Our second writer in this series is Arlington-based freelance journalist and researcher Orrin Konheim. (Disclosure: Orrin and I are both members of the critique group Arlington Creative Nonfiction Writers.) Orrin has written for The Washington Times, The Washington Post, NewsNow network, Patch, Northern Virginia and Arlington magazines and has been continuously published in some three dozen publications since October of 2010. This interview was conducted by email in February 2020.
1. Where are you from, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
I'm from Arlington [Virginia] and currently live here now. I'm not thrilled about living in the same town I grew up in at the moment but it does help with connections and sources.
What I do for a living is pretty in flux. I have a bizarre resume. I basically hustle with my writing and hustle to make money however I can which could involve small jobs, applying for larger jobs, trying to land clients, or whatever. In the past two years, I worked concessions for a circus, tried farmer's market stalls, worked for 3 and a half months with the US Census, was in serious consideration for an energy lobbying firm, did some materials writing for a start-up, wrote biographies and marketing materials for a real-estate firm, and worked seasonably for Honey-Baked Ham. I also am certified by the National Archives as an Independent Researcher for Hire. There was roughly a six-month period in 2017 and 2018 when I was entirely self-sufficient on research contracts and that was a pleasant existence.
But I "write for my supper" as the phrase goes and I try not to romanticize it or run away from it. I wake up in the morning and try to assess what the best opportunities are for me, I apply for jobs, I apply for contracts, and a lot of times, it makes sense for me to write an article.
2. How and when did you get into freelance writing?
When I was 17, I applied for a job at Courthouse Plaza and while waiting for my interview I went to the County Board meeting next door. You could say that the curiosity about experiences around me that drives me as a journalist is the same thing that led me to that county board meeting. Sitting next to me was a reporter and as a high school junior needing to stand out in an academically competitive high school I asked him if he had [an] internship. I worked that Summer for him.
I went to two colleges. At the first college, I had two or three invaluable courses on journalism that gave me a base in what journalism is but it was a very small department and the head of the department and I didn't see eye-to-eye. When I transferred, it was a very difficult period in my life and I felt the need to reinvent myself. I couldn't major in journalism without having to cancel out enough of my credits that I wouldn't have graduated on time so I declared a minor in film studies which really gave me a lot of joy. I also found my way into the school newspaper (something I didn't do at the first college for the most part) because I was a cross-country and track runner in high school and a little of college and was wondering why they didn't cover the newspaper. They e-mailed me back and said no one knows how to cover that sport and I could write an article if I wanted. I gave it a shot and they ended up surprised that I knew the style and wasn't in the journalism department so they invited me in and asked me to continue.
After college, I tried writing about film and writing conventional journalism but I mostly failed at first. I was really bad at deadlines and overcoming writer's block. I went to graduate school instead desiring a real job in Washington where you wear one of those security badges and dress up like an adult. After a couple of those and graduate school, I realized that status wasn't all it was cracked up to be and besides no one hired me anyway when I graduated in 2010. I asked the first guy to hire me in high school for a recommendation but he said he couldn't remember my work so he invited me to do an article for him. I did one and then another and somehow landed up at another newspaper across town (Connection Newspapers) in their newsroom eventually. I generally count the start of my reporting career as October of 2010. I've had bylines in roughly three dozen publications professionally since then.
3. Which do you prefer to write for, newspapers, magazines, blogs, or something else? Do you have a particular favorite publication to write for?
It doesn't matter to me as long as they have a good business model. In the past year, two papers I've been a part of and one I was about to write for went out of existence, so I'd like to latch onto things with sustainable models. Then you don't have to feel guilty about taking money from them if they're going downhill. And you can generally tell. For example, in 2011 pretty early into my reporting career as my work at the Connection was unsustainable, AOL invested a bunch of money into something called Patch but they offered so many opportunities to list events and such it seemed obvious that they wouldn't last long.
