State by State

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State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
First edition
AuthorMatt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, eds.
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover, paperback)

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America is a collection of pieces about the United States, with one essay on each of the fifty states. It was conceived of and edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey.


Weiland and Wilsey stated that they were inspired by the Federal Writers Project of the 1930s, in which the US government helped to create jobs by sending writers across the country and commissioning pieces on their sights and experiences. The two previously edited Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, in which they commissioned 32 authors to write pieces on the 32 countries competing in the 2006 World Cup; they decided a similar approach could be taken with the United States.

Both Weiland and Wilsey decided that they wanted a mixture of approaches for the collection; while several well-known authors (e.g., Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Dave Eggers) were included, they deliberately avoided certain authors that were closely associated with a particular state - for instance, Garrison Keillor with Minnesota, or Carl Hiaasen with Florida. The collection has a mix of familiarity, with some authors writing about places in which they have lived their entire lives, while others visited the state for the first time.

Editing process[edit]

Editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey both agree that they were heavy, interactive editors. "I mean no dishonor to any of the writers to say that we worked very closely with them all to revise as much as possible, to make every piece as lasting and solid and convincing as possible," Weiland told Bookslut. "And I take great pride in that kind of work. I've done it on The Baffler and on Granta and now at The Paris Review. And to Sean, likewise, that means a lot to him—he did it at The New Yorker and continues to do it for McSweeney's....I think [the writers] saw very quickly we wanted to make a book that would still be read decades from now...and that meant...not even taking their A-minus work, but pushing them for their absolute best." Each essay, Weiland said, went through at least six rounds of edits.

Editorial point of view[edit]

Weiland told Bookslut that State by State had served for both its editors as "a kind of reminder of the many things we [as Americans] have to be confident about.... Despite many reasons not to feel optimistic, chiefly during the last eight years of the Bush administration—deep down, I think we’re all right." Wilsey told Brooklyn Rail that he was sorry the late David Foster Wallace had declined to be in the book: "Nobody gets at what makes America the extravagantly sad country it is like Wallace did." Asked whether he hates any states, Wilsey replied, "I hate Maine. I hate New England. It's so claustrophobic, no vistas, the landscape is constantly choking you. The people in New England just don't seem kind; they're all hardened and beaten down by the harsh winters. As a Californian, you're not always kind, but you're always nice, and within the framework of niceness you can either be mellow or stoked. I'm a stoked Californian. New England somehow flattens that. Granted, I went to boarding school there for three years, and those were some of the worst years of my life, so that's probably a big part of my dislike for it."

Presentation to Barack Obama[edit]

As he documented in an essay for The Guardian, Sean Wilsey personally presented a copy of State by State to Barack Obama in late 2008. Wilsey was invited to attend an event after donating his portion of the advance for the book to Obama's campaign. "When he turned to shake my hand, for some reason I chose to address him by his first name, saying, 'Barack, I brought you this book.'" Six photographs were taken of the handover. "As I handed it to him I was thinking we, all of us, did this for you. I think you can see that in the [accompanying] picture." Obama was very interested in the book and began reading it in front of Wilsey.

Distribution to schools and related coverage[edit]

Select institutions received complimentary copies of State by State. Many educators received the book with respectful interest and enthusiasm. On the website The Millions, a teacher asked whether he should assign the book in his 21st century literature class. It was one of four tomes he was considering; the others were "[Charles] Bock's Beautiful Children, [Joshua] Ferris' Then We Came to the End, and Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. "My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game." Millions contributor Edan Lepucki responded, "Of the four you're considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers."

Professor Tyler Cowen, on the site Marginal Revolution: Small Steps to a Much Better World, noted that he was thinking of assigning State by State to his graduate students at Berlin's Freie Universität along with Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Manhattan's progressive Calhoun School used State by State for its Upper School students in 2012 as required summer reading. The school assigned fifteen essays, two of which are graphic essays, or comic strips. "There's interesting material in every essay and we are certain that this book will spark a wide variety of interesting conversations between students, teachers and parents," the school noted on its website.

Matt Weiland and two of his writers were hosted by a Milwaukee high school for a reading at an assembly. "I wasn't sure what high school students would make of it, but we were careful to select the pieces with the most drinking and the most sex," Weiland told Bookslut. Columbia, the alumni magazine of Columbia University, of which Weiland is a graduate, profiled him in an article called "This Land Is Weiland" and praised him as "a consummate intellectual".


Afterword: Washington, D.C. - A Conversation with Edward P. Jones

External links[edit]