The Strange Career of My Copy of the WPA Guide to Mississippi

The Strange Career of My Copy of the WPA Guide to Mississippi

August 11, 1997
US 19, south of Atlanta

On the bench seat of the Ford: a Rand McNally atlas that looks new now but by the end of the fifth tour will be frayed, dog-eared, and coverless. A pack of Camel Lights, some cheap convenience store cigars, matches. A battered edition of Walker Percy’s Signposts in a Strange Land that will go missing in the mid 2010s. A hardback copy of the WPA Guide to Georgia.

The book belongs to John. He introduced me to the WPA Guides, which soon become a bit of an obsession. I find my own copy of the WPA Guide to Georgia a few years later, a 1990 paperback reprint in a garish yellow cover on the shelves at Jackson Street Books in Athens in June 2000. I try to buy original editions if possible, but this time I buy the reprint because of the inscription on the title page:

For Pam Wilson—
Friend, and astute student of Georgia history
—August 1991 in Athens, GA
Phinizy Spalding

I don’t know who Pam Wilson is, but Spalding was the editor of the reprint of the Georgia guide and a celebrated professor of history at the University of Georgia. But that’s not how I know him, or why I value the inscription. I know Spalding as a first cousin to Walker Percy.

In his foreword to the 1990 reprint, Spalding wrote:

In the 1940s, the county courthouse was still the focal point of Georgia life. Saturdays were the big days when workers, politicians, farm owners, merchants, and those on the make gathered around the square and exchanged stories, gossip, and news. Not so now. The county-seat towns have largely dried up owing to outlying shopping centers and the mobile, non-verbal nature of 1990s society. Similarly, most large towns and cities have suffered as much if not more. Augusta’s Broad Street, once one of the finest streets in the South and the envy of the rest of the state, is virtually dead every afternoon by six o’clock. And downtown Atlanta, except for the self-contained, event-insulated buildings of architectssuch as John Portman, is as bad—or worse…Most tourists who come to Atlanta want to see the street Mitchell made famous, but when they do their disappointment is deep. "I might as well be in Indianapolis," is the reaction.

I doubt many people still come to Atlanta because of Margaret Mitchell. If they do go looking for her house, they will find a sad simulacrum of the home where she wrote Gone with the Wind. Derelict throughout my childhood, it somehow managed to survive the rapacious redevelopment of midtown in the 1970s and 80s. The house Mitchell called "The Dump" seemed cursed: it burned twice, most recently and almost entirely in 1994. The resulting structure is a metaphor for Atlanta in the late twentieth century: a semblance of memory, whose survival was spurred by a fierce and fearless local woman called Mary Rose Taylor, and financed through the largesse of Daimler-Benz, who used the site for their base during the 1996 Olympics. For better or worse, we are stuck with it.

But Phinizy had his finger on something: by the 1990s, city centers had been drained of life, leaving an empty hole in an ever-outward expansion of the cityscape. The "doughnut-hole effect" is partly traceable to white flight in the 1950s, when white folks began to abandon the cities for the suburbs, where they could build their own private schools like the one John and I attended for twenty years combined.

"I might as well be in Indianapolis."

I have never been to Indianapolis, so I don’t know if this is a compliment or not. But if tourists come to Atlanta looking for Margaret Mitchell’s house, should the city give it to them, if it is a fake? Should tourists’ preconceptions determine the way a city ought to present itself? When we visit a place hoping to see if if really looks the way it does in postcards, then we are likely to miss the real city, the hidden corners that the Chamber of Commerce may not want us to see, but which define the place far more deeply more than the prime-time broadcast version suggests.

Romans called it the genius loci, after the site-specific tutelary gods who protected particular cities and towns; Walker Percy called it "the genie-soul" of a place. It is that unrepeatable quality of locality that can be experienced only on-site, a sense of personality that belongs to that place and no other. In The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling describes returning to Chicago after twenty-five years. He can remember nothing from his first visit, except for "the sense of the place, the savor of the genie-soul of the place which every place has or else is not a place."  Wherever you go, Binx says, you must "meet and master" the genie-soul of a place, "or be met and mastered by it."

The editors of the Federal Writers’ Project were convinced that every place in America, no matter how seemingly inconsequential and dull on the surface, possessed this mysterious quality. When state-level Writers' Project editors reported to the main office in Washington that a place was too dull or uninteresting to write about, the national editors told them, in effect, to go back and look harder, and were given suggestions on where to start.1  This sensibility animates the cornerstone of the FWP, the forty-eight "WPA Guides" to every state in the union (officially called "The American Guide Series"), each of which was designed to bring the reader into an encounter with the obscure genie-souls who haunt the American landscape.

Operating on the principle that no place in America is featureless, the American Guide Series was intended to be a kind of "American Baedeker:" a national equivalent of the pioneering and monumental German series of pocket-sized red travel guides. The immediate goal of the Guides was to employ out-of-work writers and intellectuals who were clamoring for the same kind of support the Federal government had provided to artists, painters, and craftsmen. But they also had a larger goal in mind: the forging of a confident American self-understanding in a confusing and threatening time, when the solidarity of a shared national identity and purpose was seen as essential in the looming shadow of a World War.