I generally like publications that are bold enough to ask people to pay or ask for donations because news isn't free and this is one of the most underpaid and stressful occupations. It's a high price to do what you love and it's also not so far from being a fixable problem. When I wrote for sites where you get paid per click, it would generally be a third of a cent per click so if you paid a penny for my article, you would triple my earnings. We're a society that's not incapable of paying money because you appreciate the value of a service (i.e. waiters and cab drivers) and some of us aren't just carrying your breakfast from the kitchen to your table but are literally carrying reports from a war zone to you.
As I've written professionally for three dozen publications there are so many to name and I'll even give it up for a few of the publications on which things didn't go well. I briefly wrote for TV Fanatic and wish that could have lasted longer but I really like what that site does in terms of TV coverage. ArlNow has a great business model and I've been lucky on occasions when they have a freelance budget to contribute stories. I liked TopTenz because it [has] a pretty efficient process of getting stuff on. Connection Newspapers (which is struggling financially, I believe, so please help them) was great at pursuing human interest stories rather than dry news and they really collected the best of all their freelancers’ ideas when I was there. [The] Falls Church News Press really has its finger on the community and generally has some interesting editorials and other features. One could say that Falls Church is better defined because of that paper which is what a good community newspaper should do.
Also a good editor is key.
4. How many articles do you get published per year, on average?
This fluctuates a lot. There was a one-year period from May of 2018 to May of 2019 where I wrote either 43 or 46 a year for about 11 publications and that was probably somewhere towards the high end. The last four months of 2019 were actually quite bad and I was very strongly considering shifting before things started turning around a couple weeks ago. What helps is reading the market. About three weeks ago, some pieces got rejected and I asked the editor why. He said that he gets 100 submissions a week and can only accept three. That was really useful information so I can assess whether the going's too tough to think this is a good path to make money.
For me, I chase pay and often pay per hour. I'm not willing to sacrifice for a prestigious byline at this point because I already have some respectable publications to my name and another one's not gonna make a difference. I also think continuity is highly important because I want to say on LinkedIn or wherever that I'm still active at this or that publication.
There are a few other factors: I once interviewed Roger Moore's stepson (not to name-drop) because he was floating around the idea of looking for a ghost writer and I wanted to get that gig, I once took an article that didn't pay much about a guy who claimed to own the largest sheet music collection in the state and I play the piano only through sheet music (as opposed to playing by ear), I do think it can be great to go to a nice event, I might have already written on the topic which means I can write it more efficiently and things of that nature.
5. Are you a member of any freelancing or journalism groups or professional associations? If so, can you talk a little bit about them—how have they been helpful?
A humongous thing that keeps me going is my support circle of other journalists and writers. Part of it is that the question "what is journalism" and stuff like that has changed a lot over the years, and it's this bizarre and kind of special profession where we all have these wild and awesome experiences, so I want to hear from others what they think. I like having people to bounce things off of and exchange tips with and I generally have something to offer them too. I generally am most likely to bond with someone if they're actively publishing because they're currently experiencing what I'm experiencing. Also because there's some statistic that 80% of people think they have a book in them and have some sort of aspiration, so there are tons of people who say "I write" but they're not actually doing it.
I was a member of the National Press Club but there are a lot of ways to make contacts. I have a very good friend I made from covering the National Spelling Bee and I went on a ski trip with another reporter. And then there's the group where we found each other and that's a lot for me.
One other thing: I have also come to learn something recently about seeking out people and I've evolved with this. In my very early days of wanting to break into the TV market (more specifically writing about TV) I tried to find the people who were publishing at this site I admired so much that I assumed that if you published there, your life was made. Some responded, some didn't and I made a couple good friends through this. But a number of them just made it look easy and sometimes you can be attracted to that small sample of people who through a great pedigree (say Georgetown, Columbia or Northwestern), connections, a little bit of luck, or just being brilliant, are sailing through. They might give you unrealistic expectations about what to expect. I think being in a professional organization like the NPC [National Press Club] also gave me an illusionary take on what the profession was like since they were screening only people who met a very high standard. It's more useful to about their struggles and it's not too hard to see that everyone has them because it's an industry with a lot of flux and chaos, so you're not alone in riding the currents of it. Again, the best thing to be is most aware of the state of the industry.
