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Washington’s writerly class is easy to deride: Scribes who’ve never met a dependent clause they didn’t like, publishers who know there’s always room in the market for another tome on the future of Social Security, literary scenesters whose calendars revolve around book parties celebrating the memoirs of superannuated Capitol Hill bureau chiefs.
Like a lot of transplants, Christopher Sten arrived in the District 40 years ago with a version of that caricature in his head. But in Sten’s case, it wasn’t just the act of putting down roots that exposed him to the city’s less wonky currents. A George Washington University English professor—he’s an expert on Herman Melville—Sten kept coming across literary depictions of the city in his professional work.
“I began to discover that virtually all of the authors in the 19th century whose work I was teaching had been here for one reason or the other,” he says.
Sten spent chunks of the past decade pulling together the passages that, this month, were published as an anthology called Literary Capital: A Washington Reader (University of Georgia Press). A glance through the book—which opens with Abigail Adams, closes with Joan Didion, and along the way visits Walt Whitman, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, and George P. Pelecanos—offers some familiar themes to contemporaries: There are cosmopolitans moaning about being marooned in a swamp, strivers wowed by federal grandeur, lamentations about racism, and digressions into the sort of ordinary American domesticity that’s often hidden beneath the federal city’s national narrative.
In fact, a lot of the work explodes the old dichotomy between federal Washington and hometown D.C.: The “Washington novels” about national politics, many of them written by literary stars who did stints in federal jobs, often have vivid depictions of local life; and the works by locally bred types are shot through with the broad political themes of their day.
One character that’s all over the place, though, is the city itself. One day, it’s a southern backwater. Another, it’s a den of crooked cynics. It’s a city of great hope and a place of betrayal—sometimes all at once. Who knows: A future edition of the anthology could feature characters grappling with a condo bubble or paranoid literary fantasies about a Tea Party takeover. “It’s fabricated anew by each author,” Sten says. —Michael Schaffer
All literary excerpts appear in Literary Capital: A Washington Reader, edited by Christopher Sten and published this month by the University of Georgia Press. Sten will discuss the book on July 16 at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202)-364-1919.
Visitors to the brand-new capital city of the early 1800s wrote about themes that will be familiar to contemporaries, too: On the one hand, James Fenimore Cooper was describing the “constant round of banqueting, reveling, and dancing” in the federal city; on the other, Margaret Bayard Smith was capturing the miseries of poor Irish immigrants and free blacks scratching out an existence beyond the capital; and, of course, Europeans were complaining about being stuck in Podunk “purgatory.” Of course, there are some novelties, too, like George Watterston’s commentary on the presence of prostitutes in the Capitol’s visitor galleries. Most of all, though, the written record features descriptions of a city that was still coming into being—and still centuries away from a real estate boom—like this lament from Abigail Adams:
To Mrs. Smith.
Washington, 21 November, 1800
My Dear Child,
I arrived here on Sunday last, and without meeting with any accident worth noticing, except losing ourselves when we left Baltimore, and going eight or nine miles on the Frederick road, by which means we were obliged to go the other eight through woods, where we wandered two hours without finding a guide, or the path. Fortunately, a straggling black came up with us, and we engaged him as a guide, to extricate us out of our difficulty; but woods are all you see, from Baltimore until you reach the city, which is only so in name. Here and there is a small cot[tage], without a glass window, interspersed amongst the forests, through which you travel miles without seeing any human being. In the city there are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it; but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort for them. The river, which runs up to Alexandria, is in full view of my window, and I see the vessels as they pass and repass. The house is upon a grand and superb scale, requiring about thirty servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order, and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables; an establishment very well proportioned to the President’s salary. …[L]ighting the apartments, from the kitchen to parlours and chambers, is a tax indeed; and the fires we are obliged to keep to secure us from daily agues is another very cheering comfort. To assist us in this great castle, and render less attendance necessary, bells are wholly wanting, not one single one being hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain. This is so great an inconvenience, that I know not what to do, or how to do. The ladies from Georgetown and in the city have many of them visited me. Yesterday I returned fifteen visits,—but such a place as Georgetown appears—why, our Milton is beautiful. But no comparisons;—if they will put me up some bells, and let me have wood enough to keep fires, I design to be pleased. I could content myself almost anywhere three months; but, surrounded with forests, can you believe that wood is not to be had, because people cannot be found to cut and cart it! Briesler entered into a contract with a man to supply him with wood. A small part, a few cords only, has he been able to get. Most of that was expended to dry the walls of the house before we came in, and yesterday the man told him it was impossible for him to procure it to be cut and carted. He has had recourse to coals; but we cannot get grates made and set. We have, indeed, come into a new country.
