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American Panorama!

Adviser: William A. Gleason

Rachel Heise Bolten

English

“I saw parts of America I’d never seen before: the Black Hills of South Dakota, bluish smoky ranges of Appalachia, sunset stripes of Utah.”

bolten-rachel-heise

In Ocean City, Maryland, we eat chocolate-dipped cones and walk along the boardwalk. The trick to these treats is to eat fast, but in the July sun brain-freeze is even more sharply felt, and so here we are, vanilla dripping all down our hands and forearms. We don’t have enough napkins. We make our way across the sand to the water, and stand with our toes in the Atlantic. A woman offers to take our picture. We smile, squinting into the sun. This is how it begins: the first day of the fifth week of my thesis research. 

My topic was the American Guide Series, a collection of travel-books to each of the (then) 48 states, plus territories and countless regions and cities besides. Their text and accompanying photographs were the work of nearly 7,000 Americans, all put to work by the Federal Writers Project established by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) at the height of the Great Depression. I had just spent a month submerged in the WPA archives at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., an adventure of another kind entirely. And now, for the next three weeks, I’d explore the country by highway and byway, driving a rented car along routes inspired by the Guides. The plan was to absorb as much as I could, to—much as I had in the archives—collect anything and everything that might be shaped toward some compelling narrative. 

My research was supported by the A. Scott Berg Fellowship, a stipend offered to English majors. Because I chose to apply for the grant, I had had to conceptualize my project as early as February of my junior year—but the real start of my thesis can be traced back even earlier. As a sophomore, I took an American studies seminar on the arts and culture and politics of the 1930s; the Guides were mentioned several times, but most often only in passing. I wrote my final paper for the course on something else entirely. But the Guides kept coming back to me: In a local used bookstore, I found and fell for the Arizona and then Louisiana editions. The books were colorful, idiosyncratic—each volume a mash-up of scientific and historical essays, topography and folklore, hometown pride, and crisscrossing travel routes. 

An idea began to grow and take hold: I’d write about what America the Federal Writers represented in their Guides, and how. Most who’ve heard of the Guides have heard that a handful of future-famous writers worked on the project—Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, and others—but more interesting, to me at least, were the thousands more unknown Americans hired for their basic literacy and typing ability and because, like many at the time, they needed to eat. These men and women took up the bulk of the work and set about describing their hometowns and states, uncovering any and every detail they could either recollect or collect from the archives of the local library or state university. I wanted to know what sort of nation these anonymous thousands had built, sentence by sentence. And then: I’d do some traveling and writing all my own, following 70-year-old routes to add my own small, singular story alongside that kaleidoscopic portrait from the 1930s. 

In March, I applied for and received the fellowship; now I’d have to start actually designing my plan and project. I had imagined an expedition and exploration all my own; imagined total immersion, in research, road trip, and writing. But working with a text of such (literal) scope has its specific, practical challenges. Very little critical or creative work has been done on the Guides, so my project would be almost unbounded. All together, the Guides number tens of thousands of pages, close to 20 million words. Without a deadline extension of several years, I’d have to figure out some way to focus my reading and writing. The archives couldn’t—and wouldn’t—be much help with this problem. The manuscripts collected at the Library of Congress tell an almost infinite number of stories, of collaborations and conflicts between federal editors and local writers, clashes between project administrators, journalists, and politicians across the political spectrum. I or anyone could write a hundred theses a hundred times, there’s so much there there. 

One thing I knew for sure was that my thesis would not follow the standard three-chapter format, that I wanted to mix criticism with creative nonfiction—that I was as interested in academic research as experimenting with structure and style. From the start, my adviser encouraged my to think creatively. I’d selected Professor William Gleason because I’d taken his class on best sellers and admired his ability to range effortlessly across disciplines, from economics to politics to close reading, all toward unpacking a single novel. Over the course of the year, my adviser’s vast knowledge of American culture was invaluable—but just as helpful was his enthusiasm for bold and persistent experimentation in research, reading, writing, and editing. 