6. How do you get your ideas for articles?
It's the hardest thing to explain and the question I get asked the most [often]. After more and more practice, I get more attuned to article ideas. I use the saying "once I start looking for articles, it's not like a meteor would fall outside my front door; instead, once a meteor falls outside my front door, my first thought is how could I sell this story." There are a lot of interesting stories out there and if you leave your house and just go about your daily life, you'll come into contact with ideas. Not necessarily a hundred ideas per minute but that's why it's useful to bank ideas up. I have sold stories that I thought of up to eight years prior.
Outside of those flashes of inspiration, there are easier ways to come up with story ideas and they are generally of the more routine variety. You subscribe to media lists on your beat. For me, the Goethe-Institut, Ford's Theatre and Signature Theatre and other places around town are useful for the arts beat and I've actually successfully pitched stuff to Arlington-based publications based on Arlington's own PR newsletter.
The best thing if you're looking for a guaranteed story is if an editor assigns you something which comes about in a variety of circumstances--particularly a good relationship.
7. How do you decide where to pitch? Can you also talk a little about the pitching process in your experience, how it works?
I've heard different versions from different people about how to pitch whether to keep it long or short, or whether to get more flashy or be more descriptive.
I am highly cautious of not overly exerting myself and I'm unapologetic about not writing on spec (giving [away] writing that's unguaranteed) so I'm not going to pitch a whole article, but if I think an article's really got a good shot, I will generally go on the longer side because I want them to have a better idea of my article's strengths. I also link to other sources in the pitch, so they can know that I have good backing for my article idea, or see that this is something that's being buzzed about in other corners of the internet.
If I think the article is a long shot/hail mary pass, I will write it short to avoid overexerting myself. Hopefully, editors won't know the difference :(. I generally worry about whether the article is doable after it gets greenlit. It generally hasn't been a black mark on my reputation, if the article's logistics don't match up because it's usually explainable to alternative circumstances. I wouldn't let it happen more than once and I'm pretty hell-bent on making it work if possible.
8. What do you look for in an editor?
I love it when an editor gives me money, lol. No, but seriously, the editors are the boss, I get that. However, it's a field without job security so you want an editor who can let you know clearly how you are doing. You never know when or if they'll just drop you for [no] reason and why. Editors are very busy and they [have] great stresses in their job. The newspaper industry isn't kind to anyone so it's helpful to remember that. That said an editor is going to have SOME communication with you and clear and fluid communication is good. The better idea they have of what they want and communicating that helps you do well. Beyond that, if they can make your work look better, I'm happy with it.
9. Can you talk a little about other forms or media you've worked in or are interested in working in? Fiction? Drama? Graphic novels? Book-length nonfiction? Audio or video?
Well, obviously, because this is a challenging field to stay stable in, I'm looking to pivot my skill set in sensible ways. Much of my writing is human interest so I've been hired to write biographies of business owners and copy for websites.
Surprisingly, I'm interested lately in writing crossword puzzles because that's a very stable field and I'm good with words. There's a whole subculture out there and I'm involved in it primarily for the financial opportunities.
I also am looking into teaching about journalism or film. I created a Youtube channel recently to potentially pivot in any broadcast journalism markets and simply to be creative.
I have no interest in writing fiction. That's a totally different skill set. I write about movies so often that people do often wonder if I should write a screen-play. I have tried my hand at some humor articles and a couple of those have been in short-skit form. I used to say to myself that I don't want to make movies on principle because it is a legitimate to be a film historian/film critic, but lately i decided not to limit myself like that. There is a famous 48-hour film festival and I think it could be fun and educational to be involved with some short films in whatever capacity even if it's just a line producer.
Bottom line is this: I have the joy of being creative for a living so I don't have the luxury of devoting to my time to being artistic with a capital A to an extent, but the upside is I don't spend 8 hours a day at a job that drains all my energy out of me. It would be foolish for me to pursue pursuits that aren't cost-effective like say spending all day painting or playing the piano when I know those aren't things I can make money off. So for the most part, I do believe that rules out book-writing unless I want to spend a great many months being poor. However, it's possible that I can package material already written into a book.
