More details about the business of The Book of Bunk next post. I’d rather get to talking about the book itself.
About a month ago, just before we sent off the novel to the handful of major-press fiction editors in New York still claiming to be seeking new acquisitions, my agent and I had a spasm of panic. (In retrospect, it might have been better just to have the grand mal panic seizure and get it over with, but the jury’s still out, so we’ll pass that.) The concern was this:
For fourteen years, I’ve believed that if I ever got this novel done, it would be the very first thing I’d written that would be easy to categorize. No more nostalgic, wistful literary novels about serial killers who never appear. No more ghost stories about miscarriage’s effects on marriage. If this one got to the bookstores, people would know where to put it.
Somehow, my agent bought into that delusion, too. At least until I’d actually finished, and stepped back, and both of us realized what I’d done.
Turns out it’s another Glen Hirshberg book, alright. For better or worse. Another story rooted hip-deep in history that isn’t really a historical novel. An old-school adventure tale– complete with multiple romances, three separate fires, F. Scott Fitzgerald, railroad tramps, orphans, a haunted forest, Communists, a (possibly) imaginary country of shadows, and at least one murder– told by a narrator who thinks he’s an impostor (but isn’t) to the brother he believes is also an impostor (and might or might not be). A fairy tale with no magic (the book is in fact subtitled A Fairy Tale of the Federal Writers’ Project); a page-turning thriller about sitting around telling stories. A book our narrator doesn’t want to write about the creation of a series of books no one wanted to write that just may have created the myth of America.
“Good God,” my agent said. “Write an introduction.”
I wrote two. The first was an attempt to situate the book in history, to explain what the Federal Writers’ Project was and why it’s almost scarily relevant to talk about right now. The second, a misfire that practically typed itself in italics, aims to establish the book’s strangely fable-like quality.
Neither one is going in the manuscript. The novel doesn’t need them. Or, put another way, the intros aren’t going to help. Whatever the hell The Book of Bunk is, it’s itself.
But that’s no reason not to post both introductions here. And if you actually read them, you’ll get the historical backdrop, alright. Plus an (over)dose of the fairy-tale flavor that is much more faint and elusive in the actual manuscript. And somewhere in the gigantic, unmapped country between them lies the imaginary North Carolina mountain town, and the haunted woods, and the great mythologized catastrophe of American history where The Book of Bunk lives.
How appropriate– you’ll see how appropriate soon, I hope and pray– that the first posted or published pieces of this novel aren’t actually in it…
Even at the time, no one could agree on what it was meant to be or whom it was meant to serve. All of the Arts Projects established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in the midst of the Great Depression and overseen by an umbrella agency bearing the oddly militaristic name of Federal One proved enormously controversial amongst politicians, employees, and ordinary citizens alike. But at least the Federal Art, Music, and Theater Projects produced creative art, music, and theater.
The Federal Writers’ Project, on the other hand, seemed designed from the very beginning to block the generation of any creative writing under its auspices. When Harry Hopkins, the director of and primary visionary behind the entire WPA, commissioned the Arts Projects, he hewed close to the whole program’s original principles: that work is fundamentally ennobling and essential for the human spirit, and that any work paid for by the federal government should have tangible and lasting economic, social, and cultural value.
The problem with hiring artists, of course, proved to be an ages-old one: how does one determine art’s economic, social, and cultural value, and who gets to say? At a time when a third or more of the nation’s population faced devastating impoverishment and unemployment, did anyone have the right to claim themselves an artist? Did the government owe those who did so an opportunity to make a living through their chosen professions? Could it make use of them?
In the case of the Federal Writers’ Project, the solution was a hedged bet, doomed from the outset to please no one. First, only ten percent or so of the people hired by the Project were writers. Researchers, teachers, academics, and numerous others who worked with the written word in one way or another also qualified, particularly if they were on the relief roles, as Project guidelines stipulated that 90% of the work-force had to come from those roles.
Secondly, and even more tellingly, the founders of the Writers’ Project conceived of a series of tasks– from interviewing the last surviving slaves to collecting regional folklore and data about immigrant communities rarely discussed, to that point, in mainstream American culture–designed to keep employees busy without being seen as frittering away precious public money on frivolous pursuits such as fiction or poetry. The heart of the Project became the American Guide Series, a massively ambitious and unwieldy effort aimed at compiling the first exhaustively detailed, informative, and useful travel books for motor tourists to every region in the nation.
The irony of sending out relief workers, many of whom could barely afford shoes, let alone cars or gas to run them, to compile and pen vacation guides was lost on no one. Many Project employees, already embarrassed to be forced onto relief, found themselves humiliated and frustrated by the demands placed on them and also overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
By 1937, meanwhile, members of Congress, deeply divided from the beginning of the WPA, found themselves reeling from intransigent recession and a brutal legislative fight over President Roosevelt’s plan to alter the conservative balance of the Supreme Court by adding a new Justice for each sitting Justice over the age of 70. They had also become increasingly alarmed by the activities of American Nazi and radical left groups, and saw in the Guides, and the Writers’ Project as a whole, opportunities for unconscionable waste at best and dangerous, even treasonous subversion at worst.
Predictably, given such origins and circumstances, the Federal Writers’ Project lasted as a fully functioning entity for only four years, from 1935-1939, though work continued on the Guides into the early 1940s.
The miracle, then, is not just that the FWP existed at all, but what it produced. The 48 books of the American Guide Series– slapdash, under-funded, politically slanted one way or another depending upon a region’s editors or writers, selective in their details and sometimes appalling in their prejudices and omissions– remain, even now, perhaps the most complete and illuminating portrait ever attempted of the United States as it existed at a single moment in time.
Of course, even before the WPA dissolved in 1943, the nation documented by the Guides had become a very different place. Most of the bureaucrats, politicians, and bureau chiefs who oversaw the Federal Writers’ Project, as well as the great majority of writers, folklorists, and teachers who staffed it, hoped it would be quickly forgotten.
But its rich, troubled, complicated legacy is one well worth remembering. The arguments it engendered or revealed are still with us, and its greatest achievement– the reluctant, impossible, very nearly successful mapping of the entire American landscape by its own people– is one we have never honestly attempted since. The Federal Writers’ Project in The Book of Bunk is not the actual Project but a dreaming echo, and it exists in an America that probably never was, and still might be.
Which brings us to:
Then the dust came. It swept off the earth in great, teeming clouds and descended on the cities and towns and farms and plains. It choked machines and buried buildings. It drowned animals, and burrowed into the lungs of the people and sickened them. Even before the dust, there were few jobs, and little money. The people starved, and they struggled to save their homes. And when their homes were gone, and even the land on which they stood slipped from beneath them, the people gathered what remained of their possessions, and they took to the roads and railways.
And in the capital city, under the Great Dome, the beleaguered leaders of this once-proud land huddled, and in their desperation, they devised an impossible solution few of them liked: they themselves would put the people to work. They would build roads and bridges, parks and schools. They would plant trees and cultivate the earth, to keep the ground from rising. The coffers of the nation would empty. But the nation itself would survive.
And so it came to be. The farmers farmed. The laborers labored. And the call went out from the Great Dome to its artists that they should create music and murals and theatrical productions that would lift up and embolden the workers in their struggles.
But for its writers, the leaders had a different task. Go amonst the people, they said. And say what you see there…