State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America

by Matt Weiland, Sean Wilsey


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“A funny, moving, rousing collection, greater than the sum of its excellent parts.” —New York Times Book Review

Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, State by State is a panoramic portrait of America and an appreciation of all fifty states (and Washington, D.C.) by fifty-one of the most acclaimed writers in the nation.  Contributors include renowned and bestselling authors such as Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchett, Anthony Bourdain, William T. Vollmann, S.E. Hinton, Dave Eggers, Myla Goldberg, Rick Moody, and Alexander Payne.  Inspired by the Depression-era WPA guides and awarded an “A” grade by Entertainment Weekly, these delightful essays on the American character deliver “the full plumage of American life, in all its riotous glory” (The New Yorker).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061470912
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/29/2009
Pages: 572
Sales rank: 404,989
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Matt Weiland is the Deputy Editor of The Paris Review. He has been an editor at Granta, The Baffler and The New Press, and he oversaw a documentary radio unit at NPR. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, New York Observer, The Nation and The New Republic. He is the co-editor, with Sean Wilsey, of The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup and, with Thomas Frank, of Commodify Your Dissent: The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

Sean Wilsey is the author of Oh the Glory of It All, a memoir, and the creator, with Tamara Shopsin, of a related Web site, He is also an Editor-at-Large for McSweeney's, and the co-editor, with Matt Weiland, of The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup.

Read an Excerpt

State by State
A Panoramic Portrait of America

Chapter One


Capital Montgomery
Entered Union 1819 (22nd)
Origin of name Possibly from a Choctaw Indian word meaning "thicket-clearers" or "vegetation-gatherers"
Nickname Yellowhammer State
Motto Audemus jura nostra defendere ("We dare defend our rights")
Residents Alabamian or Alabaman
U.S. Representatives 7
State bird yellowhammer
State flower camellia
State tree Southern longleaf pine
State song "Alabama"
Land area 50,744 sq. mi.
Geographic center In Chilton Co., 12 mi. SW of Clanton
Population 4,557,808
White 71.1%
Black 26.0%
American Indian 0.5%
Asian 0.7%
Hispanic/Latino 1.7%
Under 18 26.3%
65 and over 13.0%
Median age 35.8


George Packer

In the summer of 1980, when I was nineteen, I worked as a $600-a-month intern at a government-funded poverty law center in Alabama, renting a matchbox house with two black law students at the crumbling edge of downtown Mobile. It was a record hot summer, at a record high in urban seediness: Mobile, the poor man's New Orleans, was hollowed out by economic stagnation and the white exodus that followed desegregation. Carter was in the White House, the azaleas in Bienville Square were dead, and the sixteen blocks between the house and office offered the comfort of no trees, only the glare of the sun and an assortment of drunks, casual laborers, and pettycriminals. My yellow short-sleeved Oxford shirt, too heavy in the humidity, instantly marked me as a carpetbagger, and one morning a razor-thin limping man pursued me block after block, yelling, "Hey! Ass-hole!" Anomie set in the day I arrived—everything shut down for Memorial Day weekend—and pursued me all the way to my departure in August. At times it grew so intense that the only relief came in cups of mocha-flavored instant International Coffee, from a red-and-white tin, which I bought at a shop downtown and savored as the taste of civilization itself.

The house on St. Francis Street had only one air-conditioner. Carlos, the law student to arrive first, grabbed it, and never let go. Cooled only by an ineffective fan, my room began to incubate turd-sized cockroaches. Carlos, from American University in Washington, despised me on sight. This was upsetting, because I had gone South with the idea of becoming a latter-day soldier in the civil rights struggle. I saw myself, in all modesty, as an heir to Schwerner and Goodman, the two white northerners killed in 1964 outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, with their black movement colleague Chaney. The Mother's Day melee when the Freedom Riders pulled into the Birmingham bus terminal, the fire hoses and K-9 squads in Linn Park, George Wallace standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama to prevent Vivian Malone and James Hood from becoming the first black students to attend—in my mind, all of this had happened the day before yesterday. My backpack carried Robert Coles's study of the psychology of black children during desegregation, Children of Crisis, Anne Moody's memoir of growing up black during the civil rights era, Coming of Age in Mississippi, and (because I accepted Black Power as a necessary stage of the movement) Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. But it was hard to sustain my own private freedom ride after I discovered that Carlos kept a personal roll of toilet paper in his bedroom, ferrying it back and forth to the john. So much for black and white together.

That first weekend, before contempt had hardened into hatred, Carlos and I went out to get a bite to eat. A black neighbor saw us round the corner and exclaimed in wonder, "You black and you white but you both walking together!" Confronted with this nightmare tableau of black abjectness, white noblesse, and assumed interracial harmony, Carlos dispatched both the neighbor and me with a strained, sneering laugh. It was little consolation that Raymond, the other housemate, from Rutgers and gay, liked me fine.

