Tuesday, March 3, 2009

From the Library: "State By State," plus additional interview with editor Sean Wilsey

This reader is fully on board with Matt Weiland, who in the preface to State By State asserts, “There is poetry in the Rand McNally Atlas.” A rhythmic beauty exists in watching the country unfold as you drive across it, witnessing firsthand how climates and forests and deserts and mountains blend and twist into and away from one another in a manner that often defies human-drawn borders. More intriguing than that, however, is experiencing the seismic cultural shifts that occur between Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Des Moines, Dallas, Boston, and Miami. You begin to wonder how all this could possibly be the same country.

And yet it is, which is precisely what Weiland and coeditor Sean Wilsey aim to capture in this collection of 50 essays by 50 different writers about the 50 states (actually, 51 when you count Edward P. Jones’s afterword about D.C.). Speaking with us via telephone last fall, Wilsey said that the idea for State By State came out of discussions with Weiland about the legendary WPA Federal Writers Project of the 1930s, which “gave jobs to writers and sent them out to write about the country.” One unfortunate part of this now-famous State Guide series, however, was that the thousands of publications that resulted “tended to be dry,” Wilsey said, “like guidebooks. We didn’t want that sort of stock Chamber of Commerce style, but rather wanted our collection to have a more memoir-esque feel to it.”

It seems that State By State could hardly come at a more timely moment, either, as we have just ushered in a historic new President and begin to seriously face several national challenges, including an economy in freefall, a housing crisis, soaring food prices, and a war whose dimensions are ambiguous, not to mention eight years of disastrous international relations. And before November 4th, we seemed as divided as ever: red, blue, solid, leaning, swing, toss-up. It would be no exaggeration, then, to say that we are a nation poised on a precipice, wondering: can anything save us?

This book might, actually. “We wanted something broad-minded and good-hearted,” Weiland writes in the preface, “something bold, intimate, and funny; something full of personal anecdote and strange characters and hidden truths,” and that’s exactly what they delivered. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the collection is noting which authors are present, which states they’ve been asked to represent (Oregon is rendered by Joe Sacco in a graphic short story comic about Portland, Eugene, and wine country), and which authors are missing. Over the two years it took to make the book, those who turned down the project included Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Lillian Ross, J.D. Salinger, and Annie Proulx.

As you make your way across the landscape of State By State you’re surprised at a great many things about our country. America is an enormous place, made up of an extraordinary mélange of people and cultures. Wilsey said that in editing the collection, he sensed Americans are “hopeful, but not unthinkingly so, like people beginning to pull out of selfishness. Everyone everywhere takes pride in where they’re from, though, and honestly, there’s a lot to be proud of.”

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