WPA writers chart 1930s New England


ADAMS -- What would you travel to see in Pittsfield, Springfield or Worcester in 1938?

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Federal Writers' Project paid out-of-work authors to ask questions like this, then go forth to discover and explore New England, from Burlington to Boston and back.

This Sunday at 6 p.m., author, traveler and urbanologist Max Grinnell will return to Bascom Lodge, at the summit of Mount Greylock, to give a talk, "A New Deal for Travel in New England." He has presented talks in the Berkshires in the past about the urbanology of North Adams and Vermont's historic hiking route, the Long Trail.

"The material that came out of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) creates an interesting story about how we talked about a specific region in the ‘30s and ‘40s -- who's mentioned and who's where," Grinnell said. "It's also interesting, the focus of road guides, especially coming out of the Great Depression, because who has time and money at that time to go on a road trip? It becomes a rich and interesting issue."

The WPA established the Federal Writers' Project in the United States in 1935 as part of the New Deal. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the FWP was directed by Henry G. Alsberg to provide jobs for unemployed writers, editors and research workers. It operated in 48 states (not Alaska and Hawaii, which had not yet joined the U.S.) and at one time employed as many as 6,600 people.

Between 1935 and 1943, these folks created what is now the highly collectible American Guide Series, in addition to 1,200 kinds of books and pamphlets narrating America's interstates and historic collections that one might find while on the road. The publications include maps, written routes and tours, and some photographs -- and a "delightfully informal and distinctly informing" 368-page guide, "The Berkshire Hills," published in 1939 by New York's Duell, Sloan & Pearce Inc.

The FWP works included writings by authors we now consider notable, such as Maxwell Bodenheim, Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow.

In 1937, Houghton Mifflin and The Riverside Press out of Cambridge published, "Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People." In a foreward, then Gov. Charles F. Hurley writes, "Though designed to portray Massachusetts to visitors, it is also intended, as it were, to present Massachusetts to Massachusetts."

The book highlights a few people and places of the Berkshires, with entries on Pittsfield and Williamstown, and mentions of places in Stockbridge, North Adams and others.

The section on Pittsfield carries the sub-headline of "Power-Source and Playground." The author writes: "In the shadow of Mount Greylock, high in the rolling Berkshires, Pittsfield opens the commercial gateway to western Massachusetts ... The altitude of the city gives it a salubrious climate and makes it a favorite winter and summer playground for tourists and sportsmen."

The entry mentions "homes of the well-to-do [that] line elm-shaded streets" and briefly the "Indian troubles and disputes with New York" regarding boundaries and settlement. But otherwise the entry on Pittsfield focuses on a burgeoning industrial scene contrasted by natural greenery and pretty waterways. A dash of intrigue added through mention of the folkloric hauntings of ancient sites, like "a spectral canoe" on Pontoosuc Lake and "Ghost Trail" of Pittsfield State Forest.

"A lot of my work is associated with who we are and where we come from," Grinnell said. "One of the things I've come to notice is how other groups are left out of the story."

He mentioned example of certain demographic groups like American Indians and women, whose narratives seemed less prominent than their white, male counterparts, "which is kind of tragic," Grinnell said.

When not on the road, Grinnell splits his time between Chicago and Cambridge and using resources like books and oral histories documented and kept by the Library of Congress, state library websites and Archive.org to create the foundations of his research, classes and presentations, as well as his own personal explorations.

This sort of research has led him to shine on light on places like a Buddhist temple in a Chicago park and a clutch of Queen Anne and Second Empire-style buildings tucked away in Boston's Mission Hill neighborhood.

As an urbanologist, Grinnell said Sunday he will put into context and contrast how people write about the New England region today.

"I think looking at this leads us to ask the bigger questions of the world," he said, from how transportation has changed to whether a hotel is still there and why.

"It's important to have this kind of communication with others, to look at what's right in front of us and have a discussion," he said. "Hopefully it inspires people to slow down and take a look around and contemplate their own town."

He will also highlight a second FWP guide published in 1939, "Here's New England! A Guide to Vacationland." It covers a range of tourist havens, from Cape Cod to Cape Ann, the White Mountains to the Green Mountains, and "The Berkshires: An Aerie of Hill Towns."

In this section of the guide, it reads: "Berkshire hill towns follow pretty much the same pattern -- scattered farmhouses, a white church, a neat graveyard, a school with wood piled near the door ... It is the natural habitat of that famous New England institution, the Ladies' Aid Society with its flashing needles and sprightly tongues. And that other famous New England institution, the Town Meeting, here archives its apogee, national and State issues coming distinctly second to local affairs."

If you go ...

What: ‘A New Deal for Travel in New England,' a public talk on the Federal Writers Project with author, traveler and urbanologist Max Grinnell.

When: 6 p.m. Sunday, July 27

Where: Bascom Lodge,
Mount Greylock.

Admission: Free

Information: bascomlodge.net theurbanologist.com,
or (413) 743-1591


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