10. You manage a blog, The Sophomore Critic. Can you talk a bit about the blog and what gets written for it?
I started the blog after I graduated from college with a film minor to try to be a film critic. We now know that those positions aren't the best paying or as plentiful. As mentioned, I can't spend excessive time on luxuries, so I don't write [as] often.
The point of the blog is very specific: a) professional samples to show people about film writing or a specific series, b) I might have some material that I pitched that's unusable so it gets put there, c) occasionally, I do just enjoy writing something film or tv-related so much that I'll break the "don't indulge" rule.
For me, it's largely about not over-exerting myself because there are so many hours in the day. That's partially why I created the YouTube channel as well. I can express my view on the movies I've seen really quickly and just slap that on the blog without stretching my writing muscles (that often get over-exerted).
One other reason i do my blog is that it has a donation button and on very rare occasions someone donates and I invite people to do it. A small donation could make a big difference.
Check out this brand-new blog, NOVA Writing Events...to see a calendar of upcoming writing events in Northern Virginia before they happen.
Answer to Puzzle #5
A: The cabin, which originally stood next to what's now Meridian Hill Park, built by the 19th-century poet Joaquin Miller (pen name of Cincinnatus Hiner Miller), "the Byron of the Rockies." Something of a showman in the tradition of the 19th Century "Wild" West, a man trading in the genteel East (and England) on frontier adventures real or invented, Cincinnatus took the name Joaquin after a Mexican bandit he once defended in a newspaper.
"Because of his fondness for Byronic posturings," the Britannica dryly notes, "his autobiographical writings...are usually considered untrustworthy."
Miller lived in the District in the 1880s. President Chester A. Arthur procured the stone for his cabin from the supply used to complete the long-suffering Washington Monument (1848-opened 1886). The poet became something of a local celebrity. Crowds pestered him at his cabin, which at that time was on the edge of the built-up part of town.
After Miller left Washington in 1886, according to the Rock Creek Conservancy's web site, "The California State Association proposed disassembling the structure and re-erecting it in Rock Creek Park as a tribute to Miller, who had settled outside San Francisco. Despite pushback from park authorities, the DC Commissioners approved the plan—as long as the Association picked up all the costs, ceded all control over the cabin and let the engineer in charge of the park choose the exact location (which had to be 'on Beach drive north of Military road'). And that is where the Joaquin Miller Cabin came to be rebuilt and still resides. Miller composed a poem (below) to be recited at its dedication on June 2, 1912, about eight months before he died."
That poem, judge for yourself, can be found at the bottom of the same page.
The capital's a funny place, and not just for the obvious reasons most people know about. Consider, for instance, this apparently trivial datum. There is, as far as I know, no book-length history of the 130-year-old National Zoo, despite its importance to the city's tourism-centric economy and the history of conservation and more besides. (The nearest thing is an out-of-print extended pamphlet from 40 years ago, published by the Friends of the National Zoo, or FONZ.)
Or consider this, from the recent book Most of 14th Street Is Gone. According to author-historian J. Samuel Walker's notes on his sources, at publication time in 2018 there were only two books-- not counting his own-- about the April 1968 riots in Washington, D.C. That is, about the events that gutted a lot of the city's economy for decades and that, perhaps more than anything else, shaped life in the national capital we have now. In fifty years, two books.
In his introduction to this brief and absorbing study of the turmoil of April 1968, Walker, an expert on nuclear power and weapons, says himself: "I have been a resident of the Washington, DC suburbs for nearly five decades, but I knew little about the city's long and fascinating history until I started working on this book."
It's impossible not to notice this about the capital if you live in it: it's a city of people who know all about (say) Taiwan and next to nothing about what happened here--and Walker's book is an impressive contribution--or who lives in the next postal code.
So's everywhere, up to a point. Three things, though, make it remarkable here. First, the population's relatively well-educated. Second, the city's middle-sized. Third, it's a city of experts on everything from everywhere. How (I ask because I don't know) how can a place that knows everything about everything have so little notion of itself? Why are the migrant expert's binoculars so often pointed elsewhere, even after he makes the place his home?
