the very first stage of State by State. He felt that much of America’s glory was going unnoticed, so he decided to pursue his vision of this collection of essays with Wilsey. The idea was to capture America’s identity in the form of a book. The two wanted to compile a group of authors to write about their home states and they wanted to create a book that would tell a foreigner why we take pride in America. But the real audience was Americans, for as the subtitle states, “Take Pride on Your Country”.
The finished product is made of fifty-one different essays (including Washington D.C.) that largely exposes the makings of each state, allowing us to dive into parts of what each star on the flag represents.
While Weiland envisioned the glory of America, Wilsey experienced it. In the year of 2002, Wilsey was recovering from both the terror of 9/11 and the loss of family members. He states, “I thought a long slow drive across much of America would allow me to catch up with these losses”. With his dog, Charlie Chaplin and Michael Meredith, his friend who had also been busy creating a design proposal for the 9/11 memorial, Wilsey drove an old pickup truck from Texas to New York. The journey that he described in the introduction showed me how little I know of America. What knowledge of the states I’ve learned from school cannot compare to what one gets on the classic road trip. When Weiland and Wilsey edited each essay into State by State, we finally can grasp the idea of America with the fascinating stories and in-depth descriptions of each state.
State by State is largely composed of personal essays. While it’s great to have such a variety of states, it made it hard for me to select one. I thought about writing about West Virginia with the massive amount of mystery and beauty that the writer embedded into it. Or I could write about Virginia where the information associated with the state could make a piece filled with rich history: “Half or more of the Civil War’s 620,000 dead perished in Virginia; the toll in the state’s camps, prisons, hospitals, and battles is at best a guess, because most of the fallen were unaccounted for” (473). I also thought about Oklahoma. It is a relatable essay that summarizes the importance of S.E. Hinton’s hometown. I was drawn in by this essay because I had enjoyed S.E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders, so I thought analyzing the essay could show me where the concept for her books came from.
When remembering why State by State was made, I realized that each essay functioned as the portion of the state that the author decided to share – the author chose these specific parts of their state to write about given the limited amount of room in State by State. Most authors had a personal connection to the state they wrote about which helped to give value to their words. I decided to focus on a few states I connected with while reading the essays, states I’ve visited, and the states where I have lived.
William T. Vollmann, the writer of “California” is a novelist; he is one of the best known in State by State because of his engaging books full of research, creativity, and vivid detail. One of his most famous book series is Seven Dreams: A Book of Northern American Landscapes. This series covers the conflict between the European colonists and the natives and it consists of seven books: The Ice-Shirt, Fathers and Crows, Argal, The Poison Shirt, The Dying Grass, The Rifles, and The Cloud Shirt.
In 2005, he won the National Book Award for Fiction with his novel, Europe Central. Vollman studied at both Deep Springs College and Cornell University and he now lives in Sacramento, California with his wife.
In the preface of State by State, Weiland states, “No one doubts that America is growing more homogeneous with each passing year. Go from one time zone to another and the increasing sameness of everywhere is plain: one city blurs into another; the same architects build the same buildings, the same stores line the same streets, the same songs play on the radio: regional accents fade and everyone seems to be from somewhere else” (xiv).
In his essay, Vollmann builds off of this point with a twist of sarcasm: “I dare to hope that a generation or two from now, if a sequel to this sequel comes out, its writers will have life even easier”(43).
After briefly covering homogeneity in America, Vollmann moves on to the “California dream” centered around times of exploration and gold: “Seized by the United States of America, California now began to incarnate a dream of gold”(43). Throughout the essay, Vollmann ponders the California dream to reflect on how it exists today.
Now, California is known for various things including John Steinbeck’s novels as many of them are inspired by California agriculture, and he recommends the long drives through the state: “East, you will pass through vineyards, dark green fields of tall corn, rolling reddish green fields speckled with dapple cows, walnut orchards, one of which is enclosed in a long white fence”(46). Similar to Wilsey’s road trip across the country, one through California best expresses the state. California’s beauty comes from the coast, mountains, forests, deserts, and culture. At the end of the essay, Vollmann finally wraps up his thoughts: “Sitting beneath an overhang of Sierra rock, listening to the river, I believe in John Muir’s wild California. Flying from Sacramento to Los Angeles, I look out the scratched oval window and rejoice at the lack of human spoor in the mountains below me. In the redwood forests near the Oregon border and the foggy flower-meadows around Point Reyes, my illusion of tranquil purity is restored. I love my darling California so much that I would believe in any sweetness” (55).
