Saturday, December 27, 2008

A cabinet post for culture, but would it include the rural variety?

William R. Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, makes an interesting proposal in an op-ed piece in today's New York Times. It begins:
IN 1935, as part of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration, which reached out to rural families as they struggled during the Depression. Roy Stryker, who oversaw the agency’s photo documentary program, captured the strength of American culture in the depths of the country’s despair. The photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks showed us both the pain of America and the resilience of its people.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson drew on his Texas roots when he created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, organizations that share America’s arts and humanities with the American people.
In part because of Ferris's role in studying Southern culture and in part because of these opening paragraphs mentiong rurality, I thought his proposal might be particularly attuned to rural and/or Southern culture. I guess I am looking pretty hard for signs that someone is thinking about rural America as we prepare for the inauguration of a very cosmopolitan President and his incredibly urbane cabinet.

But Ferris's proposal is not attuned to rural culture -- at least not explicitly so. It calls for a new cabinet-level post, a "Secretary of Culture," to oversee and coordinate the various federal agencies that have evolved over the years, some from FDR and LBJ initiatives: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NPR, PBS and the Smithsonian Institution. None of these institutions is particularly oriented to rural matters, although I do find NPR's coverage of rural issues to be quite good.

In any event, Ferris's piece got me to thinking about the New Deal-era W.P.A. Writers' Project, which employed writers to produce a set of travel guides called the American Guide Series. That's a project about which I knew nothing until the New York Times series this year, "Going Down the Road." You can read some of the installments in that series here, here, here, here and here.

What has struck me about these guides--or at least the New York Times coverage of them -- is that they documented rural places. I don't know if this was purposeful or not. Perhaps in the 1930s, rural places were viewed as those most needing documentation because little had then been written about them, whereas cities already attracted a lot of attention as bastions of culture, as inherently interesting places. If that was the case then, it is surely even more so now, when fewer and fewer Americans have meaningful and sustained contact with rural people and places and when rural folks seem to be popularly depicted as more marginal, culturally and otherwise, than ever before.

William Yardley wrote in the first of the NYT Going Down the Road series that the American Guides became "literary windows into an era and its aspirations." Of course, those were also the aspirations for particular places in that era. As Yardley expresses it, in places like the Cascades, progress no longer means "more commerce, more logging, more farming. . . . Now, it’s all about enjoying the scenery." The same can be said, of course, about much of the West. But even there it is only part of the picture, as oldtimers often oppose such development. (See related posts here and here). Further, what do we really know as a society about the aspirations of other types of rural places, those suffering population loss and struggling to survive in the face of agri-business growth and other forms of restructuring? How can/do we value their culture(s) -- and how can we document it so that in another half century it won't be lost for good?


Dittman said...

It's not that the guides focused on rural culture - it was just that so much more of the country was "rural" then. the project also produced fantastic guides to urban areas such as NYC. Perhaps what makes the Guides relevant for our new era was the idea that they were designed to, like Beards' Rise of American Civilization, educate Americans for an evaluation of their own civilization.

candice said...

I think you will find this petition very interesting if you have not seen it before. It is truly a grassroots movement there has been no press about the petition. The Secretary of Arts Petition. In the last 24 hour hours over 19,000 people have signed it for a total of 88,000. Please read the comments. People are passionate... I urge everyone to sign it and pass it on.