Saturday, January 07, 2012

State by State

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America

State by State by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, eds.
Nonfiction, essays
Read July, 2011 to January, 2012
Review summary: Americans think of their states as unique, but there's more in common than we think (especially now that we've replaced most of the natural beauty with strip malls).

In the 1930's, as a way to invest federal dollars in American arts and culture, the WPA commissioned the Federal Writers' Project, which published, among other things, a series of state guides, one for each state. Inspired by this project, but without public funding, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey decided to collect essays about each state and publish them in this book.

They didn't choose the obvious and famous writers, like Barbara Kingsolver for Arizona (or Kentucky), Carl Hiaasen for Florida, or Stephen King for Maine. Most of the writers I had never read before. (They DID pick Louise Erdrich for North Dakota. and S. E. Hinton for Oklahoma.) Sometimes the writers' families had been residents of their state for generations, sometimes they were recent immigrants to the state. But with few exceptions, each writer aims to capture the unique quality of his or her state.

The writers take several approaches to defining their state. There are several road trip narrations, like the drive through Connecticut on the Merritt Parkway or the tour of South Dakota, culminating with the disappointment of Mount Rushmore. Several stories are about the writer's coming of age in his or her state: growing up during the civil rights movement in Alabama, as an under-age dishwasher in the Florida Keys, or in a family-run pawn shop in Nevada. For the writers who moved in as adults, it's sometimes a story of finding one's place (Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Vermont). Still others are by writers who moved away, and return to find home (Indiana, Rhode Island, Wisconsin). A few writers don't indulge in their own stories, and instead focus on a defining place or event (Idaho, Louisiana, Alaska, North Carolina). Some focus on the people (Missouri, Delaware, South Carolina) or lack thereof (Montana, Wyoming). Two, Oregon and Vermont, were drawn (comic-style), and both were strongly influenced by weather (rain and snow, respectively).

Despite the variety of writers and states, there are some themes that run through the book. When a state's history is given, it almost always includes all of the following:

  1. A massacre of the native people
  2. Farmers or ranchers: rural people setting up homesteads
  3. Industry (logging, mining, industrial farming, or nuclear testing/power) ruining the land
  4. Homogenization of the area into suburbs and Walmarts.

California, Colorado, and Washington each tell part of the American conflict of nature: we want to be in and among the wilderness, to breathe its beauty, but by making it accessible, we take away the wonder. (I'm actually surprised the Wyoming essay hardly mentions Yellowstone in this respect.)

Many essays convey a sense of home, whether it's home to generations of ancestors or to recent immigrants. It's home because the people are welcoming (Minnesota) or not (Maine), independent thinkers (Oklahoma), modest (New Hampshire), or insane (South Carolina). It's home because of the landmarks of industry (breweries, chocolate factories, farms) or nature (plains, mountains, lakes, rivers, oceans). It's home because it's where your people are, or it's where they aren't.

Very few were steeped in religion. Utah was like an anthropologic exploration into the home of LDS by an outsider. Arkansas focused on the dichotomy of decency (church) and liberty (choice), a debate played out in bumper stickers and never resolved. But while landscapes were dotted with churches, the writers don't take us inside them.

There also wasn't a whole lot about immigration from other countries. The Missouri author interviewed Bosnian immigrants, who make up the largest concentration of Bosnians outside Bosnia, and most of whom arrived in the last 15 years. Michigan is told by a Ghanaian who attended Interlochen for three years. And Iowa is the story of migrant workers from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. But nowhere is the culture clash of wall-building and "give me your tired, your poor..."

There wasn't anything about government, politics, capitalism, the media, technology, movies, factory farms, obesity, roller coasters, hot dogs, trucks, Nascar, the military, or flag waving. Nobody tried to claim that their state was the "real" America, though Dave Eggers made a case that Illinois is the BEST state, and Jonathan Franzen couldn't even get an interview with the state of New York. They were satisfied with the identity of their state, and didn't try to claim the whole country.

I'll get to the review now. The book was long. Some essays were stories that were too personal to really communicate the state's qualities. Some essays were too scattered, trying to represent too many places. The best approach I think was when the author focused on a representative place, event, or aspect (like fishing king salmon in Alaska or the ghostly ruins of hurricane Katrina in Louisiana) and told its tale completely, through conversations and stories.

I'm not sure, after reading this, that I have a good sense of what makes each state unique. I think I have a better sense of what the states have in common. Which may be the point, after all.

Below the jump: A few words to summarize each state's essay.
Alabama: civil rights and class warfare.
Alaska: king salmon subsistence fishing.
Arizona: waste and beauty in the desert.
Arkansas: decency (church) vs. liberty (choice).
California: conflicts between humans and nature.
Colorado: where people gather in search of solitude.
Connecticut: the Merritt Parkway. "I'm leaving out the Stamford exit that heads downtown, because almost everyone in Connecticut wishes that the state had no cities, that its cities were relocated elsewhere."
Delaware: conversations with residents.
Florida: growing up as an under-age dishwasher in the keys.
Georgia: becoming a writer in the suburbs.
Hawaii: the forbidden island.
Idaho: exterminating the Tukudeka.
Illinois: the BEST state.
Indiana: misunderstanding Dad.
Iowa: migrants in the corn fields.
Kansas: not from here.
Kentucky: the crazy genius of Rafinesque.
Louisiana: ghosts of Katrina.
Maine: being from away.
Maryland: confederates vs tankers.
Massachusetts: sports, inferiority complex, and utopia.
Michigan: a Ghanaian's view.
Minnesota: failed farming, Minnesota nice.
Mississippi: retired racism and gracious pals and gals.
Missouri: Bosnian immigrants.
Montana: so few people, they tend to stand out.
Nebraska: cosmopolitan Omaha.
Nevada: growing up in a pawn shop.
New Hampshire: taking pride in one's modesty.
New Jersey: learning to be a hoodlum.
New Mexico: nuclear tests and Carlsbad Caverns.
New York: an interview with the state.
North Carolina: pig farming.
North Dakota: unchanged since 1920.
Ohio: mostly myth.
Oklahoma: far enough from cities that you can make up your own mind.
Oregon: rain.
Pennsylvania: compulsion to get out.
Rhode Island: a pass-through between Connecticut and Cape Cod.
South Carolina: halfway between freedom and insanity.
South Dakota: urbanites visit the badlands.
Tennessee: the line where property stops being priced by the square foot and begins being priced by the acre.
Texas: like a whole other country.
Utah: Mormon austerity.
Vermont: rural, plural, mountains.
Virginia: lots of people died here.
Washington: wooded wilderness and grunge.
West Virginia: a short history of home.
Wisconsin: the country's backbone.
Wyoming: more antelope than people.

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