Friday, July 25, 2008

The Depression Was Not Without Its Good Points

One very fine thing the government did during the Great Depression was try to find work for photographers, artists, and writers in a program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

And one of the many fine results of the WPA was a collection of guide books to the different states, called the American Guide Series, or, more commonly, "WPA Guides," whose writers gave startlingly frank and interesting descriptions of the places they visited.

When Suellen and I learned we were moving to Ironton, Ohio, 30+ years ago, one of the first things we did was go to the library and consult the WPA Guide to Ohio. Besides admiring some black and white Ben Shahn photographs included, we learned that during the Civil War Ironton was a sort of No Man's Land between the North and the South, where the major activity was smuggling guns and other contraband one way or the other. It painted a bleak portrait of the town then, and suggested things had not changed much in the intervening years. They were right.

[The picture above is why you should always have a polarizing filter with you, Exhibit A]

It turns out there is a revival of interest in the WPA Guides going on, and the NY Times is running a series of amusing articles as their writers revisit towns the writers did. Here's a sample.

Next time you're in a book store, pick up a WPA Guide for a state you're interested in. I think you'll have trouble putting it down.

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