Jayne Anne Phillips is a novelist and short story writer. One of her collections is called Black Tickets. The collection lays out the suffering of the impoverished and goes into depth about these people who populate the small towns of the country. The first piece in Black Tickets, first published in New Letters magazine, is called “Wedding Picture”. This startling and compressed prose poem features multiple photographs. The first is of her mother: “My mother’s eyes are round and wide as a light behind her skin burns them to coals”. She paints the picture of an emotionless but beautiful woman. The end of the paragraph also hints at a possible pregnancy. The second of the pictures is of her father. He is standing next to a WWII plane with a girl painted on the side.
The paragraph ends with, “Now his big fingers curl inwards. He is trying to hold something” which leaves readers with unanswered questions. The third and final picture is the most abstract. It hints at death with the paragraph’s melancholy tone and use of detail: “Rising from his shoulders, the cross grows pale and loses its arms in their heads.” This is only a small chunk of Phillips’s work as she has written many other rich short stories and novels. Phillips graduated from West Virginia College and has held teaching positions at several schools such as Harvard University, Williams College, and Boston University.
Although I’ve never been to West Virginia, while reading the essay, I felt captivated by Phillips’ description of the verdant mountains. From the start, she mentions the West Virginia mountains: “Here, in the highest average altitude east of the Rockies, the Appalachian Mountains isolated a thousand years of paradise for animals, flora, fauna, all fed by interlacing rivers and countless clear streams that ran from the highest elevations to the deepest valleys.” Unlike Vollman’s description of “mass culture, with its big box warehouses of the landscape, language, and mind itself” (43), West Virginia’s landscape is much more untouched (aside from the mountaintops razed by strip mining), keeping its culture from blending in with the other forty-nine states.
Phillips goes into the violent and somewhat dirty history of West Virginia. It was formed from Virginia during the Civil War and the split from Virginia also split the people living there: “One of my own ancestors spied for the Confederacy while her sons fought for the Union” (490). But despite this conflict, the purpose of the writing is about the beauty of home. Philips even gives readers a look into the comfort of a hometown: “In the late 1960s, Buckhannon is a football town. The relatively small high school has claimed the AAA State Championship three times in a decade, and the white wooden scoreboard on the courthouse lawn is kept up to date, Wins and Scores painted on each Saturday morning. Game nights. On Fridays, boyfriends steer their dressed-up girls into the bleachers, touching their shoulders” (497). Personally, I have not had much interest in the game of football itself, but I still enjoy these competitions as a social gathering. The memories created are unique and in my experience are memorable because of the time spent cheering for your team. While West Virginia is only known as a paradise for mountain wildlife to most outsiders, Jayne Anne Phillips shows how the personal connection gained from familiarity and memory is what is most recognizable.
Another essay I decided to explore was “Oklahoma”by S.E. Hinton. Hinton is a novelist and short story writer. She is best known for her book, The Outsiders which was inspired by two rival gangs at her school, Will Rogers High School. This book was written when she was sixteen and now it has sold over fourteen million copies. In 1988, Hinton became the first to receive the Margaret A. Edwards award for her first four young adult novels: The Outsiders, That Was Then This is Now, Tex, and Rumble Fish. In The Outsiders, Hinton does a great job with her character development so that readers can connect to characters on an emotional level. When Johnny dies readers feel the loss; Hinton’s storytelling is riveting.
Hinton was born in Oklahoma and is living there today. She also spent three years in California which she describes as “one of the nicest places in the United States” to which I would agree due to the nice weather and abundance of natural beauty with forests, mountains, and beaches. A lot of Hinton’s essay explains why she still lives in Oklahoma and most of the reasons are the opposite of what I’d expect. Hinton reveals her view on Oklahoma through a conversation with her son: “I asked my son, who went to college on the East Coast and is now settled on the West, what he appreciated most about growing up in Oklahoma. After a moment, he said, ‘the cultural ignorance… In Tulsa, I could use my own brain to form my own opinions’.” Here Hinton agrees with the reasoning, but she believes that “cultural independence” is a better phrase for it.
Hinton also wrote that “Will Rogers High School, where I was inspired to write The Outsiders–in fact where I wrote a lot of it when I should have been doing other things–remains an art deco beauty, though now, in its seventies it is getting a little worn around the edges.”