Carlos's rejection nagged at me all summer, but my civil rights romance was too strong to be snuffed out. The law center was opening satellite offices in the rural counties north of Mobile Bay, and I spent many days doing advance work by way of Greyhound buses to Monroeville and Evergreen. These were some of the poorest places in America. In Monroe County, which, according to the 1980 census, was 43 percent black, median white family income was $17,600 and median black family income was just over $9,000. Conecuh County was even poorer. I interviewed an old woman with a picture on the wall of her shack showing the two Kennedys and King under the words "The Three Who Set Us Free." She didn't seem very free: There was no indoor plumbing in the shack. The revolution of the early sixties had blown through the bigger cities in Alabama and barely touched these piney backwoods. "We get along just fine with our colored folks," the probate judge of Monroe County told me, sounding like a hundred years of predecessors.

I was looking for something—marches, drama, self-sacrifice, community, history—that now existed only in books. Less than two decades before, when Coles was working as a child psychiatrist amid the upheavals of southern desegregation, a young black civil rights worker told him that he'd joined the movement because "I'll be lucky if I can vote, and be treated better than a dog every time I go to register my car, or try for a driving license, or go to buy something in a store." By 1980, what was left of the movement had migrated behind the closed doors of the courts. The law center was involved in several important civil rights suits, including desegregation and voting rights cases against the Mobile school board and county commission, but these were moving slowly, obscurely, through the legal system. Class-action lawsuits were not what I had in mind that summer. I wanted the sight of headlights in my rearview mirror on a rural road. In fact, the Klan still operated in Mobile, as the country learned just a few months later, in March 1981, when two of its members randomly lynched a nineteen-year-old black youth on a city street. (Eventually they were convicted, and one was electrocuted in the first execution of a white man for the murder of a black man in Alabama since 1913. The United Klans of America was later bankrupted by a civil suit that forced the Alabama chapter to turn over its Tuscaloosa meeting hall to the victim's mother, who used the proceeds to buy her first house.) But the main battle for equality in Alabama and the South was over. I had arrived in time for its ambiguous and incomplete aftermath: superficial civility, de facto segregation, economic inequality, with most of the stirring old words gone stale from sloganeering. As Carlos made clear, laws did not change hearts.

State by State
A Panoramic Portrait of America
. Copyright © by Matt Weiland. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
captwilson More than 1 year ago
This is one of the worst books I have ever read. It is primarily a PC rant about how horrible the white Europeans were to the poor peaceful American Indians. The stories of the writers lives are boring and not worth knowing about.
navysquid More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed how each writer took their own interpretation of how to describe and represent their state. It makes for great reading as a quick pick up, but I would probably get a headache reading it all at once.

Being from California, I was disappointed in the less than quality piece done by William T. Vollmann. It focused on a microcosm of the state, and mainly San Francisco, which is (for better or worse) its own universe.

