Carroll Van West. Tennessee's New Deal Landscape: A Guidebook. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001. xiv + 281 pp. $18.50 (paper), ISBN 978-1-57233-108-2; $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57233-107-5.
Reviewed by Edward G. Salo (Geo-Marine, Inc)
Published on H-Tennessee (September, 2002)
Creating a Modern Tennessee through the New Deal
Creating a Modern Tennessee through the New Deal
When most people think of the New Deal's impact on Tennessee, the concrete dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) are the image that comes to mind. However, like many states, Tennessee's public landscape was drastically affected in other ways by a variety of New Deal projects. In Tennessee's New Deal Landscape, Dr. Carroll Van West, project director for the Center for Historic Preservation, Middle Tennessee State University, examines over 250 of Tennessee's historic sites constructed during the New Deal and uses that information to catalogue how Depression-era federal government work changed the built environment of the state. West's book serves both as a heritage tourism guidebook and as a scholarly work. It also succeeds in illustrating how "New Deal agencies transformed the state's public landscape, leaving in their wake the infrastructure for the emergence of a modern--and different--Tennessee" (p. xii).
Students of Tennessee's cultural landscapes and historic preservation will be familiar with West's earlier scholarship. Because of his work at the Center for Historic Preservation, West has either written about or is familiar with most of the New Deal historic properties in the state. His previous book, Tennessee's Historic Landscapes, is the definitive study on the different historic landscapes across the state. West's new contribution focuses exclusively on the historic properties that were constructed during the New Deal era in Tennessee. He has mined both primary and secondary sources on Tennessee's New Deal experience, including TVA records, the WPA guidebook on Tennessee, cultural resource reports, and National Register of Historic Properties nominations to produce a similarly authoritative examination of the state during the 1930s.
In his first chapter, West presents a short thematic history of the New Deal, identifying the ten major New Deal agencies that worked in Tennessee. Unlike his previous book, which looked at the state's regions, he divides New Deal Landscapes into chapters based on the resource's property type. The next seven chapters include discussions of state offices and county courthouses; federal courthouses and post offices; community buildings and institutions; schools; housing; parks, memorials, and museums; and infrastructure. Each chapter contains a short narrative focusing on political, cultural, and social patterns that influenced the resources, as well as individual descriptions of other examples across the state, organized alphabetically by county. By not designating the properties as belonging to West, Middle, and East Tennessee, West makes his information accessible to those unfamiliar with Tennessee's traditional geographic divisions. A bibliographical essay also directs readers to important sources for further research.
West makes it clear in his preface that the book is not comprehensive. The examples he uses are fairly divided between the rural and urban sections of the state. Many of the properties discussed in the chapters are representative and are not the only examples in the state. The identification and description of New Deal property types, however, is one of the book's strengths, making it easier for local historians to examine Depression-era landscape and distinguish significant buildings.
The examples that West uses illustrate two interpretations of the New Deal in Tennessee: construction and destruction. Although many projects created new buildings, some, such as the TVA dams, also destroyed rural areas and displaced people from their traditional homes. Additionally, the construction of TVA lakes disrupted rural life, while also laying the groundwork for Tennessee's economic growth during World War II and the Cold War. This dichotomy shaped many Tennesseans' attitude toward the federal government both during and after the New Deal years.
Although the book's only problems are cosmetic in nature, a few changes would have helped the reader. First, all of the pictures in the book are modern, but many readers would appreciate historic views of some of the buildings. Additionally, sidebars with brief descriptions of architectural elements or styles (for example, WPA Moderne style) would have made the book more accessible to laymen. Also, with the growing interest in environmental history, West's discussion of the creation of state parks and soil conservation only begs for more study.
The study of New Deal landscape has bloomed during the 1990s. Many state historic preservation offices have developed New Deal theme studies to assist in placing 1930s properties on the National Register of Historic Places. Although these theme studies are helpful for historic preservation planning, they are not easily accessible to the public. Public historians should use West's book as an example on how better to communicate historic landscapes to the general public. The book takes "gray literature" and presents it in a manner that is useful. The framework that West has developed also lends itself to other possible historic themes, such as railroads, military, agriculture, industrial, and ethnic landscapes. This book should be read by public historians not only for the content but also for the methodology.
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Edward G. Salo. Review of West, Carroll Van, Tennessee's New Deal Landscape: A Guidebook.
H-Tennessee, H-Net Reviews.
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