Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion was originally compiled
during the Depression by the workers of the Writers' Program of the Work
Projects Administration in the State of Virginia. First published in the
American Guide Series in 1940, it was sufficiently popular to receive three more printings in 1941, 1946, and 1947. Out of print for nearly half a century, it was finally re-issued by the Library of Virginia in 1992.
In the Foreword to the Library's edition, Garrett Epps
says he anticipates that that the modern reader will be struck first by the changes that have overtaken The Commonwealth in the intervening years:
Television, computers, telecommunications, air travel, the
interstate highway system, corporate integration, and miss migration have remade
every institution -- from family, to farm and workplace, to local, state, and
federal government.... All this has given added force to the sense of separation
disappearing, to the idea that the South, as a distinct region in American life, is
a Civilization gone with the wind.
In effect, Epps suggests that the Virginia described in the Guide appears to have vanished altogether.
But he goes on to argue that the continuities between that time and our own lie deeper, perhaps buried beneath the strip malls and suburban sprawl, but powerfully present nonetheless, silently shaping our common assumptions and values. His argument begins with water -- the waters of the Atlantic seacoast and the rivers that vein the state -- and with land -- the rich tobacco lands of the Tidewater and the plantation society they spawned as well as the hardscrabble lands of the Virginia highlands and the equally distinctive culture they bred. And he goes on to note that Virginia's proximity to Washington, D.C. is something more than merely geographical, is actually a kind of metaphor for Virginia's historical role as a political social and economic laboratory for the South and for the nation.
Beneath both these arguments, however, lies Epps's -- typically southern -- conviction that history, of which the Commonwealth has so very much, matters, The assumption suffuses his whole essay, but emerges most plainly when he invokes the eminent southern historian C. Vann Woodward:
The South has had its full share of illusions, fantasies,
and pretensions, and it has continued to cling to some of them with
an astonishing tenacity that defies explanation. But the illusion that
history is something unpleasant that happens to other people is not
one of them -- not in the face of accumulated evidence and memory to the contrary.
Van Woodward is, as always, eloquent here, but one of William Faulkner's characters makes the point more succinctly: In the South, history isn't dead; it isn't even past.
That history matters was, of course, the rationale for the Library of Virginia's re-publication of the Guide, not merely because history so thoroughly permeates it -- in the individual essays, in the accounts of the major Virginia cities, and above all in the twenty four guided tours -- but also because the Guide is now itself become a significant piece of that history. Undertaken in the midst of the Great
Depression, it sought to establish in its readers a deeper and clearer sense of a past that the economic and social disasters of the thirties seemed to have rendered irrelevant. By recovering that usable past the writers of The Guide hoped both to re-assert the continuities of the American experience and to make imaginable some better future.
Throughout, the Guide argues that, if we attend carefully to the lessons of history, we will be enabled to take up its awful burden and to renew the promise that is America.
The Guide, then is in essence an exercise in the creation of Public Memory, of that iconic set of stories, places, and images that make up our collective identity as a people. And it is this
particular aspect of The Guide which has prompted American Studies
students at The University of Virginia to publish this new hypertext edition. Hypertext allows us to re-contextualize The Guide by linking it, for example, to documents produced by the WPA in Virginia, to images from the period, photographs, paintings, murals, sculpture, or to oral histories, film, and maps. At the same time, it also allows us to create a modern version of The Guide materials, to present contrasting perspectives on the role of agriculture or The Negro or Charlottesville in 1940 and 1999.
Theoretically at least, hypertext allows us to create the virtual equivalent of the Guide in something like the dense network of other books, events, and people that it occupied for its original readers. Which immediately brings up the difference between theory and reality. Our immediate objectiveis much less ambitious, to provide a digital edition of the Guide, to flesh it out as best we can with the resources available, and to provide models that suggest what might ultimately be done.
We welcome suggestions or participation: Alan B. Howard