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New edition of 1939 WPA guide to California more than a time machine

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

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David Kipen and Realtor Crosby Doe at Frank Lloyd Wright's Millard House in Pasadena. It's mentioned on p. 248 of "California in the 1930s, the WPA Guide to the Golden State." John Rabe

The University of California Press has just released a classic. It's California in the 1930s, the WPA Guide to the Golden State, a book published in 1939 through the Federal Writers Project of FDR's Works Progress Administration.

The introduction is by Take Two regular David Kipen, of Libros Schmibros, who says that during the Great Depression, FDR realized he needed to find jobs for everybody who was out of work, including writers, so dozens of them went to work writing travel guides.

How do you squeeze 160,000 miles into a volume that readers can lift? During a Depression at, least, you hire a lot of people – or, in contemporary parlance, create a lot of jobs. Then you sort out the gifted writers and editors from the rest , who can help in some other way, or at least do no harm. Then you turn your editorial team loose, give them their heads, and watch what happens. What happened here was California: A Guide to the Golden State, which, under a gently updated new title, now re-emerges like a refreshed bear after 70 years of hibernation.

For any reader or writer, the crowning glory of the New Deal will always be this and the other American Guides, a series of travel books to 48 states, many cities, and any number of deserts, rivers, and other wonders, books that were expressly created to "hold up a mirror to America." John Steinbeck navigated by these guides to write Travels with Charley, where he called them "the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it."

In our interview, David and I spoke about the guide in general, and chatted about its delightful survey of California literature - accurate through 1939 - but we also visited one of the recommended stops on any tour of Southern California. While many sights highlighted in the book are gone, many are still with us, like the Millard House in Pasadena, a masterpiece of architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright. Realtor Crosby Doe, who concentrates on architecturally and historically significant homes and who has the listing for the Millard House (about $5m), gave David and me a  tour of the house, which gets its due on page 248 of the guide.




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