The Real Literary Washington, D.C.

  • January 18, 2013

With the imminent re-inauguration of President Obama, all eyes — even literary ones — turn to the nation’s capital. Here are our choices to represent the literary canon of Washington, D.C.

With the imminent re-inauguration of President Obama, all eyes — even literary ones — turn to the nation’s capital.  To mark the occasion, The Washington Post created a “literary introduction to Washington.” Maybe it was only a coincidence that the selected volumes prominently included memoirs by the mother of the Post’s current chairman of the board and by its former executive editor. Maybe not. We join critic Mark Athitakis in thinking the job could have been far better done. (The Post’s list includes House Mouse, Senate Mouse, detailing the adventures of the Squeaker of the House and the Senate Mouse-jority leader — seriously?)

Who better to take up the challenge than your doughty editors at the Independent? Washington’s literary world has been a rich one, reflecting a diverse community that also happens to be the center of the Free World. Herewith, our nominees (a couple of which even overlap with the Post’s list).


Washington, Village and Capital, 1800-1878, by Constance McLaughlin Green. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1963, this engaging work chronicles the city’s transformation from a burst — and rather soggy — real estate bubble to a vibrant city with a distinctive culture.


Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile. Not just a movie starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, but the true story of a congressman and a covert CIA operation that puts fictional accounts to shame. From the Department of How Things Actually Work.

Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones. Set in Washington’s black neighborhoods in the ’60s and ’70s, these short stories by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author show the daily struggles of residents who are far removed from the tourist landmarks and national politics.

All The President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. How do you drive a president from office after his landslide re-election? Follow the money straight to his dirtiest deeds! (OK, OK, they wrote for the Post, but they didn’t run it or own it.)


Washington at Home, Kathryn Schneider Smith, editor. With magical photographs of humble everyday scenes, this volume offers a refreshing contrast to the view of Washington as a sterile place of marbled monuments and museums. It’s a panoramic mosaic of the city’s social history, broken down into 26 neighborhoods.


The Five of Hearts, by Patricia O’Toole. This intimate group biography of historian Henry Adams and a small circle of friends evocatively captures the intersection of Washington’s literary, scientific and government worlds in the late 19th century.  (A great companion volume is Natalie Dykstra’s recent Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, which uses Clover’s own photographs to illuminate the tragic suicide of a woman celebrated for her intelligence and wit.)

Democracy, an American Novel, by Henry Adams. His great-grandfather was the first president to live in the White House; his grandfather was the sixth president. When Adams’ heroine, Mrs. Lee, comes to Washington after the Civil War to learn about power, the eventual disillusionment is total. Voted all-time favorite Washington novel by readers at

Shame the Devil, by George Pelecanos. Home-grown and steeped in moral ambiguity, Pelecanos’ riveting crime novels have steadily won a national readership. Though the author writes great television scripts about Baltimore (“The Wire”) and New Orleans (“Tremé”), his novels still dwell in the social conflicts of D.C.’s grittiest neighborhoods, where they belong.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo, by Marjorie Williams. A preeminent profiler of Washington politicos, Marjorie Williams specialized in capturing the essence of those who ran the capital — or at least thought they did — at the turn of the most recent century. These essays reveal lobbyists, presidents, columnists, ambassadors and many more, in fascinating detail and stylish prose.  (Oh, all right, she wrote for the Post also.)

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro. This fourth volume of Caro’s monumental biography takes readers from LBJ’s time as Senate majority leader through the first few months of his presidency. With unflinching honesty, the book shows LBJ as both a cutthroat backwoods politician and an idealistic executive determined to achieve sweeping social change. See Walter Stahr’s review in the Independent.

The Black History of the White House, by Clarence Lusane. Barack Obama is just the most recent black American to work in the White House. Lusane tells of those who served presidents as slaves and free people, cooks and Cabinet members, seamstresses and Secret Service agents. The book presents an often-disturbing picture of the complicated role of race in this country and its capital.


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