From time to time, back when I spent more time downtown than I do now, I occasionally bought copies of Street Sense—Washington’s “street newspaper,” the 16-page one sold and partly written by homeless people. As a freelancer I didn't have a commuter route; I was here and there, and I never got to know any of the individual vendors in the way some customers do. Some of the vendors were forward, others reserved. A few seemed dotty, but then so do a few of everybody. I usually paid the "suggested donation"—now $2—and rarely more.
Though I never went looking for the paper, out of curiosity I’d leaf through it. My impression was always the same: a fair amount of it was poorly written, I want to say authentically poorly written. (I also want to say, given the realities of newspaper writing, lightly edited or unedited.) Given that the topic was often homelessness and, typically with a how-to-slant, allied subjects like jobs, housing, documents, medicine, social work, and criminal justice, I also wondered who Street Sense was written for. Homeless people? Social workers? The general public?
Today, looking over back issues from 2019, I get the same impression. Now as then, the articles (some credited to interns or guest writers, others to “Artist/Vendor”) run the gamut from professional journalism to unedited ranting and raving.
Street Sense appeared in 2003, well into the era of the modern street newspaper. According to the former North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), which in 2013 merged with the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), the first modern or secular U.S. street papers appeared in the 1970s, though Christian prototypes existed in the 19th Century. The oldest extant one, and the oldest INSP member, is San Francisco’s Street Sheet, which started in 1989—that is, a few years into one relevant American triumph and one relevant American disaster. First, thanks to Apple Computer and Adobe, desktop publishing was being born, incidentally paving the way for the desktop e-publishing that is the Internet. At the same time, the so-called deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill—a process dating to the 1950s but accelerated by the first Reagan Administration—meant that American streets (and prisons and jails) were increasingly filled with the mentally ill who make up a large fraction of the homeless population. By 1990 there were more homeless people…and more and cheaper ways to publish.
According to the masthead, Street Sense—which in 2013 became one product of a venture called Street Sense Media—employs roughly one hundred vendors. As Page 2 of each issue explains, vendors are independent contractors; they buy issues for $0.50 per ($0.25 per every other Friday [Meyer, p. 16]) and resell them for a suggested price of $2 per. Though Street Sense is sold the old-fashioned way, hawkers and pulp, since 2017 customers have been able to pay either with cash or electronically, with a smartphone app. Back issues are available online, for free, at issuu.com.
On its own terms, in entertain-and-inform terms, is this biweekly worth $2? After all the City Paper, which covers a lot of the same ground, is bigger, and it’s free (i.e., ad-supported). So are many of the region's local and hyperlocal periodicals, among them DCist.
The answer will probably depend on one's assessment of the value of what might be called perspective, especially in the first-person storytelling (some of it in verse) that often figures in Street Sense. Can you hear voices here you can’t hear anywhere else, except maybe in a literary magazine? I think so. Does that make the paper worth $2 an issue? Sometimes.
Few writers of any sort—including those lucky enough not to have to cold sell their own writing to strangers on the sidewalk—have the skills to put over extremes of tedium, humiliation, pain, and hope. Too, it’s almost impossible to write well about trouble you’re still in the middle of. For all the authentic venting that goes on in its pages, I find Street Sense best in its straight-up, third-person journalism—for example, a recent brief report (p. 5) about Department of Public Works personnel confronting a one-man “encampment” at 16th & K NW.
But then Street Sense isn’t really in the newspaper business, or not only in the newspaper business. How many readers buy the paper to be entertained and informed? Given the muddle of incentives on the customer side—generosity, guilt, curiosity, sometimes a wish to avoid being pestered—I wonder, how many people sit and read Street Sense as opposed to feeling good about having bought it? But then as a writer, which do you prefer? Three copies of your work sold and read? Or 300 sold and thrown in the trash?