The last volume in the American Guide Series—Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State—was published in November 1941, a month before Pearl Harbor. By the time the Project was retired in 1943, it had produced thousands of volumes, from regional, state, and city guides to calendars, pamphlets, oral histories and anthologies of prose and poetry. Its impact was immediate and wide, and the series even spawned other knock-offs, like the Rivers of America Series, which also began in 1937.The Federal Writers Project was "a governmental adventure in cultural collectivism, the like of which no nation has experienced before or since."⁠2 

I bought my second WPA Guide sometime in the late 1990s, when I started meeting weird genie-souls all over the South. The $25 I paid then for a third printing of the 1939 edition of North Carolina: A Guide to the Old North State would be a bargain today, when similar volumes start in the forties. First editions can fetch close to a hundred dollars, and on the shelves of the main branch of the Buncombe County Library near my home in Asheville, a couple dozen original editions are prudently unavailable for borrowing. The copy of the North Carolina guide I bought in the nineties came without a dust jacket but with the big prize, the thing you look for in any non-reprint of a WPA Guide: the fold-out map tucked into a bespoke pocket inside the back cover.

And this one is a masterpiece.


The map is light and delicate, the texture of Japanese rice paper. Its folded creases have become open tears, but its colors are vivid and deep: bright, absinthe green for the forests in the west, deep ultramarine blue for the lakes and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It is criss-crossed with the blood-red arteries of United States Highways drawn by some anonymous and forgotten hand. US 1, which runs from Maine to Key West, enters North Carolina at Norlina near the Virginia line, passes through Raleigh and Southern Pines, past Fort Bragg and into South Carolina. US 17 crosses the Virginia line in the Great Dismal Swamp in the eastern part of the state, and cuts a scarlet line through the semi-coastal towns of Elizabeth City and Edenton, New Bern, Jacksonville, and Wilmington, and puts you out in South Carolina north of Myrtle Beach.

These are literally storied roads: each one is the subject of a dedicated volume produced by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1938.

These books are extensions of the WPA Guides’ orientation toward the road trip: organized in itinerary form, from north to south, they are texts meant not just to be read but to be enacted.

Each state volume includes, in the back, suggested itineraries for road trips. The Georgia volume has seventeen such tours, each marked on a simple line map at the beginning of the book. Each route is organized by mile marker, so GPS is not necessary. But a working odometer is.


By 1937, when the first WPA Guide was published, over 25 million cars were officially registered in the United States, just shy of 20% of the population of 128.8 million people. Americans were buying cars in unprecedented numbers, and joyriding and sightseeing had become a sort of national pastime.3 With the first interstate highways still twenty years in the future, the WPA Guides captured a moment in American automobile travel in which it was still possible to experience the life of American cities and towns at a stage in their organic development, before interstates permanently altered the organization of social and economic space.

Almost a fifth of Americans owned a car in 1937, but among African-Americans in the South, the percentage was a lot lower. For many Southern blacks, an automobile was not just a luxury; it was an imperative for those who could afford it. It signified social mobility and status, and freedom from the oppressive regime of segregated public transportation.

But the car was no less fraught with danger than the bus. A year before the first WPA Guide appeared, a Harlem mailman called Victor Hugo Green published his first edition of TheNegro Motorist Green-Book, which pointed African-American roadtrippers to black-friendly establishments around the country. The Green Book—named for its author as well as the color of its cover—was published annually from 1936 until 1966, and sold at gas stations, hotels, and so on. The Green Book had help from the Feds, too: it was "prepared in cooperation with the United States Travel Bureau," a New Deal office established in 1937 to "spread the gospel of the national parks abroad and at home."⁠4

The Green Book is a testament to the growing popularity of car travel and the spirit of adventure that provoked the WPA Guides. It’s also a darker testament to reality that the road trip is not always so relaxing for everyone, that the myth of the open road—the wind-in-your-hair, petroleum-powered freedom of Easy Rider—is not entirely serviceable for all people. White riders did not have to fear rolling into Tuscaloosa and being refused lunch, but black ones often did.

Did African-Americans use the WPA Guides in the South in the 1930s and 40s? And if so, how? Did they treat The Green Book as a kind of supplement to the WPA Guides? "Driving while black" in Mississippi in 1940when African-Americans were constantly, violently being reminded to stay in their "place"could be deadly.

These questions are rooting around in my brain when this happens:

April 26, 2018Near US 25 in Asheville, NC

While writing a section of my current book, I turn to my copy of Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State. The section on Biloxi. I had bought the copy used online from a bookseller in Columbus, Mississippinot a first edition, but with the map still in the pocket. Into my lap falls a small white card. It reads:


Mrs. Whitfield’s name is written in a faded blue ink, the card splotched yellow and punched with two holes. Inside the front cover, a different hand has inscribed “Mrs. Nellie P. Whitfield, 5th and 6th Grade Teacher." Inside the back cover, another inscription:

From Sst. Hester Prophet Green, R.N.Camp Livingston, La.ToMy Sister Nelly Prophet Whitfield

That card launches a wild journey that leads me to this:


1 Jerrold Hirsch, Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press 2003), p. 85.

2 Jerre Mangione, The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), p. 42)


4 Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior, Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1937 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1937), p. 70.