What does it mean to love one’s country?
I’ve wrestled often with that question over the last five years, when my country has seemed at times unlovable and even despicable. I’ve wanted to believe that my fellow citizens were, in spite of everything, truly good at heart, as Anne Frank put it. But it was a challenge.
I didn’t like stewing in sourness and anger. I wanted to revive my sense of hope and my capacity to love. And so I opened a box of books that I’d stowed on a high shelf in a closet — books that I’d labored on, and been deeply invested in, more than 20 years ago.
Art of the State was an ambitious publishing project launched and directed by my friends Diana Landau and Linda Herman, the San Francisco editor and designer behind Walking Stick Press, a boutique book-packaging company. They’d proposed the project — a series of mini–coffee table books, one per state, depicting the state’s “natural and manmade wonders, its historical and cultural high points”— to Harry N. Abrams Company (now Abrams Books), a prestigious New York publisher specializing in art books, and Abrams gave them the green light, along with money for writers, editors, art researchers, and reprint rights. Work began in 1998.
I was one of the writers and editors. Of the 20 books that were ultimately published before Abrams decided that the series, though worthy and beautiful, was just too expensive to produce, I worked on five. I edited and wrote supplemental text for the New Mexico and Maryland titles. And I researched and wrote the California, Washington, and Louisiana books, finding song lyrics, poems, recipes, and folk art; creating lists of important and out-of-the-way museums, galleries, and public gardens; choosing notable artists, dancers, musicians, and writers to spotlight; and distilling history, culture, and geography to a few informative yet lyrical paragraphs. Each book was an exercise in disciplined miniaturism: the books were just five and a half by six and a quarter inches in size, and just 96 pages long. The editing process was itself an art.
California is my native state, and I’d recently spent some time in Washington, so I was able to do armchair research, even in the proto-internet late 1990s, on those volumes. I lucked out with Louisiana: I had already planned my first-ever visit to New Orleans, for a conference, and I arranged to tour some museums and galleries and to talk with curators during my stay.
Before my trip, I confess I hadn’t thought much about the arts in Louisiana beyond xydeco, jambalaya, and plantations. I was happy to expand my horizons. I met the genial entrepreneur Roger H. Ogden, who had created the Ogden Museum of Southern Art to share his formidable collection with the public and who graciously guided me through its highlights. I saw above-ground cemeteries and death-themed paintings and jewelry: so much death, and so much laughing in its face. Back home, I immersed myself in Louisiana’s complex and fascinating racial and social history: the Creole and Cajun cultures, the Code Noir and the Napoleonic Code, Huey Long and Ernest Gaines and Louis Armstrong and Clementine Hunter, “the black Grandma Moses.”
Yes, the Art of the State books are boosterish — governors’ wives bought them in bulk to pass out to guests — but they are also frank and balanced. Women voted in Washington in the 1880s, when it was still a territory, I wrote, and by the early 20th century Washingtonians enjoyed free public schooling and workers compensation: “But other minorities suffered, especially Native Americans — forced by treaty to give up their livelihoods and move to reservations — and Chinese. The latter, who came to work on the railroads and stayed on in low-paying service jobs, were the targets of ‘Sinophobe’ violence in the 1880s. Many were expelled from their homes and businesses.”
Working on the books then, and revisiting them now, I fell in love with the places they celebrate: with New Mexico’s mountains and New Jersey’s bogs, with Baltimore’s Public Works Museum and Sioux City’s Corn Palace. Stuck in Oakland during a pandemic, I leaf through the Art of the State books and feel as though I’m on a cross-country train trip, seeing each state at eye level instead of from 35,000 feet high.
We grieved when we couldn’t complete the series with the remaining 30 states: South Dakota and Nebraska and Mississippi and all the others deserve to be honored, too. But with the volumes that we produced — all still available, deeply discounted, somewhere on the internet — we achieved something beautiful and meaningful. Beyond the paintings and photographs and poetry in each book, we saluted our fellow Americans: people of imagination and creativity and generosity, people who cared about their land and one another, who worked hard and found ingenious, often hilarious ways to play.
On a fraught and unhappy election eve, I can’t ignore America’s deep flaws. But I can celebrate my country’s beauty and my fellow citizens’ strengths. That, and these books, will have to sustain me for now.