About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for the Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to this virtual author lecture with Scott Borchert, author of Republic of Detours, a new book about the New Deal project to employ writers on the State Guides series.

Before we begin, though, I’d like to tell you about two upcoming programs you can view on our YouTube channel.

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On Thursday, June 17, at noon, we’ll hear from Peter S. Canellos, author of The Great Dissenter. The “dissenter”—Justice John Marshall Harlan—broke with his colleagues on the Supreme Court and became the nation’s prime defender of the rights of Black people, immigrant laborers, and people in distant lands occupied by the United States.

And on Tuesday, June 22, at noon, author Les Standiford will tell us about his new book, Battle for the Big Top. Standiford reveals the stories behind the three men—James Bailey, P. T. Barnum, and John Ringling—who created the American circus.

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The Federal Writers Project was just one of the New Deal agencies established to help the nation out of the Depression, and they all created a large amount of records documenting their work. The National Archives now holds those records, and for the Federal Writers Project alone, you may find administrative records, photographs, posters, and even radio scripts.

The Writers Project was, according to its supporters, the “biggest literary project in history.” This New Deal project sought to put unemployed writers back to work, much as other relief projects provided construction and forestry jobs. And a great many of those writers set to work on the American Guides series. These books covered every state, going beyond travelers’ basic needs to include histories, folklore, and even recipes. Together, the guides give us a vivid portrait of America in the late 1930s.

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Scott Borchert, the author of Republic of Detours, is a writer and editor based in New Jersey, and a former assistant editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His work has appeared in Southwest Review, Monthly Review, Brooklyn Magazine, and other publications.

Joining him in conversation today is Susan Rubenstein DeMasi, the author of Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of New Deal Writers.

Now let’s hear from Scott Borchert and Susan Rubenstein DeMasi. Thank you for joining us.