Heritage, Volume 04, Number 03, Winter 1986

BOOK REVIEW
The WPA Guide to Texas
The WPA Guide to Texas, with new introduction
by Don Graham.
(Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1986)
[Originally published as Texas: A Guide to
the Lone Star State, compiled by workers
of the Writers' Program of the Works Progress
Administration in the state of Texas,
(New York: Hastings House, 1940)], 718
pages, illustrated.
The Works Progress Administration
was created during the Depression as one
of Roosevelt's programs to stimulate the
economy by putting people to work.
Texas' heritage benefited from many projects
by the WPA and other New Deal programs,
including the construction of the
San Jacinto Monument and Texas: A
Guide. Both are massive works; the tower
of the monument is higher than the
Washington Monument in D.C., and the
guide is the result of condensing of more
than 12 million words by more than
2,900 writers.
The Writers' Program produced more
than 1,000 publications, ranging from
pamphlets to a series documenting every
state in the Union, of which Texas: A
Guide was a part. As Graham notes in his
introduction, "Emerson had declared that
America was a great poem, and it was the
cardinal principle of the Guide Series to
inventory the poem of twentieth-century
American life." The guidebooks were
designed to do more than employ writers.
They were to encourage traveladditional
travel would require services,
which meant jobs and that people would
spend money to help get the economy
rolling again.
Travel was different in the 1940s. The
speed limit was 45 miles per hour along
narrow, two-lane roads. Cars were not airconditioned,
and trips in the summer were
hot and dusty. Radios didn't provide entertainment
on the long stretches of highways;
that was left to the friendly red roadside
signs: Salesmen, tourists / Camperouters
/ All you other / Whisker-sprouters
/ Don't forget your / Burma Shave.
Photographs of auto tourists frequently

show a Ford in a rugged, outdoor setting,
turned into a tent by means of an awning
draped from the roof, and the travelers
around an adjacent camp site. Although
rough and lacking in creature comforts,
36

many people did take to the road to see
America.
Texas: A Guide was written for these
travelers. The book contains thirty-three
tours across the state, detailed profiles of
fifteen cities, and a section of background
history. Tours describe sights along the
way, give the history of the communities,
notes on road hazards, and information
on facilities for visitors. The detailed profiles
contain a map of the major streets, a
narrative of the historical, economic, and
social development of the community,
and notes on points of interest. The
background section, "Texas: Yesterday
and Today," is a long narrative describing
the history of the state, its geography and
natural resources, its industry, and its
people and culture.
The guidebook series was written to replace
Baedecker's long outdated American
guide, published in 1893 and reissued
in 1909. Although nearly fifty years have
passed since Texas: A Guide was first published
and many new guidebooks to the
state are available, the WPA guide has
value. Many of the highways have been
renumbered and some major thoroughfares
take different routes, regulations
and statistics have changed, and life has
generally accelerated. Nevertheless, it is
still true that, in the words of the guide,
"Regardless of what section the tourist desires
to visit, enjoyment of his trip will be
enhanced if he first gathers, from the general
chapters, . . . a comprehensive mental
picture of the State as a whole and of
the more notable achievements of its past
and present." Texas: A Guide is an excellent
source for a mental picture of both
the Depression era and Texas history.
When reading Texas: A Guide, one
must keep in mind that forty years have
passed. Some of its information is datedfor
example, there is good reason to
doubt that the Karankawas were cannibals,
as was generally accepted when the
guide was written. Understanding of the
Depression has changed as it has grown
distant in memory. But on the whole, the
general introduction to Texas history is
accurate, readable, and succinct.
Graham notes that "there is no Texan,
then or now, who cannot learn
a great deal about the state from nearly
every page of the Guide." Graham notes

that he, a professor of English at the University
of Texas at Austin and author
of Texas, A Literary Portrait, claims he
learned about several Texas writers unfamiliar
to him.

The writing reflects many aspects of
the New Deal liberalism of the 1940s;
however, it was not nearly as controversial
as other guides. (Martin Dies, Texas
Representative and Chairman of the
House Un-American Activities Committee,
condemned the Massachusetts guide
for what he perceived as left-wing propaganda.)
Although far from modern in
sensibility, for a pre-Civil Rights era work
it gave minorities surprisingly positive
treatment. The Guide happily lacks that
sense that history naively progresses to a
glorious future, and the Guide also lacks
the Texas boosterism that might have
given it the veneer of a chamber of commerce
publication.
Those interested in learning about
Texas and adding an additional dimension
to their travels will buy a copy of The
WPA Guide to Texas. Read the general introduction
for its insights into the past
and the Depression era. Keep the book in
your car, and read it between cities.
There aren't any more Burma Shave signs.
Richard Pearce-Moses is Historic Photography
Project co-ordinator for the Texas Historical
Foundation.
Texas, A Salute From Above
Texas, A Salute from Above, by T. R.
Fehrenbach, foreword by Governor Mark
White, photography by Bill Ellzey, George
Hall, Charles O'Rear, and Tony Weissgarber
(San Antonio: World Publishing
Services, with Kevin Weldon and Associates,
McMahons Point, Australia, 1985),
280 pages, over 300 color photographs.
Texas, A Salute from Above contains incredible
aerial views of the state. You feel
as if you're flying when you look at the
photographs. You also feel a certain kind
of possession from a bird's-eye vantage
point. It has something to do with the
sweep and expanse of the land which the
photographs present and the elevated
view of the landscape. The best way to
approach this book is to look at the pictures
first. There are many, and they are
in color, and they thrill as much as they
overwhelm.
In many of the photographs the landscape
becomes highly abstract: Field near

Haskell, Texas, Plowing near Muleshoe,
The Big Thicket, and Snow-Covered Fields
Near Happy offer wonderfully abstracted
images. Other photographs offer close-up
views of the Davis Mountains and specific

Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 03, Winter 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45440/. Accessed April 17, 2014.