It’s 1992. It’s roughly the peak of the Great American Crime Wave (1960-2000). Crack cocaine, which merely jacked up the juvenile end of the already sky-high violent-crime rate, has been on the streets for about ten years. Bill Clinton is about to become the latest president to inherit Nixon’s War on Drugs. Mandatory minimums are filling prisons. American cities are nearly as unlivable as they were in the Al Capone era, when ethanol was the cheap-to-make illegal drug. Gas-station and corner-store cashiers hide in polycarbonate bunkers. Apartment doors have three or four locks on them, sometimes a bar or a jammer. Everyone knows either a mugger or a mugger joke. Suburban moms pack pepper spray or even handguns, just like subway vigilantes. The District's murder rate is almost four times today's (counting the 2018 uptick). 14th St NW, where one day Sotheby’s and West Elm and Trader Joe’s and craft cocktails will live along with a zillion hipsters, is a strip where suburbanites drive in to buy drugs and whores…and get busted by undercover officers.
This is the setting of feature journalist Mike Sager’s first novel, Deviant Behavior (2008).
The book’s central figure, or its most central figure, is an ambitious young journalist, Jonathan Seede. Seede idolizes the seedy William Burroughs and Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, but he also more or less wants to be the Hemingway of the Kansas City Star, Orwell (Down and Out and Wigan Pier—that Orwell), and Hunter Thompson rolled into one gonzo live-the-story chronicler of life at the margins.
In and around Seede's starter row house on 14th, Sager assembles, and Seede mingles with, an ensemble of neighbors and visitors: a gay house flipper, a gentle-giant beat cop, a pimp, a fugitive prostitute, a guru called The Pope of Pot, a decaying funk star, and more. As the book opens, Seede's wife has just run off, taking their toddler with her and leaving behind only a cryptic note. He's in a bad place.
After years of collecting material on the War on Drugs—and nearly everyone in the book is on drugs, soft or hard—Seede’s got an idea for a book. But he’s drudging away at the Washington Tribune (in real life the Washington Post, where Sager worked in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s) and supporting his wife and baby, who, as Seede tells it, has turned the wife into a scolding hausfrau.
Those last two, especially, have begun to get in the way of his Young Man’s Literary Ambition, of which this novel is, first and foremost, a funny and honest attempt at a portrait. (It’s in the same line as Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Balzac’s Illusions perdues.) Like Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, Seede believes that to become a real writer he must touch the bottom. His head full of THC and the Pope of Pot’s half-baked maxims, he becomes convinced that interviewing junkies isn’t enough to get to the bottom of what's rotten in America. He starts using heroin and crack. (Echoes of Ruben Castaneda, the crack-smoking journalist who, in 1989, was hired by the Washington Post to write about the drug war.)
By then, improbably, though, Seede and the rest of the cast have got mixed up with a parallel story involving a reclusive Georgetown billionaire who’s collecting possibly magical crystal skulls—like the one in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (also 2008).
Although it feels in places as if an Indiana Jones has somehow got spliced into a drug-trade documentary, the book’s structure is clean: fifty-odd short chapters, each dealing with one character or set of characters; several chapters are excerpts from the diary of the billionaire’s adventurer grandfather, which the billionaire’s scanning for clues. Three or four sets of people and threads are interwoven until, near the end, they begin to merge.
Things never go flat, but Sager struggles to find a tone, especially in the uneven final act in which an increasingly messed-up Seede falls between the cracks (he bounces back in an Aspidistra-style upbeat epilogue); the comedy veers from hijinks to farce to black comedy to schmaltz. The implicit parallels between the drugs and the magic skulls feel strained. Indeed, the whole adventure fantasy feels tacked on (and all the impish billionaire needs is a white cat). The book’s at its best in its straightforward and efficient descriptions of street scene, of reporting, of whoring, of shoes and clothes (including a memorable and funny sketch of what a beat policeman wears), of Ghetto English real and fake, of the interiors of cars and houses and jails, and of the mechanics of the use and experience of heroin and crack.
