Literary Capital: A Washington Reader
- Christopher Sten
- University of Georgia Press
- 424 pp.
- Reviewed by Barbara Meade
- July 14, 2011
Past and contemporary writers pay tribute to two centuries of cultural life in Washington.
Reviewed by Barbara Meade
In 1963 Constance Green received a Pulitzer Prize for her book Washington: Village and Capital, 1800-1878. Now, a unique new volume of local history, Literary Capital, edited by Christopher Sten, brings a long-overdue and fresh update. In providing it, Sten, who is an English professor at George Washington University, deserves his own prize. For this new volume he has compiled and annotated a selection of writers writing Washington, beginning with the letters, journals and essays written by the first generation of tourists and ending with a vibrant selection of authors who are part of our literary community today, both native and naturalized writers, who, Sten says, are “more consistently devoted to the local scene.” Fiction writers Susan Shreve, Edward Jones and George Pelecanos as well as poets Ethelbert Miller and Reed Whittemore are just a few whose works are excerpted.
Charles Dickens, Frances Trollope and Alexis de Tocqueville were among the early European tourists who arrived to inspect our nation’s capital in its infancy and wrote home about their discoveries. Frances Trollope traveled by steamboat up the Potomac from the Chesapeake Bay and was unexpectedly, and uncharacteristically, pleased. “I was delighted with the whole aspect of Washington: light, cheerful, and airy. ... It has been laughed at by foreigners, and even by natives, because the original plan of the city was upon an enormous scale.” Upon visiting the House of Representatives, Charles Dickens caustically remarks on the lack of refinement in these men who make “the strife of politics so fierce and brutal ... that sensitive and delicate-minded persons be kept aloof.” In the Senate, Dickens is appalled to see so many swollen faces, the result of huge plugs of tobacco stowed within cheeks.
Many prominent writers from New England also visited Washington as sightseers. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his journal that “no act of honour, or benevolence or justice is to be expected from the American government.” In his visit with President Lincoln, Emerson finds Lincoln displaying a boyish cheerfulness; later, visiting with Secretary Seward, he finds the State Department “dingy.” The Massachusetts poet John Greenleaf Whittier describes his horror in visiting the various slave-trading markets in the District, one right in full view of the Capitol, as well as the city prison, where dealers temporarily house slaves. “I left that prison with mingled feelings of shame, sorrow, and indignation, ... compelled to realize the fact that the abominations I looked upon were in the District of Columbia — the chosen home of our republic,” Whittier writes.
During the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman arrived in the city to tend the wounded, and their firsthand accounts of days spent in hospital wards add a deeply human side to the accounts of battle. Nathaniel Hawthorne came for the purpose of providing his own personal account from the battlefront. Mixed in with his anecdotal reports is what is surely one of the most colorful descriptions of the halls and parlors of Willard’s Hotel, which, he observes, is much more the center of Washington than the Capitol, the White House or the State Department and is inhabited by antiquated characters in clothes so obsolete that he thinks they could possibly be Founding Fathers summoned from their graves to bring sanity in ending the war.
Christopher Sten faced a difficult task in anthologizing this polymorphic city by finding the right balance between those who write about the federal capital of the United States as an exciting urban mecca and those for whom Washington is a somewhat somnolent southern hometown. I wish he had tipped the scales a little more in favor of the local landscape, but he has done a magnificent job of presenting a literary kaleidoscope of the multiple facets on display within the city’s borders. Marita Golden, John Dos Passos and Edward P. Jones are just a few of the writers Sten includes whose narratives of city life are filled with richly diverse portraits of Washingtonians, both black and white, as they go about their daily lives. For book lovers who prefer order in their reading, travel the logical route straight through from beginning to end; book browsers who favor dipping into a book can open this treasure to almost any random page and find one of Sten’s engaging selections. My own personal pleasures lie far more in the vibrant displays of local color than with the impressive but lackluster federal grandeur, but it would be hard to find a another book that so magnificently pays better tribute to the two centuries of Washington cultural life than Literary Capital.
Barbara Meade, with Carla Cohen, founded Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., which was described by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic as “one of the world’s great independent bookstores” Barbara recently became owner emeritus but continues to work at the store part time. Born and bred in Washington, Barbara has lived in the Nation’s Capital most of her life.