You must keep all this to yourself, and, when asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful, which is true. The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished, and all withinside, except the plastering, has been done since Briesler came. We have not the least fence, yard, or other convenience, without, and the great unfinished audience-room I make a drying-room of, to hang up the clothes in. . . . If the twelve years, in which this place has been considered as the future seat of government, had been improved, as they would have been if in New England, very many of the present inconveniences would have been removed. It is a beautiful spot, capable of every improvement, and, the more I view it, the more I am delighted with it….
Affectionately your mother,
By the mid-19th century, the debate over slavery dominated the country, influencing much of the writing about D.C. from the era. Like all wars, the Civil War transformed the city, with writers like Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott leaving behind portraits of the District in its wartime garrison-town incarnation. Nathaniel Hawthorne, meanwhile, noted that Washington had been removed from the culture of the South—a proclamation plenty of writers have echoed in the decades since. But before all that there was slavery, something that William Wells Brown, the Kentucky-born son of a white man and a slave woman, captured in a recently recovered book that’s believed to be the first full-length novel written by an African American:
There are, in the District of Columbia, several slave prisons, or “negro pens,” as they are termed. These prisons are mostly occupied by persons to keep their slaves in, when collecting their gangs together for the New Orleans market. Some of them belong to the government, and one, in particular, is noted for having been the place where a number of free coloured persons have been incarcerated from time to time. In this district is situated the capitol of the United States. Any free coloured persons visiting Washington, if not provided with papers asserting and proving their right to be free, may be arrested and placed in one of these dens. If they succeed in showing that they are free, they are set at liberty, provided they are able to pay the expenses of their arrest and imprisonment; if they cannot pay these expenses, they are sold out. Through this unjust and oppressive law, many persons born in the Free States have been consigned to a life of slavery on the cotton, sugar, or rice plantations of the Southern States. By order of her master, Clotel was removed from Richmond and placed in one of these prisons, to await the sailing of a vessel for New Orleans. The prison in which she was put stands midway between the capitol at Washington and the president’s house. Here the fugitive saw nothing but slaves brought in and taken out, to be placed in ships and sent away to the same part of the country to which she herself would soon be compelled to go. She had seen or heard nothing of her daughter while in Richmond, and all hope of seeing her now had fled. If she was carried back to New Orleans, she could expect no mercy from her master.
At the dusk of the evening previous to the day when she was to be sent off, as the old prison was being closed for the night, she suddenly darted past her keeper, and ran for her life. It is not a great distance from the prison to the Long Bridge, which passes from the lower part of the city across the Potomac, to the extensive forests and woodlands of the celebrated Arlington Place. . . . Thither the poor fugitive directed her flight. So unexpected was her escape, that she had quite a number of rods the start before the keeper had secured the other prisoners, and rallied his assistants in pursuit. It was at an hour when, and in a part of the city where, horses could not be readily obtained for the chase; no bloodhounds were at hand to run down the flying woman; and for once it seemed as though there was to be a fair trial of speed and endurance between, the slave and the slave-catchers.
The Gilded Age was not an age of big government, though it shaped decades’ worth of writing about Washington all the same. The years after the Civil War saw the birth of the “Washington novel,” usually a tale of ambition, patronage, and crookedness. Yes, serious commentators weighed in on the dubious condition of the federal government—and no less an authority than Henry James praised the District as a “city of conversation,” in contrast to the vulgar commercial towns in the rest of the country. But mainly, it was a time when writing about Washington demanded satire, and writers like Mark Twain set the tone:
WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 1867.
I have resigned. The Government appears to go on much the same, but there is a spoke out of its wheel, nevertheless. I was clerk of the Senate Committee on Conchology, and I have thrown up the position. I could see the plainest disposition on the part of the other members of the Government to debar me from having any voice in the counsels of the nation, and so I could no longer hold office and retain my self-respect. If I were to detail all the outrages that were heaped upon me during the six days that I was connected with the Government in an official capacity, the narrative would fill a volume. They appointed me clerk of that Committee on Conchology, and then allowed me no amanuensis to play billiards with. I would have borne that, lonesome as it was, if I had met with that courtesy from the other members of the Cabinet which was my due. But I did not. Whenever I observed that the head of a department was pursuing a wrong course, I laid down everything and went and tried to set him right, as it was my duty to do; and I never was thanked for it in a single instance. I went, with the best intentions in the world, to the Secretary of the Navy, and said:
“Sir, I cannot see that Admiral Farragut is doing anything but skirmishing around there in Europe, having a sort of picnic. Now, that may be all very well, but it does not exhibit itself to me in that light. If there is no fighting for him to do, let him come home. There is no use in a man having a whole fleet for a pleasure excursion. It is too expensive. Mind, I do not object to pleasure excursions for the naval officers — pleasure excursions that are in reason — pleasure excursions that are economical. Now they might go down the Mississippi on a raft—”
You ought to have heard him storm! One would have supposed I had committed a crime of some kind. But I didn’t mind. I said it was cheap, and full of republican simplicity, and perfectly safe. I said that, for a tranquil pleasure excursion, there was nothing equal to a raft.