By the time this snapshot of 1992 was published, violent-crime rates in the US had been collapsing for nearly a decade and a half, and builders and investors keen to cash in on the New Urbanistic revival of American urban life were already changing 14th St and H Street NE and Shaw and Navy Yard and other parts of town beyond recognition. Across most of the city, the kind of armed robbery the hapless Seede runs into near the close of the story had already become much rarer than it used to be, just like assault and murder.
Seede, through a big stroke of good fortune, moves on to bigger and better things. So did the capital, which got not just the unexpected federal refuelling after 9/11, but a string of relatively effective mayors. In 1992? Sharon Pratt Kelly was serving out her single term, the one sandwiched between the notorious third and Redemption-Movie fourth terms of Marion Barry.
Answer to Puzzle #4
Answer: Emma (E. D. E. N.) Southworth. She was born in Washington in 1819, back when the city was still little more than a wilderness with four towns in it: Georgetown, Lafayette Square, Capitol Hill, and the Navy Yard. A teacher, she took up writing in 1844 to earn extra money, after her husband left her and their children. Her first novel, published in 1849, sold 200,000 copies; she would write over sixty more. Many of her potboilers were first serialized in large-circulation magazines, a common practice well into the 20th Century.
According to this "multi-media archive" of Stephen Railton, Professor of English at U-Virginia: "In our time she is best known by the novel The Hidden Hand, originally published in The [New York] Ledger in 1859, and reprinted there twice before it was finally issued as a book in 1888."
Southworth's an example of those commercially-minded artists who were wildly successful in their own time but are now all but forgotten. Today's equivalent is probably something like the somewhat more anonymous writers of the teleplays for popular TV dramas, soaps, and telenovelas.
Incidentally, Southworth, who died in 1899 and is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, lived for years in a Georgetown house (now demolished) that stood in roughly the same spot as the fictional one in The Exorcist (1971).
Which prolific Washington-born and based writer was, according to some sources, the most widely read American novelist of the late 19th Century?
It walks! It talks! It’s alive! Here’s one panel from Gore Vidal’s long picture, and he wasn’t far from a lot of the subjects, of what lies under the marble and the reliefs and the dead writing of the political histories. That is, unapotheosized hairy human beings, drinking and lying and bribing and cheating and crashing cars and showing off and getting over and generally behaving badly. They say history is little more than the record of men’s crimes, but that’s only a fancy thought. Crimes need people to commit them; here they are.
It's the story of two families—call them Money and Power. Money is headed by Blaise Sanford, a Washington newspaper ogre from the pre-TV era, Power by a smooth but diffident Western Senator (Burden Day) and his handsome young assistant and protégé, Clay. (The Senator treats his assistant so much like a son that he might as well be one.) The families get entangled near the start of the book by the elopement of the publisher’s daughter, a monster princess named Enid, for whom Clay has spurned the Senator’s own daughter, Diana, who later takes up with Blaise’s shy, snack-loving son, Peter. Around them swirl a dozen or so major characters—rich dowagers, corrupt oilmen, ambitious journalists. All rub elbows with real presidents and kings and magnates, who are entertainingly belittled (literally so in the case of the diminutive George VI) in Vidal’s now-here-they-are-naked manner. But the book’s also basically a political version of Joseph Manckiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), with the amoral understudy from the provinces stealing the footlights from the flawed but more principled aging star—and roping in a bandwagon of writers and producers along the way. This study of what ambition does to you, and via the national control room to us all, is an ensemble, but when we’re let in on someone’s thoughts they're usually the Senator’s or Peter’s.
True to its title, the entire story is set in the capital, from the late 1930s through the Korean War, FDR through Eisenhower—mid-century modern Washington. Unobtrusively, we are shown how the coming of psychiatry, television, scientific polling, and similar novelties affected politics and life, and also how FDR’s war (as Vidal sees it) changed the formerly small Southern capital: a faster pace, more brighter and ruder people, ever more and more brighter and ruder people.
