When most other writers are like me (and I suspect they are), they leave a trail of abandoned projects. Quite regularly you get an idea for an essay, a story, a book. You research until you (mostly) come to the conclusion that this doesn’t work or (rarely) works.
One of my own achievements was the Federal Writers’ Project. This was a Depression-era company, a wing of the Works Progress Administration, where unemployed writers (there was basically no other kind during the Depression) were hired by the government to spread across the country to find out what was going on in the 48 states, New York City and the District of Columbia, and producing a fat guidebook to each location – plus plenty of additional material, including in-depth interviews with formerly enslaved people who have since proven invaluable to scholars . Certainly a fascinating subject, especially when you consider that the American Guide series has since taken on the aura of a classic – has been regularly reissued and inspired John Steinbeck and William Least Heat-Moon in their own travel books – and that Young men and women who worked on the project included future eminences such as Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Kenneth Rexroth, May Swenson, Studs Terkel, and Richard Wright.
I searched long enough to decide that the vein had been sufficiently mined by others and that further digging by me would not be worthwhile. In fact, I think I decided that after just looking at one book, Jerre Mangione’s “The Dream and the Deal” (1972). Mangione was another young writer hired by the project, in his case for a managerial position; he wrote highly acclaimed novels and memoirs. Despite being decades old, his history of the FWP, aside from his own experience, proved solidly researched and intelligently and gracefully written: in short, definitely. In addition, several scientific papers followed on the project and some popular ones, in particular “Soul of a People” (2009) by David A. Taylor, which inspired a documentary of the same name on the Smithsonian Channel.
So I feel like I made the right move by moving on to other endeavors. But here’s the thing: Scott Borchert also took the right step with this step. His “Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broken Writers to Rediscover America” (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 385 pages, $ 30) shows that when a good writer encounters a subject he or she is passionate about, the outcome will almost always be good, whether or not others have covered it before. As he notes, “just as you take many routes through a state, choose where to stop and what to pass, switch detours and dead ends, so there are many ways to tell this story.”
Mr. Borchert’s own path is characterized by several signal attributes. He’s excellent at character studies, providing fresh footage and footage of well-known characters like Algren, Hurston, and Wright, and introducing us to lesser-known ones like Vardis Fisher, a quirky novelist who pretty much single-handedly wrote the Idaho Guide, and most of them important, Henry Alsberg, the shuffling, withdrawn veteran journalist and man of letters who served as the director of the FWP and somehow kept everything together.