I planned for a series of interlocking essays, each approaching the Guides from some new angle and woven through with vignettes from my traveling. My writing process, however, was far from orderly. I overwrote—or, more accurately, over-researched—collecting everything and anything I possibly could related to the Guides: their production, content, reception, lasting effects. By January of senior year I had something like 80 pages of notes—most of which made some sense to me, maybe, at best. So I started writing. Over the next few months, some pieces I obsessively wrote and rewrote until my dorm-room floor was carpeted with almost indistinguishable drafts; others, I avoided even starting until the last possible moment (spring break). But slowly, surely—isn’t that how these things work?—a more structured framework started to emerge. Previously disparate parts began to fit together; a narrative arc began to form. I had finished chapters and an idea of how they would connect. 

What I had only faintly resembled the project I proposed the previous March. To anyone who has attempted a long-term writing project, this would seem obvious, inevitable—but my thesis was my first, and yours will probably be too. So I alternated between feeling confident in my evolved thesis, and worrying that my arguments were overly broad, shallow; that I’d attempted something impossibly big and come out with something insignificant. Part of my trouble was that what I’d thought would guide my reading and writing 12 months prior was now only a piece of what I’d actually read and written. 

I identified with the anonymous writers and editors of the Guides—or, more accurately, I dreamed of joining their project. I guess I always had, even from the start, but after a year of immersion in the work of these thousands of men and women I was finally able to put in words what it was about the Guides I loved best. As a practical guidebook, each volume invites the reader to become a tourist, to retrace steps taken by some or another federal writer. The tourist—in this case, me! But it could be you, too, or anyone who borrows an itinerary, but makes her own story, finds her own peculiar America to add to the imagined America contained within the guidebooks. The citizen-traveler is both reader and writer, both consumer and producer of national narrative. I became less attuned to the particulars of the country depicted in the Guides, and increasingly moved by the democratic, patriotic participation the books inspire. 

The Guides are a call to the road, to discovery. I read them and headed out on the highway. I saw parts of America I’d never seen before: the Black Hills of South Dakota, bluish smoky ranges of Appalachia, sunset stripes of Utah. I ate barbecue in South Carolina and five-way chili in Cincinnati and pork tenderloin in suburban Indiana. I was blinded by Las Vegas and counted meteors in Wisconsin, all before winding up the California coast toward home. But the more academic requirements of the thesis led to other discoveries, too. I had my first try at archival research, learned from decades-old manuscripts, letters, and government documents. I read widely and deeply, constructed and structured the longest piece of writing I’d ever attempted. 

Our theses will be nothing alike; no two are. For everyone’s sake, please—go ahead and forget everything I’ve told you. Except, maybe, for this: Make yourself an adventure! Think of the thesis requirement as a requirement that you try something completely new. Explore, from behind the wheel of a car or in your carrel in Firestone or through a microscope or at the helm of a submarine. The day before my department deadline, I set and didn’t meet a series of end-times: noon, 3 p.m., before dinner, 10:30 p.m. I kept finding one last sentence, one last word to make better, any excuse to keep writing. Then at midnight I went and got a good friend who I knew would make me send everything to the printer. Which is all to say: At times, your thesis can seem deeply serious. Its conclusion is the literal and symbolic end to hours and hours of hard work, to four years of Princeton education. It’s an end you’ve spent weeks looking forward to but now, suddenly and strangely, want very much to put off indefinitely until that one little thing is a little more perfect. This is because your thesis will be fun. I’m not kidding about this—frustrating, fascinating, fun. 

So find something thrilling or weird or beautiful, and here’s to everything you’ll discover! 

American Panorama!

Rachel Heise Bolten

William A. Gleason

Professor of English

“In the end, both approaches—precision and passion—are what made this thesis work so well.”

When Rachel Heise Bolten first told me she planned to make the American Guide Series the focus of her senior thesis, I was intrigued but also a little worried. I already knew Rachel as a strong and intellectually curious student from my undergraduate course on American popular writing. But the Guides? Not only was there very little scholarship on these volumes, there was virtually no critic who took the Guides seriously in the way Rachel proposed: not simply as historical artifacts, but also specifically as literary texts. What if the Guides turned out to be resistant to that kind of interpretation? Then where would she be?

