THE AMERICAN GUIDE is a revival of the Depression-era guidebook series by the same name. It’s part archive curation from back in the day, part documentary travel in the here and now. It’s here to keep a state by state record of an America coming out of the Great Recession and beyond: to document people and places both pretty and hard because, all things being equal, that’s what makes America, America.
A/G is also here to get Americans to start seeing America — its landscape and its architecture, its amber waves of grain and its strip malls, its apple pies and its oilrigs. Because the American has always been a traveler: our blazed trails and beaten paths sprawl across the country. We go because we can. But we don’t just travel to explore. Like the westward-ho pioneers or the nomadic tribes of American Indians, we hit the road to find home and happiness, freedom and fortune.
A/G is for the tourist and the local in these here United States. It’s a view inside the grimy shop window you pass every day, as well as required reading for your road trip. It’s the past, present, and future of where Americans live. With A/G you will find out why a place is called home and, maybe, find yourself there, too.
Follow your guide and see America.
The original guide series was produced by a community of regional writers, photographers, and artists — locals documenting their home states. THE AMERICAN GUIDE is where today’s mediamakers for all things American will be found, cultivated, and promoted. A/G has a crack team of 60 city, state and regional guides from all points North, South, East and West. And, like the guides before them, they are folks telling stories they know.
A/G contributing organizations include: American Student Radio, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Bureau of Land Management, Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming, LBJ Presidential Library, Lucid Inc., The Moth, and The Paris Review.
Before THE AMERICAN GUIDE, there was “The American Guide Series.” It was a group of books produced by the U.S. government as a part of the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression. Some six thousand writers — Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, among them — worked for the guide series. But, these writers didn’t write novels or poetry, they wrote tour books for the 48 states, a couple of territories (Alaska and Puerto Rico), major cities like the District of Columbia and New York City, and scenic roadways like U.S. 1.
The guide series kept writers employed, but more importantly the books encouraged Americans to travel and, as a result, spend money to boost a struggling economy. Each book covered history, folklore, geography, and culture, and included photographs, maps, and drawings. Also, annotated routes were provided — a sort of walking/driving tour — so you knew where to go and what to see.
With such a scope of content, these books weren’t pocket-sized, either. President Franklin D. Roosevelt questioned the practicality of the Washington City and Capital guidebook as it weighed over four pounds.
On every page, the depressed economy colored the storytelling. In the description of each place, development and progress were depicted as roaring locomotives that suddenly went off track with the 1929 Wall Street crash. But, at the same time, the guide series documented work by the federal government (agencies like the WPA and CCC) as it tried to keep the country going in spite of the hard times.
Why write about, say, dam building in Tennessee as a part of a travel guide of all things? Well, as the guide series was government-produced, it was also government-produced propaganda. (Not one cross word was written against ol’ Uncle Sam.) And, in the writing, there was a real sense of American exceptionalism — that the country would overcome. It’s as if the descriptions of the sights and sounds in the guide series had a second meaning, telling every American to look at how far the country had come in its short history and that come hell or high water the Depression would end. (How could it not in a country that the guides made out to be so great?)
The photography and illustrations are something you’ll just have to see for yourself. The photographs echo the style of the Farm Security Administration’s influential photographers, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans. The art is of the New Deal era that may linger on in your local post office or county courthouse – Paul Bunyan-sized farmers and John Henry-muscled laborers as working class heroes. Looking at these images in the present day, they depict what can only be described as an America for the idealist in us all.
GUIDE TO THEN AND NOW
Seeing as how America is emerging from the Great Recession, there’s no better time than now for another guide series.
THE AMERICAN GUIDE will curate and update the work of the original series, which will serve as a sort of starting point. A/G will also expand the original’s scope and reach — becoming its own unique compendium and stretching over a variety of digital and analog platforms.
A/G is a multimedia project that will produce not just tour guides but also stories from the field — sights to see, routes to take, history, folklore, geography, culture, and people to meet — made up of interviews, essays, photography, podcasts, videos, and interactives.
A/G will be locally anchored. With guides reporting from each state, partnerships will also be made with institutions and businesses so A/G content can take hold at the grassroots of a place. The A/G audience will be its community, able to share stories from their own travels and hometowns.
All this content has a dual purpose: to create an interactive guide as a traveling companion and to produce an archive of information that lets you visit the country without ever leaving your home (mobile apps are in the works).
WHY THE AMERICAN GUIDE
Sure, you can already find a place to eat using Yelp, you can always contact AAA for maps, and Lonely Planet has tips on accommodation. The hope is that THE AMERICAN GUIDE will be different because it’s a portrait of place and of people that might be informative, might be provocative, and will always be entertaining.
ERIN CHAPMAN is North Florida through and through. A multimedia journalist and an Emmy-nominated TV producer, she worked for over 10 years in public broadcasting on programs such as Frontier House, Nature, Wide Angle, Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, and PBS Need to Know. She’s also been an interactive game and web video producer for History Detectives and America Revealed on PBS.
She’s currently a New Media Specialist at the American Museum of Natural History and the co-editor/founder of THE AMERICAN GUIDE. She lives in New York.
TOM McNAMARA is American by birth, Minnesotan by the grace of God. A multimedia journalist and producer, he’s worked six years in public media (digital, video and radio). Programs include: Wide Angle, PBS NewsHour, PBS Need to Know, History Detectives and PBS Nature. His work has also appeared on NPR and in The Guardian U.K. He is the creator of Diorama, a PBS Digital Studios series of science shorts from the wondrous halls of The American Museum of Natural History, taking inspiration from the Museum’s classic dioramas and behind-the-scenes archive.
He’s currently the producer and editor of The Brain Scoop series at The Field Museum of Natural History and the co-editor/founder of THE AMERICAN GUIDE. He lives in Chicago.