State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, the book Sean Wilsey and I have edited that features original writing on all 50 states by 50 writers, started with a hunch and a conviction. The conviction was the easy part: that despite drive-time radio and the nightly news and the Sunday paper, despite all the books and blog posts, the documentaries and songs, America and the lives lived here remain strangely and surprisingly underdescribed. So many mirrors and yet we know ourselves so poorly! Often it takes a tragedy to remind us so: when residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans stand dazed on their rooftops wondering why the flood water came so fast and the drinking water so slow; when coal miners are rescued in West Virginia or entombed in Utah; when the lives of cleaners and brokers, accountants and firemen are memorialized after September 11—who hasn’t marvelled at the richness of lives we don’t know?
The same is true of the landscape and the past we’ve lived across it. The topography and climate of America may be the richest in the world, yet what ends up on the page so rarely seems to capture its dynamism, its variety, its intensity. Sure, the deepest canyons and the wettest waterfalls and the curviest roads make cameos in ads for automobiles and soda pop and life insurance; and plenty of stories, fictional and true, are set in the streets and skylines of our principal cities. But what about everywhere else: the half-dead towns too alive to be ghosts, the rusting historical markers buried in the weeds, the anonymous bits of land with their own hidden histories and surprising beauties and grace? There is poetry in the Rand McNally Atlas and wonder in the back rooms and basements of a thousand local archives and historical societies, but all too often it seems trapped there. Somehow we’ve come to take for granted what our country looks like, what happened here, and what it feels like to live here. Shouldn’t we know it all in finer detail?
The hunch was less obvious, but the more we thought about it the more convinced we became of its truth. It was this: that America, for all its bland interstate highways and big-box superstores, retains an essential, deep-grained variety. 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. And yet the fifty states—united by rhetoric and musket nearly 250 years ago, reaffirmed in their unity by rhetoric and rifle a century later, and bound together today as tightly as any confederation on earth—somehow stubbornly resist blending into a single undifferentiated whole.
The fifty states differ in landscape, topography, and weather; in political outlook, cultural preference, and social ideals; in accent, temperament, and sense of humor. It’s not just that the West Coast is a world away from the East, that Yankees stick out in the South, or that Blue States and Red States don’t see eye to eye. It’s deeper than that: The fifty states themselves have individual places in our collective imagination, and they offer their natives a mind-set, even a world-view. For all the talk of identity in American life, the personal fact that defines American lives as much as gender, ethnicity, or class is where you’re from, which more than anything means your home state.
Inspired by the 1930s WPA American Guide series, for which the federal government sent out thousands of American writers to “describe America to Americans,” Wilsey and I envisioned a single book that would capture some of this great variety. But, lacking the $27 million that the WPA spent on the state guides, this one would feature a single writer for each of the 50 states.
So one spring day in Manhattan Sean and I huddled in a booth at the Old Town Bar to sort out a plan. First we agreed that we didn’t want the pieces to be victory laps for writers known for writing about a particular state. We wanted some pieces by writers native to a particular state, of course, but we also wanted some by newcomers, and others by writers we’d send to states they’d never been to, to get a sense of the place as only a writer with a map and fresh eyes and a deadline can get. Second, we agreed that we didn’t want the book to become a kind of beauty contest full of partisan arguments for the superiority of one’s own state: We wanted the good, the bad, the ugly. Third, we wanted the book to go beyond personal history—so we sought out and commissioned travel accounts, historical essays, contemporary reportage, and works of oral history.
To every writer we said: Tell us a story about your state, the more personal the better, something that captures the essence of the place. Not the kind of story one hears in a musty lecture hall or one reads in the dusty pages of an encyclopedia. The kind of story the enlisted soldier tells his boot-camp bunkmate about back home. The kind of story, wistful and wise, that begins, “Well, I don’t know about you, but where I come from …”
This week Slate will feature exclusive extracts from five of the pieces in the book. They range in locale from the lobster shacks of Maine to the snowy northern reaches of Michigan and the blazing summer cornfields of Iowa to a commemoration of westward expansion in Utah and a declining pawn shop in Nevada. The five writers—Heidi Julavits, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Dagoberto Gilb, David Rakoff, and Charles Bock—have much to tell us about the ways America has changed since the WPA Guides 70 years ago—and the many ways it hasn’t.