In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans were nearly universally literate—and they were hungry for the written word. Magazines, novels, and newspapers littered the floors of parlors and tenements alike. With an eye to this market and as a response to devastating unemployment, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration created the Federal Writers’ Project. The Project’s mission was simple: jobs. But, as Wendy Griswold shows in the lively and persuasive American Guides, the Project had a profound—and unintended—cultural impact that went far beyond the writers’ paychecks.
Griswold’s subject here is the Project’s American Guides, an impressively produced series that set out not only to direct travelers on which routes to take and what to see throughout the country, but also to celebrate the distinctive characteristics of each individual state. Griswold finds that the series unintentionally diversified American literary culture’s cast of characters—promoting women, minority, and rural writers—while it also institutionalized the innovative idea that American culture comes in state-shaped boxes. Griswold’s story alters our customary ideas about cultural change as a gradual process, revealing how diversity is often the result of politically strategic decisions and bureaucratic logic, as well as of the conflicts between snobbish metropolitan intellectuals and stubborn locals. American Guides reveals the significance of cultural federalism and the indelible impact that the Federal Writers’ Project continues to have on the American literary landscape.
Just like we do today, people in medieval times struggled with the concept of human exceptionalism and the significance of other creatures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the medieval bestiary. Sarah Kay’s exploration of French and Latin bestiaries offers fresh insight into how this prominent genre challenged the boundary between its human readers and other animals.
Bestiaries present accounts of animals whose fantastic behaviors should be imitated or avoided, depending on the given trait. In a highly original argument, Kay suggests that the association of beasts with books is here both literal and material, as nearly all surviving bestiaries are copied on parchment made of animal skin, which also resembles human skin. Using a rich array of examples, she shows how the content and materiality of bestiaries are linked due to the continual references in the texts to the skins of other animals, as well as the ways in which the pages themselves repeatedly—and at times, it would seem, deliberately—intervene in the reading process. A vital contribution to animal studies and medieval manuscript studies, this book sheds new light on the European bestiary and its profound power to shape readers’ own identities.