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Vardis Fisher on Boise

Vardis Fisher on Boise

Rediscovered Books will soon release Vardis Fisher’s Boise, a never-before-published manuscript by Idaho novelist Vardis Fisher. Written in 1938 for the Federal Writers’ Project, Fisher never found a sponsor for this guidebook to Boise, so it sat forgotten in the Library of Congress for 80 years. Through his research on Caxton Printers, Albertsons Library archivist Alessandro Meregaglia located the manuscript in the Library of Congress’s archives last year. Meregaglia edited the text, found historic photographs to illustrate it, and wrote the introduction.

Following is an excerpt from Meregaglia’s introductory essay that appears in the published volume. The book will be released this evening, Thursday, January 30, at 7:00 p.m. at Rediscovered’s downtown Boise location (8th and Idaho St.).

Discovering the Forgotten Fisher Manuscript
By Alessandro Meregaglia

Alessandro Meregaglia

Alessandro Meregaglia, photo Patrick Sweeney

If it weren’t for a few clues that hinted at its existence, the manuscript may have stayed hidden in a box for eighty more years. Requiring an archival expedition, the path that led to the manuscript’s discovery started with my research into Caxton Printers. As an archivist at Boise State University, I was intrigued by Caxton’s history as a publisher in the West who competed successfully against Eastern publishers.

Through my research, I looked into Caxton’s involvement with Fisher and all of the published Federal Writers’ Project books. Reading about the history of the Idaho Guide in Jerre Mangione’s The Dream and the Deal, I first learned about unpublished manuscripts produced by the FWP. There, on page 370, was a footnote with a revealing quotation from Vardis Fisher: “At the time of my resignation, I had three more books in manuscript, two large and one small . . . I have no idea where these manuscripts are—buried somewhere, I assume, under the monstrous bureaucracy in Washington.” It was from that small footnote that I managed eventually to track down the Boise Guide.

Intrigued by these unpublished manuscripts and hoping they had been saved, I looked into Mangione’s papers, which are located at the University of Rochester, to get more information. I requested copies of Mangione’s and Fisher’s correspondence as well as the tapes of their interview. In the interview I heard Fisher say he had written a guide to Boise. Knowing that there had at one point been a manuscript propelled me further. I learned that the Library of Congress possessed a huge collection of WPA records, but I knew that the National Archives and Records Administration had WPA records as well. I found the inventory for the WPA records housed at the Library of Congress. There, tucked between folders for Florida and Indiana, was the only digital record of the Boise Guide manuscript.

Vardis Fisher

In August 2018, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to consult the collection. To my great delight, Box A562 did indeed contain the manuscript for Fisher’s Boise Guide. In fact, it contained two copies: one was a carbon copy that Fisher must have kept in his office in Idaho, and the other was the copy with editorial comments from the national office (that wasn’t returned until 1940 and then was obviously sent back to D.C.). The edit from the federal office slashed straight through Fisher’s voice.

In many ways, it’s fortuitous that the Guide was never published. Had the edits been adopted (as they most surely would have if a sponsor had ever been secured, since Fisher was no longer attached to the Idaho Writers’ project and could register no objection), they would have rendered the Guide useful but unimaginative.

In 1942, essayist and historian Bernard DeVoto wrote about the importance of “the enormous mass of data” the FWP gathered. He worried these unpublished manuscripts would be destroyed as “waste paper” but noted that if the documents were “organized, indexed, and made available to . . . historians they can be immensely valuable.”

The success of not only finding Fisher’s manuscript but bringing it out in print illustrates DeVoto’s claim about the importance of the WPA records. The history of the Boise Guide is drawn from correspondence found in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which holds most of the correspondence for the Federal Writers’ Project not held by the Library of Congress. The original cover for this Guide, drawn by William Runyan, was discovered in Fisher’s papers held by Yale University’s Beinecke Library.

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