The lovely Matt Weiland is the co-editor of State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, an anthology he and Sean Wilsey brought out this fall. The book is, among other things, a partial homage to the original WPA state guides, artifacts of Roosevelt’s now sorely-missed Federal Writers’ Project. The originals employed Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Ralph Ellison, among others; State By State, for its part, features George Packer, Benjamin Kunkel, William Vollman, and scores of other talent on every state in the union.
Weiland (who is now a senior editor at Ecco Press) and I spoke over the phone last week about State By State, and about what’s happened in America and in New York since the book first came out, a few months ago. You’ll find more context in this month’s Lit Seen column, devoted to this same subject. In the meantime, an abbreviated version of our conversation is below.
If there’s one theme that runs throughout State By State, it’s a kind of low-level mourning for the type of regional specificity and diversity highlighted in the original WPA Guides–now presumed mostly vanquished. On the other hand, your introduction to the book amounts to an impassioned defense of America’s continuing dynamism, variety, and intensity. A reader could get confused…
Well, I think it’s both. You know, it’s very easy to become demoralized as you drive along the interstate and stop off for a cup of coffee, which inevitably is at some fast food chain. And as you pass over into the next state you’re not sure what’s changed until you see a sign. It all kind of looks the same. Certainly, one city to another looks more and more alike these days. And I think it’s very easy to be demoralized about it all and to feel as though the whole country’s becoming more homogeneous–it is! There’s no doubt about that. On the other hand, I think it’s important to recognize how resilient independent stores, independent magazines, local culture, accents, cults, and private forms of religion are. I think it’s remarkable; if you actually look around it’s a wonder the country isn’t even more homogeneous than it is.
One thing that’s interesting about the book is that it already has some time-capsule elements: It’s a little bit pre-Obama, and a little bit pre-economic catastrophe. It’s funny how prelapsarian parts of the book already feel.
I hope that doesn’t mean you think it’s dated, because I don’t think it is. It may be the case that the time we’re in is a time of transition. I think a lot of people would date from the early ’70s to now as a kind of period–culturally, financially, economically. And I hope the book is maybe not prelapsarian but the beginning of something better, something that hauls us into the future as much as it looks to the past for inspiration.
The original WPA guides were produced in the very depths of the depression. And in one way, they looked back, to a smaller, more traditional America, but at the same time, they very much looked forward, to an America that was vibrant and vital and dynamic and active once again as it became during and after the war, and that recognized its own charms and pleasures. I hope that’s the same thing we’ve done, on a smaller level.
I was talking to Jonathan Franzen about his depiction of New York–lawyered-up, publicist in hand, remote, inaccessible. But you live here–certainly the economic crisis stuff seems to be giving rise to a collective local fantasy of New York’s return to a grittier era.
Well, I do think there is a sense in which the book decries a kind of loss of a looser place: a looser city, in New York certainly, a looser state, and a looser country. That is: You could get lost more easily. Which not always is a good thing, obviously. But where, as you say, the New York City and the state that Jonathan depicts is lawyered-up and well-publicized, and I think that’s true of the country too. There are fewer secret spots, there are fewer spaces that you just bump into and can meet and get to know without any interference, without any script. There’s fewer public lands, right? There’s more fences and more restrictions.
Not just for the reasons that Jonathan describes but since the attacks in 2001. And that’s affected us, I think. You know? How we think about wandering and roaming and exploring our own country. You know how it is now, where you get busted if you take a photograph of a pipeline or whatever. And that seems to me a great shame. Whatever its value when it comes to security, one of the great merits of America is that it’s a wonderfully loose and mobile country. It’s much less strict than anywhere else I’ve been anyway. And to lose that is to lose something essential about the country, something that goes deep–well, back to the very beginnings. And I think in the whole book, there are notes of that that come out throughout. Even while it’s at times bouyant or ebullient. I think there’s a kind of sadness about what we’ve lost and what we’re losing.
In a time of a publishing and media crisis, I’m struck by your patronage of so many writers. State By State ironically now recalls the WPA project in more ways than one.
That’s right, we were forking it out to needy writers! I don’t think anyone could’ve made a living off what they got paid for contributing their piece to State By State, but if it paid for some good drinkin’, than at least we feel like we’ve done our part.
You guys didn’t have 27 million dollars to work with.
We did not. As generous as Ecco was, they did not quite go that far.