When Rachel also told me—I don’t recall whether it was at our first meeting, although it very likely was—that she wanted to retrace a significant portion of the now possibly obscure travel routes described in the Guides in person, by car, during the coming summer months, and then to incorporate that experience into her thesis, too, I was, if possible, even more intrigued and even more worried. What if her ambition to merge the personal with the analytical proved too difficult? What if the final product were too—unorthodox? After all, only a few students in my department had begun to experiment with creative nonfiction in their senior theses. And even though I knew that Rachel also was writing her thesis for her certificate in American studies, I had to wonder: What if the eventual faculty reader assigned to Rachel’s thesis felt it simply wasn’t “English” enough?

Once I read the first packet of Rachel’s “notes” for the project—four single-spaced pages of close analysis of John Steinbeck’s 1960 bestseller Travels with Charley, an account of his own cross-country drive “in search of America” that makes passing reference to the Guides—I knew I had nothing to worry about. Yes, the pages were unorthodox, at least in comparison to a “typical” English department senior thesis. Yes, they mixed the personal and the critical. But they also were captivatingly original. And they were unmistakably doing the work of an English thesis, albeit in a fresh and exciting way.

Throughout the year, Rachel would send me drafts of relatively short sections of analysis, and we would meet to talk about them. I learned from these drafts how the Guides were conceived, nurtured, and published. I learned about the writers’ guidelines established by the project’s editors, and also the roles (smaller than we think) that some of the to-be-famous authors who wrote for the Guides—John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston—actually played. I learned how the Guides, taken as a whole, shaped an image of America for Americans, and in the process invited Americans not simply to follow the routes described in the books but also to reinvent them, in the process reinventing the very image of America supposedly being shaped for the readers themselves. I came to see the Guides as Rachel saw them: as complex and strange evocations (incantations, even) of the very America they tried to describe.

What I didn’t quite learn from these drafts was exactly how Rachel was going to assemble all these pieces into The Thesis. Indeed, the main scholarly challenge for Rachel, we both soon realized, would not be figuring out how to take the Guides seriously. Instead, it would be finding the right form for the discoveries she was making. One thing I knew for sure was that that form wasn’t likely to resemble the most common structure of an English department senior thesis: an introduction; three chapters, each usually focused on a single primary text; and a conclusion. Not that there is anything wrong with this structure. Since coming to Princeton, I have advised many superb theses that make no break with this form whatsoever. Rachel’s thesis, however, simply had too many moving parts to work this way. But I didn’t yet know (although I suspect Rachel may have) what shape it would ultimately take. I encouraged her to let the form emerge out of the material itself. I had seen some unusual (and unusually successful) theses take shape this way in the past, and I felt Rachel’s project, perhaps more than any I had ever advised, was well suited to this approach. But ultimately it took Rachel’s courage to make this process work. Fittingly, the form Rachel eventually found was something very much like the American Guide Series itself: a journey through the volumes, interspersed with brilliant vignettes (“interstitials,” she called them) from her own cross-country trip, all pieced together into a compelling whole. A guide for the Guides, as it were.

American Panorama! The exclamation point says it all. Rachel’s thesis was both the product and the performance of intellectual excitement—an excitement matched, as it turns out, by the enthusiastic scope and sweep of the Guides themselves. In a very real way, Rachel had inserted herself into the Guides, learned what made them tick from the inside out. She did this as a literary and cultural critic; she also did this as a fan. In the end, both approaches—precision and passion—are what made this thesis work so well. And in that sense, Rachel’s thesis was not so different from any successful thesis: If you care about the topic enough to wake up every morning excited to work on it, and you work on it with all your care and all your craft, you’ll be happy with the result no matter what shape the final thesis takes. Seeing this process take place is, by far, the most rewarding experience I can have as an adviser.