After emancipation, Washington was a beacon of hope for African Americans, the home of Howard University—and a place where radical Republicans in Congress had forced through laws helping them access education, jobs, salaries, and even public transportation. But the era quickly faded; Jim Crow emerged and Paul Laurence Dunbar called the city “a hard, white liar.” Against this cruel backdrop, though, a vibrant black culture emerged. One sign of its vigor: It had its own outspoken internal critics, like Langston Hughes, who denounced it as “bourgeois” and imitative of white culture. And it was also a time when fiction about the life of local African Americans began to appear, like this tale by Colored American Magazine editor Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins:
General Washington did any odd jobs he could find around the Washington market, but his specialty was selling chitlins.
General Washington lived in the very shady atmosphere of Murderer’s Bay in the capital city. All that he could remember of father or mother in his ten years of miserable babyhood was that they were frequently absent from the little shanty where they were supposed to live, generally after a protracted spell of drunkenness and bloody quarrels when the police were forced to interfere for the peace of the community. During these absences, the child would drift from one squalid home to another wherever a woman—God save the mark!—would take pity upon the poor waif and throw him a few scraps of food for his starved stomach, or a rag of a shawl, apron or skirt, in winter, to wrap about his attenuated little body.
One night the General’s daddy being on a short vacation in the city, came home to supper; and because there was no supper to eat, he occupied himself in beating his wife. After that time, when the officers took him, the General’s daddy never returned to his home. The General’s mammy? Oh, she died!
General Washington’s resources developed rapidly after this. Said resources consisted of a pair of nimble feet dancing the hoe-down, shuffles intricate and dazzling, and the Juba; a strong pair of lungs, a wardrobe limited to a pair of pants originally made for a man, and tied about the ankles with strings, a shirt with one gallows, a vast amount of “brass,” and a very, very small amount of nickel. His education was practical: “Ef a corn-dodger costs two cents, an’ a fellar hain’t got de two cents, how’s he gwine ter git do corn-dodger?”
General Washington ranked first among the knights of the pavement. He could shout louder and hit harder than any among them; that was the reason they called him “Buster” and “the General.” The General could swear, too; I am sorry to admit it, but the truth must be told.
He uttered an oath when he caught a crowd of small white aristocrats tormenting a kitten. The General landed among them in quick time and commenced knocking heads at a lively rate. Presently he was master of the situation, and marched away triumphantly with the kitten in his arms, followed by stones and other missiles which whirled about him through space from behind the safe shelter of back yards and street corners.
The General took the kitten home. Home was a dry-goods box turned on end and filled with straw for winter. . . .
One of the biggest challenges in writing about D.C. is twinning the public city—the one where the news cycle is dominated by new administrations arriving and leaving—with the private one, where generations of private citizens, authors included, have grown up, put down roots, and called themselves locals. Locally-bred writers like Jean Toomer, Marita Golden, Edward P. Jones, and George Pelecanos have thrived, often without paying more than passing attention to politics. Others, including such nationally prominent figures as Sinclair Lewis and Willa Cather, made extended stays, and wrote memorably about the ordinary or marginalized characters—people like the anxious young government clerk and his wife in Cather’s The Professor’s House, or Carol Kennicott from Lewis’ Main Street.
She found employment in the Bureau of War Risk Insurance. Though the armistice with Germany was signed a few weeks after her coming to Washington, the work of the bureau continued. She filed correspondence all day; then she dictated answers to letters of inquiry. It was an endurance of monotonous details, yet she asserted that she had found “real work.” …
Washington gave her all the graciousness in which she had had faith: white columns seen across leafy parks, spacious avenues, twisty alleys. Daily she passed a dark square house with a hint of magnolias and a courtyard behind it, and a tall curtained second-story window through which a woman was always peering. The woman was mystery, romance, a story which told itself differently every day; now she was a murderess, now the neglected wife of an ambassador. It was mystery which Carol had most lacked in Gopher Prairie, where every house was open to view, where every person was but too easy to meet, where there were no secret gates opening upon moors over which one might walk by moss-deadened paths to strange high adventures in an ancient garden.
As she flitted up Sixteenth Street after a Kreisler recital, given late in the afternoon for the government clerks, as the lamps kindled in spheres of soft fire, as the breeze flowed into the street, fresh as prairie winds and kindlier, as she glanced up the elm alley of Massachusetts Avenue, as she was rested by the integrity of the Scottish Rite Temple, she loved the city as she loved no one save Hugh. She encountered negro shanties turned into studios, with orange curtains and pots of mignonette; marble houses on New Hampshire Avenue, with butlers and limousines; and men who looked like fictional explorers and aviators. Her days were swift, and she knew that in her folly of running away she had found the courage to be wise.