Though it’s a panorama, at least of what used to be called White Washington, it’s a compressed one. The scene’s the cloakroom, the country club, the big house, except when characters downsize to quarters like then-“Negro” Georgetown. Everyone who isn’t powerful or rich or on the way to being so is even more marginal here than Henry Adams’ Negroes and maids; whatever it is these thinking parts think and do all day, the writer isn’t about to tell us. This is partly by way of the book’s putting over the point of view of its characters. But it’s also because in Vidal’s metaphysics such people don’t really exist: what exists is only whatever, for a mayfly’s moment, moves the world’s needle.
That Washington, D.C. is entertaining yet cramped, and spirited yet joyless, has something to do with this. But it’s also got to do with the writer’s relationship with his characters. They seem to have been created, in all the teeth and claws which at times seem to be all they are, merely to be first tempted and then made ridiculous by their creator, who runs them through their paces like a martinet's corps de ballet. Although there’s plenty of I-want-this and consequent dramatic interest—and the book is never boring—the characters are rarely allowed to breathe, let alone surprise the all-knowing narrator, who (especially in the dialogues) is always two steps ahead of them with his color commentary. Much of it is devoted to anatomizing the various grades of subtlety in insult. No writer takes more care or delight in setting up and then examining slight, cruelty, and contempt—and Vidal, who was stuck with the short end of a thousand pre-Rainbow Flag slights, is good at it.
The first problem with this highly entertaining book, then, has to do with world-picture. The few people in it who think at all, and a lot of the ones who don’t, are nihilists, living for the scratching of itches, for the applause and the trophies, for the sand castle and the wind—for what the Authorized Version calls vanity and philosophy used to call divertissements. What we get, in short, is Vidal's own neo-paganism diffused through the cast, who in places talk like a group of schoolkids who’ve just stumbled onto the Wisdom Books: the lordship of futility is not argued, merely bracingly insisted upon. Technically, the trouble is that this choice allows for only a limited and tedious lot of motives. Everyone’s doing it all for nothing, even if some of them don't know it yet. As Peter tells himself in the summing-up:
The generations of man come and go and are in eternity no more than bacteria upon a luminous slide, and the fall of a republic or the rise of an empire…are not detectable upon the slide even were there an interested eye to behold [it]…
So the book ringeth throughout. But granted that it's more satirical than realistic, this is at best wildly inaccurate: at no time has nihilism been commonplace in New World heads, not even during the mid-century heyday (which it details) of materialism and positivism, Marx and Freud. This isn’t Washington then or now; it’s a vision of Washington as if it were Ancient Rome under Emperor Democritus.
The book’s second fault is not the writer's but was, as it were, thrust upon him. Unlike the author himself, the Washington People in the book are, nearly to a man and woman, philistines. At one point Vidal’s mutable poet-critic, one of the exceptions, complains about it himself. Nuts and bolts, deeds and parcels, who’s up who’s down: that's the business of the federal republic, just as it is of the fifty farm leagues where (as Vidal painstakingly depicts) the rehearsals for the Show begin. The general local practical-mindedness makes for an accurate social picture, but it doesn’t always make for the most absorbing one.
Back to the good stuff. The book’s easy to read: the plain writing is faultless, even flawless. The language isn’t showy (I admit I had to look up valetudinarian). Vidal likes to use run-on for satiric or ironic effect, and he likes to save the stinger for the tail. The plot is solidly built: no scene is too long and no one drifts offstage for too long or for no reason. If the characters’ inner lives are a bit sparely furnished, well, this is a very big 400-page book, and the emphasis is on the externals, on what people wear and eat and sit on and say and what they really mean when they say it. Years pass; people flip and flop, come and go; wives and houses and magazines and ideologies trade hands. Vidal stage-manages all this whirl brilliantly; there's no trouble remembering who's who. And he doesn't overdo the period furniture. No rumba. No baseball. There's one period car, and one or two hats on men, one of them in a movie in-joke. Period politicians, period films, and period slang, along with just-arrived ideas and technologies, carry much of the weight of the chronological scenic design. (This minimalism cuts both ways. On the one hand, the book’s departed scene feels fresh, like the present; on the other, it feels fresh, like the present.) Though it’s not a satire per se, everyone is a little cleverer and worse than he is or would be in life, and so all the dull bits are left out.
I'm a freelance writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.