I consider myself something of a New England enthusiast…Having grown up in the same room, in the same house, in the same town, in the same state my entire life, it is completely central to who I am. I grew up in Hopkinton, MA, and went to Nantucket every single year of my life, including when I was in my mother’s abdomen. I went skiing annually for over 10 years on Sugarloaf Mountain, near Bangor, ME, and have the mountain nearly memorized. New England, for me, is a place I know well, a place I can measure my life and growth by, and a place I can measure time for the world outside myself by. I read the entire WPA guide, called “Here’s New England!” with incredible interest. Most of the photographs were of places I have been, places that still look the same…a covered bridge in Maine, harbors and docks off of Cape Cod, the town of Marblehead, the streets of Cambridge. I also have a book, published in the 1980’s, called “Nantucket Then and Now,” with side-by-side black and white photographs of places in Nantucket in the late 1800’s and in the early 1980’s. It wasn’t the most successful topic for a book, or maybe it was… all of the photographs look the same. It is as though nothing has changed. The tips in the WPA guide remain legitimate. There are still pies and cider where it says there are. The same roads are beautiful. You should still drive to Provincetown and it is still mostly sand and very surreal. I’m unsure if this speaks to the timelessness of the WPA guides or the timelessness of my homeland. Hopefully both, definitely one. My enthusiasm and longing for Massachusetts is a point of ridicule for my New York City inhabiting friends. My love of barns and disdain for NYC’s “fake autumn” are two others. And this guide speaks to nearly all of it. To talk about the reasons one loves New England is to sound like an antiques collector, like someone who burns vanilla candles in jars in their salt-box colonial house. When someone who loves New England tells you what road to drive and they ask you why, it will probably either be because of a view of trees/lakes/ancient houses or because of some historical significance. And it sounds absurd and outdated and charicaturish- because it seems to me like New England is the only place that has stayed this way for so long. I’ve met so few people who love their hometowns in the same weird historical way that I do. That love their areas because they look the same way they did so so long ago, and rarely because of artificial preservation and “historical societies.” Mostly because people just still enjoy living in old houses and barns. And hanging out in forests, and having dangerous roads, and having creaky furniture, and eating cranberries, and growing cranberries, and picking apples with their families. It’s not an effort to get back to our colonial past – it is the present. Somehow us people still like these things. That was a digression. What I’m trying to say is, reading this WPA guide made me think about the reasons I love New England, and that people have loved New England for the same reasons since 1930. And before. It wasn’t a sudden attraction a-la Disney World, or cheap subdivision prices, or the presence of celebrities, or anything new that could be placed anywhere. Perhaps everyone, reading about their homes, felt these things. I hope so. I don’t know how they could (sorry, my colonial Plymouth-rock snarkiness and pride is coming through) but I hope they do. Because then, unlike any Lonely Planet or Frommers ever could, the WPA succeeded in getting down to WHAT IT REALLY IS that makes these places, these places. The good and the bad. But what really matters, living there, to the people who grew up there. They seemed to ask the people who knew, or have been the people who knew. The good friend you want to have when you visit someplace, so you know that you’re seeing everything that a real person-who-lives-in-that-place-and-is-tied-to-it loves. For better and for worse. Thanks, WPA. Hire me next time you need someone to write about Massachusetts.
These WPA guides have really struck me. I mentioned in class that I found a Texas WPA guide in my Great Uncle’s library and took it with me on a trip to Big Bend. I blew through the history section as if it was a novel. And I hung on each word. Unlike the travel guides today, whose concern is the travel, these guides seem more concerned with the content and with the cities, towns or states of which they write. Sometimes the difference is slight and only in tone, but these guides do read as much like texts about a place as guides for travelers.
An example of this are these history chapters. The New Orleans guide talks about the city’s history with the excitement of a historian, rather than that of a travel editor. And it isn’t as broad as one might assume. It gets quite detailed. It mentions not only the history, but how we’ve learnt it. It mentions not only events but people and their motives. As the Texas guide told in detail the personal history of Stephen Austin, the New Orleans guide tells of the numerous colonists of the region. And it’s not mere exposition of history—it actually goes into scene. Take this, for example:
“At 7:30 P.M. the ‘Carolina’ sidled up to the levee and opened fire upon the unsuspecting British as they were cooking supper and preparing their bivouacs. Confusion reigned as the redcoats put out their fires and ran for shelter behind a secondary levee. Simultaneously, Jackson and Coffee advanced to the attack. In the hand-to-hand combat in the dark, in which bayonets, tomahawks, hunting knives, and fists were used to advantage, the Tennesseans made murderous inroads on the British right flank, although Jackson’s charge was met with stubborn resistance. After two hours’ fighting a heavy fog terminated the battle, neither side having gained any decisive advantage.”
It goes on like this for more than thirty pages.
I’ve always found the history of a land or people to be the best way to engage fully with it. But history can be boring and dry and often shallow. Though it’s difficult to read it without questioning the age of some of the facts, I would be inclined to use these guides as a history for all the places I travel in the future. The length is ideal, the depth a good medium, and the writing in all that I have read is colorful and engaging. I can’t help but wonder why more care isn’t put into travel guides anymore. It seems they are more about the traveler than about the place. Often they feel essentially like maps in list form, giving addresses and phone number and prices of hotels or restaurants or attractions. One could likely swap out the names in one Lonely Planet and they would be the same everywhere: this place is swanky, this is a dive, this restaurant has great deserts, etc. I’d rather have more literary narratives that the WPA guides provide and a map that marks locations. Guides ought to do more than just accommodate their readers, they really ought to help familiarize a traveler with a more complete and rounded knowledge of their surrounding.