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PDF The WPA Guides: Mapping America

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More recent criticism has shifted the focus from the political conflict surrounding the Guides to the cultural and political work performed by the Guides themselves.

The New Deal: Crash Course US History #34

In The WPA Guides: Mapping America , Christine Bold argues that the New Deal "harnessed" the "generic features" of the travel guide—"their taxonomic representation of the landscape, their documentary status, and the trope of use," by which she means their practical application—in order to accomplish "particular cultural work: the guaranteeing of a united, harmoniously diverse citizenry; the demarcation of a safe, knowable and hence controllable space within all the changes and threats of modernity; and the demonstration of cultural maturity on the international stage" 17— Bold's approach represents an important step beyond the historicist orientation of earlier criticism.

Since she does not consider culture to be the "reflection" of an economic base, she does not reduce the Guides to "evidence" of a big-government bias. Instead she shows how culture not only reflects but produces politics, paying particular attention to how specific rhetorical strategies transform the landscape.

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Bold is correct in stressing the importance of the tour form as a locus of cultural production; however, she does not pay enough attention to the way the Guides are themselves symptomatic of the social space they attempt to manage. The Guides do more than reflect a "big government" bias but less than produce the "harmonious" space that is their ideal.


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Both the ideals they strive for and the representational forms they deploy are legacies of consumer culture. To restate this point in Bold's terms, the Guides do not simply respond to "the changes and threats of modernity" but mobilize its promises. These are the promises of advertising.

The WPA guides: mapping America

What is most striking about the Guides, if only because it has been consistently overlooked, is the way they appropriate commercial forms of representation for government purposes. The American Guide Series is propaganda, but not in the banal sense of representing history from a pro-government perspective. Rather it transforms local culture into a tourist attraction, and the tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty, in order to reproduce patriotism as a form of brand-name identification.

Automobile guidebooks first emerged as a form of advertising. They were an established genre by the Great Depression because manufacturers had seized on Finally, because of its size, the series stands as a testimony to the New Dealers' faith in large-scale projects.

Mangione, Jerre. Schindler-Carter, Petra.

American Guide Series

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