CAPSULE: Literary Capital
TWW's first book of note is Christopher Sten’s Literary Capital (2011), an impressive anthology of the fiction and nonfiction of writers, from Abigail Adams to George Pelecanos, who’ve written in or about Washington. Sten, a professor of English at George Washington University, gives us seven chapters of ten selections each. With some overlap, four chapters cover time periods, while the other three are organized by theme (black writers, poets, “Private Lives and Public Views”). Though the book makes much of natives like Jean Toomer and Edward P. Jones (also at GWU), most of the selections, inevitably, are from tourists (Dickens, Mailer) or transients (Whitman, Bret Harte) or transplants (Ward Just). The oldest selection, Abigail Adams complaining about the half-finished White House, is from 1800. The most recent is Andrew Holleran's Grief (2006), a spare, well-observed novel set in gentrifying Dupont Circle that (to my mind at least) also just happens to be about gay life and peopled with gay men.
What’s not in the book: Histories. Guidebooks, like Christopher Buckley's Washington Schlepped Here (2003). Journalism. Plays, screenplays, and teleplays—and drama shapes the received image of the city at least as much as the news does. Significantly, too, thrillers like The Cobra (2010) and King of Torts (2003) and The Lost Symbol (2009)—not even those whose authors (David Balducci, or Tom Clancy once) live around here.
In Sten’s quieter choices you can read Washington’s history from annex of colonial Georgetown (and Mount Vernon) to the suburban “Imperial Washington” of the freeway era. What comes through in them is not just the city’s original rawness but its newness. Though the Civil War greatly expanded it—to about the size of present-day Akron, Ohio—the capital (as Gore Vidal points out in one selection) didn’t explode until after the arrival of air conditioning just before World War II. Demographically, America’s sixth metro has at least as much in common with Sunbelt sprawl-towns like Atlanta and Dallas and Phoenix than it has with the older and more static Northeastern cities it is often lumped together with.
As the nineteenth-century selections in particular illustrate, though, what makes Washington what it is not simply the federal payroll. Hampton Roads and Honolulu have long federal payrolls. It’s location, location, location. Back before telecoms and airplanes began to make every latitude and longitude the same as every other, the national capital, with its parade of Virginian executives, was a Southern town. It lay well within the tobacco zone of a border state—and sat directly on the hot border of 1861-’65. It was also the patch where the emancipating Union happened to be headquartered. And yet after Reconstruction—the establishment of Howard University was one of its triumphs—Jim Crow would hang on as tenaciously here as anywhere. The story the book's selections tell was already set in stone well before all the masons showed up.
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I'm a freelance writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.