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The WPA Guides
Arizona, “Ancient and Venerable Land”

Seymour Fogel's Study for Stafford, Arizona, a WPA Mural, 1940.

They don’t write guides like this anymore. Get a read of this opening sentence: “Land of extremes. Land of contrasts. Land of surprises. Land of contradictions. A land that is never to be fully understood but always to be loved by sons and daughters sprung from such a diversity of origins, animated by such a diversity of motives and ideals that generations must pass before they can ever fully understand each other. That is Arizona.” It’s the opening paragraph of the WPA Guide to Arizona, which I found today in a used bookstore, a 1949 edition of the 1940 original, in hardback, for $10, to be added to the collection: I still have some thirty-five volumes to go, and in a pinch I’ll settle for the paperback reprints: it’s the texts that matter, not the editions (I’m not into rare books or collections for the sake of collections.) The history in this Arizona volume is still more alive and delectable to the eyes than any contemporary guide’s attempt at contextualizing the consumer experience. What these WPA guides have about them that set them apart, aside from the wonderful style and the layered texture of each text (the substance is so rich that it’s a new dig yielding fresh nuggets every time you crack open one of those books) is the complete absence of touristic grasping. They don’t invite you to “do” a state. They seduce you to become each state’s citizen for the duration of your stay. Or, if you just happen to be reading Arizona from Florida, to be an Arizonan while flipping the pages. Where these days would I find a line like this: “ Arizona has been the home of hairy aborigines who stoned to death the giant sloth, the mammoth, and many beasts now extinct; of nomads little more advanced who huddled in natural caves, hunted with spears and bows, yet developed an art of basketry not surpassed today.” And an art for producing the odd Goldwater also not surpassed today (Schwartzeneggers are imports, and Goldwaters would disavow them as to soft, too girly). The volume has a terrific picture section including a beautiful portrait of Geronimo, “Apache renegade,” and the ever-corpulant Howard Taft signing the statehood bill in 1922, in a room surrounded by white men, skinnier all of them, as they’d have had to be if they expected to fit alongside Taft. One of his chins, that day, doubled up as the highest mountain in Arizona. The pictures also include inevitably, sublimely, the saguaro, emperor of the cacti. I’m getting weepy missing it all. Let’s close the book and return to it some other day.

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