By the end of the essay, it is revealed why S.E. Hinton finds Oklahoma the best place for her to live. She is surrounded by a variety of different friends but all of them are welcoming to her. Combined with the cultural independence, it “makes Oklahoma a great place for a writer, a free place for a writer” (367). She is free to write and enjoy life in Oklahoma with and can stay near the town where she built so many memories.
From what I remember, New Jersey is full of friendly people and lots of icy snow. I lived in a small but close community – a neighborhood of linked houses with a small creek running through the back. New Jersey was freezing in the winter, icy snow covering everything inside. However, the summers were the opposite. They were extremely humid, causing the weather to feel like a steam room. My summers were as relaxed as possible. I remember eating ice cream on the porch with my mom and biking in circles in our cul de sac. Our neighbors babysat me while my parents made long-lasting relationships. Whether it was just my perspective as a young boy or the way my parents raised me, New Jersey felt like the perfect place to grow up.
Anthony Bordain, the author of “New Jersey” was a celebrity chef, travel documentarian, and author. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he became an executive chef at Brasserie les Halles in New York City. Later on, Bourdain began a TV show on the Food Network called The Cook’s Tour. It documented his food experiences in different countries and around different cultures. After this debut, Bourdain appeared in more shows where he documented his dining around the world, and he also judged for a few cooking shows. Throughout his career, Bourdain also wrote fiction and historical non-fiction. Looking at his shows and books, I can tell that Bourdain was a witty and optimistic man who enjoyed his travels and foods all over the world. Unfortunately, in 2018, Bourdain ended his own life in France while filming for Parts Unknown, one of his TV shows.
Although Bourdain had a different childhood experience, many aspects such as the personality of his hometown’s neighborhood are similar to my own. Bourdain lived in Leonia and had a full New Jersey childhood and he viewed New Jersey almost like a cherished prison. Bourdain also mentioned that the song, Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: “‘It’s a death trap, a suicide rap” [is] sung by thousands of people at Giants Stadium[;] I don’t know what kind of message that would send.” Clearly, Bourdain can tell that much of New Jersey’s population doesn’t see New Jersey as their dream state.
If you accomplished all your goals in life, the last place you’d think of living would be New Jersey. The state is the home of “commercial artists, college professors, unsuccessful actors, mid-level advertising executives” (302). New Jersey can be seen as a place you go after an unsuccessful attempt or it can be seen as a net that will always be there to catch you when you fall.
Bourdain described his childhood as chaotic and reckless, when he learned “how to make rockets by painstakingly jamming match heads into drilled-out CO2 cartridges, packing them in tight, priming them with a water-proof fuse from the Johnson Smith Catalogue and launching them from homemade mortars made from copper pipe,” (304). With activities such as this, Bourdain’s childhood seems like one from an old film. He was always curious which caused him to participate in these uncontrolled activities.
When in fourth grade, Bourdain was sent to a private school in Englewood, a much wealthier neighborhood. He experienced the differences between his living environment and found that Englewood was much more lenient. Much of Bourdain’s time in Englewood was taken up by his use of drugs: “We cruised endlessly, movement a destination unto itself, smoking weed and looking out the windows with fear, contempt, and bemusement” (306). As Bourdain grew older, he parted with his childhood friends and replaced them with “friends who smelled of nothing but fresh laundry, soap, and money–with the occasional background whiff of marijuana and cigarettes” (306). To this day, dropping his friends from Leonia remains his biggest regret. While his memories in Englewood were fogged up, Leonia was full of treasured moments that he could look back on.
Bourdain is on a tour and looking out of his hotel window. “I could have been anywhere. I could have been in New Jersey” (307). He sees stores, restaurants, and malls and immediately thinks back to his home state. Even though Bourdain had escaped New Jersey, it still remains part of him.
Looking back to Vollmann’s words on the increasing sameness in the United States, I agree. However, while the culture and structure may be growing too similar, the memories are not. They’re the reason that we feel connections. If there ever is a sequel to State by State, the authors will not have an easier job writing. Whether they choose to write about the history of a state or their experience in it, the personal value created by memory will change the way the state is viewed. The world may view the United States as a cluster of identical puzzle pieces but the individual looking at their state knows that a life of memories lays buried beneath the surface.