Vermont is a State of Mind

When the NY Times publishes an article on the 1930s Works Progress Administration’s American Guide on Vermont, it is only natural that they would interview Dona Brown, associate professor of History here at UVM. The article, “Going Down the Road: Eccentricity Fuels a Revival of Vermont’s River Towns” by Pam Belluck, is one of a series on the WPA’s work. It highlights Vermont’s “entrepreneurially eccentric idea[s] that writers of a Depression era federal guide to Vermont found flourishing back then.” It quotes Brown as saying “There has always been real creativity and real eccentricity and independent thought,” . . . “People who had a big idea and went with it,” often exhibiting “a tinkering or artisanal quality.”
When we think of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal programs the images that usually spring to mind are workers constructing bridges, roads, and public buildings.Though voting against Roosevelt in 1932, Vermont did not hesitate to accept federal funds. In Vermont, much of the funding went to CCC projects directed towards building an infrastructure that would further support and enhance its burgeoning tourism industry. But people in the arts were unemployed and in need of jobs as well. Another WPA project, the Federal Writer’s Project, approved for funding in 1935, was one solution. In addition to a series of publications that included social-ethnic studies, folklore materials and slave narratives, a large portion of the project was devoted to the American Guides, a series of books focusing on each of the states.
The Library of Congress: American Memories Collection: American Life Histories contains many of the narrative and folklore materials, but the recent digitization of American Guides: Vermont by Google Books offers another look at the Vermont of the 1930s. Written as a collaborative work, the Guide celebrates Vermont’s eagerness to be seen as a unique state, a bastion of the “Country Life” movement, and a land of both rugged and pastoral beauty. It’s very structure emphasizes the desire on the part of its writers to perpetuate the idea of Vermont as a tourist destination, the larger portion of the book being constructed as a series of “tours” following the highways and byways of the state.
In her introduction to the Guide, Dorothy Canfield Fisher acknowledges Vermont’s reputation as a land of Yankee individualism, but counters with an assertion that the community spirit of its inhabitants will guarantee a warm welcome to the out-of-state visitor. However, she also does not hesitate to display an anxiety that had consumed early 20th century Vermonters–the perception that “Vermont has for three generations exported its most promising young people to urban centers outside its borders.” Rumbles of that anxiety, along with the chapter in the Guide devoted to “Racial Elements” and the fact that quite a few of the contributors to the Guide were also connected with the Eugenics Movement in Vermont, provide a tantalizing counterpoint to the notion of a charmingly eccentric state and people. The fact that the NYTimes article highlights that charm and eccentricity, that “Vermont is a state of mind” ideal, indicates that the Guide’s writers succeeded.
[For a good introduction to the development of Vermont through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, see:
Brown, Dona and Stephen Nissenbaum, “Changing New England: 1865-1945” in Picturing Old New England: Images and Memory, Truettner and Stein, eds.]

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