Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Review of "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America" an anthology edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (Harper Collins, 2008)

In 2016, my wife and I are anticipating a great adventure, traveling to each of the United States. In preparation, we've been reading.

There is some good writing in Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey's collection of essays about the 50 states, "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America" but much of it is written from a penthouse view from Park Avenue. The book itself is a good idea. In the thirties the WPA made a series of guidebooks, one about each of the states. (Obviously, Alaska and Hawaii were not written about in those volumes.) This book has one chapter, one essay about each state each written by a different author.
The problem with the book is that each author seems to have the same aesthetic, cultural and political sensibility. Obviously there are chapters about red state but all the chapters have a blue state sensibility. One would think with such a book it would be possible to find natives of states. But often there is instead a New York tourist in a state. Literally. Here is the opening from the chapter on South Dakota by Said Sayrafiezadeh:
"The idea of traveling to South Dakota for vacation had been all mine. I hit upon it one night in my apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan."

Or pieces by people who grew up a state in a red state and moved to a blue state, for example from Daphne Beal's essay about Wisconsin, when imagined Cheese Heads ask if she was really asked to write the chapter about the state, "'Yes, me,' I imagine myself saying, smiling, always smiling because that is the state-determined social contract among us, and perhaps adding that such a wedge (a cheddar-Swiss hybrid, if you've never seen it) took a precious amount of room in my New York City closet for a long time."

Admittedly, not all of the writers live in New York. Ha Jin, who writes about the nine years he lived in Georgia now lives in Massachusettes. Jim Lewis has lived in New York and London and to his credit he now lives in Texas (but Austin, of course) but he was assigned to write about Kansas. Lewis lived a short time in Kansas, not long enough to appear on his Wiki page. He writes about "the Kansas of the Mind", an imaginary place, because he can't write about the real one since, as he writes "The mind is a kind of Kansas, or mine is anyway. Or my memories are: For one thing I seldom go there, so however near they may be, they remain somehow far away." (Yeah, a real Thomas Guide to the state there.)

But with limited contact, many of the writers are still able to write about flyover country with these tools:

1) Bumper Stickers and Billboards. One essay after another points out the nutty stuff these hicks advertise on their cars and roadways. Can these people really believe that fetuses deserve to live, that ordinary people should be allowed to have guns and that God exists?

2) Historical accounts about how Native Americans were treated in the previous centuries, clear evidence of the current backward state of current Anglo populations.

3) Talking with the sometimes limited number of right thinking people the Republican wilds. Such as in this chapter by George Packer on a state captured by The Southern Strategy, "The tribe of surviving white liberals in Alabama today is so tiny and embattled that they all know one another personally...They suffer from a commingling of conscience, privilege and impotence. And a large fraction are members of my extended family...They are secularists in a state that at times seems to be run as a Christian theology." So like Abraham argued about Sodom and Gomorrah, even these states should be saved because there are at least 10 righteous, um liberal, men, um persons.

4) They can acknowledge the natural beauty of the states, while pointing out the residents want to destroy that beauty with pavement, fast food restaurants and fracking.

5) Heartfelt accounts about how they always will keep the state in their hearts (and perhaps occasionally visit it on holidays when Paris is out of the budget.)

6) Making visits to the Red Land at great risk. In the essay on South Dakota, the author goes to the state at great nutritional peril. After all, his girl-friend says, "All they eat is beef and not just beef but bison beef"

So, I admit, there were chapters I started, read 2 or 3 pages and moved on. But some of the chapters were very good. Dave Eggers writes a fine salute to Illinois opening with these lines, "The slogan on all license plates on Illinois, for as long as anyone can remember, has been the Land of Lincoln. Everyone in Illinois and all sensible people elsewhere believe it to be the best license-plate slogan of all the state of our union" And it keeps getting better.

Susan Choi writes a moving and funny account touring Indiana with her father who still lives in the state (she, not surprisingly lives now in Brooklyn.)

John Hodgman writes sardonically about Massachusetts, Jonathan Franzen interviews the State of New York herself, Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel write about and also cartoon their states.

The book has wonderful things. It can best be enjoyed by skipping the writing that isn't always so wonderful (thought the states being written about are all, in fact, glorious.)

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