I plan on taking this book with me on my next cross country trip to try and better appreciate the landscape.
oldeagle More than 1 year ago
I have only read as far as Georgia. Some of the chapters are interesting, but they focus on just a minute part of the state and what goes on in that area. I thought it would be more about the history and geography of each entire state. I will finish it, eventually.
figre on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
From 1935 to 1943, the WPA, through the Federal Writers Project, produced a book for each of the (then) 48 states. Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey used this idea as the basis for this book, an essay for each of the (now) 50 states, as well as Washington D. C. No doubt, reading the original books would be fascinating (for a number of reasons), but this collection is no piker. In fact, it is a very good collection by a wide range of writers.Here¿s the thing. I¿m assuming that the original project focused on the states. This collection really focuses on the writers. In fact, the best essays are the ones that reveal the author, rather than the ones that try to reveal the states. The writers are interesting people who have interesting stories to tell.I¿ll use Arizona (my home state) as an example. The author spends a lot of time describing the Tucson desert, and her neighbors, and her move to the area, and it fails to resonate. (Aside: I wonder if this happens to everyone? Is everyone hyper-critical about the essay on their own state? I think I would have felt better if they had picked someone with more history in the state. Anyway¿) She is writing as a newcomer who has nothing to add to our understanding of the state. For the successful essays, the author may have deeper roots in the state, or a different story for why they are in the state, or, at the very least, a revelation about themselves as it relates to the state. Again ¿ about the author works; about the state, not so much.But that is a quibble. This is an interesting and varied collection. Sure there are a couple of low spots. How can 52 essays (the second introduction is really another essay) not have some valleys. But the valleys aren¿t deep, and the hills are quite lofty. Throw in a nice collection of photos (chosen by each author to represent the state they wrote about) and a fascinating collection of statistics in the final appendix (everything from population by state to alcohol consumption and roller coasters per capita by state) and it is a really good book.
debs4jc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Our marvelous country is so varied--and perusing the various essays of this book will definitely reinforce that fact. Each is wonderfully different, some even are done in graphic novel form, as talented authors with connections to each state (i.e. Augusten Burroughs for New York) share their impressions of it. I enjoyed many of these glimpses into the diverse ways of life and geography of our United States. This would be a great read for someone new to the U.S. or who enjoys travel.
MarthaHuntley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a great book to keep around and read and savor chapter by chapter. A lot of thoughtful, insightful, entertaining and frequently funny stories that really make you feel the state you are in. Comes with a DVD by the various writers. Excellent project, especially in a election year...a little like having your own little piece of NPR on the nightstand.
swampette on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
More than once while reading State by State, I'd turn to Brian and say, "Let's move to _______." Brian's response was almost always, "Ok. [pause] You know how cold it gets there, right?" While it is unlikely that I will have the opportunity to live in every state, that is the response I had hoped this book would evoke in me. For the most part, it did not let me down.Curious, I went back to investigate: it was the New York Times review that initially inspired me to read State by State. Have you ever re-read a review after reading the book? The inaccuracies and quotes out of context can be quite startling. It is also not the first time that I've been struck with the thought that it is the reviewer's writing that often causes me to pick up a particular book rather than the author's. I did not, as the reviewer presumed, skim through the book, picking and choosing states' essays because of my history with them. I actually read cover to cover, visiting each state alphabetically. I strongly recommend this approach, because having lived in a state does not guarantee you'll enjoy that state's essay. Indeed there were three states (well, two plus D.C.) that I had to abandon because they were simply too leaden.As I read, I tried to find a theme that separated a mediocre piece from an outstanding one. Should the author be a native of his or her state? Not necessarily. Lydia Millet, Mohammed Naseehu Ali and Cristina Henriquez had beautiful pieces about Arizona, Michigan, and Texas, respectively, despite being from elsewhere. The Delaware section was written by a Canadian - the nerve! - but it was still quite insightful. Must the writer love the state? Not at all. Rick Moody's always outstanding writing was thoroughly enjoyable all while convincing me that Connecticut's Merritt Parkway might actually be the road to hell, with layovers in Alcoholism, Divorce, and Depression. It helped - tremendously - for the topic to be personal rather than didactic (only Idaho's Anthony Doerr managed to do both), but a couple of the clunkers were quite personal. It turns out that the only common thread I could identify was ephemeral: the essayist had to "capture" his or her state. He or she had to transport you, make you feel you could see, hear, smell the things being described. That is probably true of most good writing, though I was surprised by the names that failed to accomplish this.Brian asked me what my favorite section was. Paul Greenberg's Alaska stands out, but I would be lying if I didn't admit I favored Florida. I was deeply offended to discover that the Florida chapter's author was born and raised not in Florida, but in Danville, IL, until age 11 (at which point he did, in fact, move to the Keys). From there he proceeded to attend the University of Iowa (?) and receive an MFA (MFA!) in writing from UC-Irvine. This gentleman was going to tell the story of my Florida? I think not. But all was forgotten when he revealed that he won a writing contest sponsored by Jimmy Buffett, and as such won a tour of the local Keys with Buffett himself. His essay made me laugh, tear up, and nod knowingly, thoroughly recognizing my crazy state and all that I love about it. That, in the end, is what what I was really looking for.
markfinl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I tried to read this book four or five months ago, but I noticed that the cover of the book has a banner that says: Take Pride In Your County. Well, taking pride in America has been impossible for the last eight years, so I realized I had to wait until after the election to see if reading the book would be possible. I am glad that I read it after all. Each entry is written by a different writer with a connection, sometimes tenuous, to the state in question. The writers have been given great latitude in what they can write. Because of this, some entries are much better than others. Some amount to nothing more than a writer describing what it was like to grow up in a certain part of a state, while others have a broader historical sweep. Personal memoirs are not necessarily bad, however, and neither does historical mean good. The weakest entry is Kentucky's, which tells tells the story of an obscure historical figure. On the other hand, Joshua Ferris's entry on Florida-nothing more than the story of his growing up in the Florida Keys in the 70s and 80s, is one the best. Now that we can all take pride in our country again, reading this book is a great way to be reminded of why America is a great country.
cbl_tn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this collection of essays as a companion to the 50 states reading challenge. After I completed a book for a state, I read the essay about that state. Although it took more than two years to read the book that way, I think the pace was suited to the nature of the book. It's the sort of book you periodically dip into, rather than one you read in the span of a few days.The book was inspired by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration. The editors commissioned essays on each state, instructing the writers to ¿Tell us a story about your state, the more personal the better, something that catches the essence of the place...The kind of story the enlisted soldier tells his boot-camp bunkmate about back home.¿ The authors followed these instructions. The only similarity among the essays is their length. The content highlights the diversity that still exists in the U.S.A few of the essays were so negative that they quenched any desire I might have had to visit that state. Other essays made me want to hop in the car and head for that state to experience what the author had experienced there. My favorite essays include ¿Georgia¿ by Ha Jin, ¿Missouri¿ by Jacki Lyden, ¿New York¿ by Jonathan Franzen, and ¿Ohio¿ by Susan Orlean. There's enough variety in the collection that there is surely something that will appeal to every reader. It would be a great gift, especially for those hard to buy for people on your gift list.
RBHolb More than 1 year ago
Very disappointing overall. The selection of writers for some states left me scratching my head: there must be someone who has spent more than two weeks in South Dakota who can write; Anthony Bourdain is just tiresome. A number of the essays were collections of cliches (I would LOVE to see something written about Minnesota that does not mention Garrison Keillor).
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