Writing the Capital Story

July 11, 2011

GW English Professor Christopher Sten’s new book highlights 200 years of writing about Washington, D.C.

July 11, 2011 

Washington, D.C. has long found a place in writers’ imaginations, and in the novels, essays and poetry—as well as the personal journals and letters—that they produce. GW Professor of English Christopher Sten’s new book, Literary Capital: A Washington Reader, compiles 70 authors’ writing on Washington into one volume.

Ranging from the city’s founding in 1800 to the present day, the book explores themes such as early impressions of the city; race, slavery and the Civil War, the private lives of public figures, and power and politics. Dr. Sten spoke with GW Today about researching and compiling the book—including some surprises about Washington writers that he discovered along the way.

Q: What was the inspiration behind Literary Capital?
A: Many writers I teach—American literature is my field—have spent time in Washington: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, who lived in Washington for 10 years, Henry Adams. I thought, “That’s curious.” It didn’t really square at first with my sense of what American writers were doing in the 19th century. Maybe that suggests a claustrophobic sense of these writers. So I began to look more closely at these writers and all their work, and they all had something to say about Washington, whether in letters or journals, or in a more formal form.

First I wrote an essay about 19th-century writers and Washington, and then I figured there would be more examples from the 20th century when people were presumably more mobile. And I found very much the same thing. Lots of classic American writers—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Willa Cather—had spent time here and had things to say. I kept going, and eventually had more than 175 authors. As I tried to cut that down to a manageable size, I realized I could see some patterns emerge and could say something fairly definitive about American writers in connection with the nation’s capital.

Q: What were some of these patterns you saw emerging as you researched Washington writing?
A: There was a lot of writing about racial matters and slavery. I definitely wanted the book to have a chapter on African American writing focusing on Washington. There have been a large number of African American writers who have come to Washington, or grown up here, or turned to Washington for support, protection and jobs. There was a period during Reconstruction when radical Republicans were interested in making Washington a model for progressive education and job training that would benefit African Americans who had come through the long period of slavery. That led to the founding of Howard University. The discovery, for me, that there was a significant African American writing tradition and community in Washington going back to the mid-19th century and running well through the 20th century was a surprise. I knew about isolated figures, but to put these all together was an important discovery for me.

In a period of the late 19th century, the Gilded Age, there were a lot of observations of and objections to government manipulation of the budget to benefit individuals or companies or regions. A lot of these themes really do persist [today]. In the John William DeForest piece in the book, which is an allegorical example of the amateurism of American politics, there’s an absurd example of some legislation that is designed to finance a construction project called the “Subfluvial Tunnel” from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, under the Mississippi River. The government figure who is proposing this doesn’t know how it can be done, but says that’s basically just a technical matter that can be handled by the construction experts. It’s a little bit like an early version of the “bridge to nowhere” that we’ve heard so much about.

Q: How long did it take to research the book? Who did you hope to reach with it?
A: I’m primarily a Melville scholar, so this topic is a secondary interest. I picked it up and put it down again. The original impetus for the book goes back 20 years. I did most of the work in the past decade. I had in mind that the book would appeal to the educated popular reader, and to a certain academic audience in Washington. Visitors to Washington might be interested too—or anyone who wants a concrete representation of not just writing about Washington, but the history of Washington. I also sort of wanted to challenge the idea that New York is the literary center of the United States. There’s a little bit of that contentiousness in the title, claiming that Washington is a kind of literary capital.

Q: Do you have any favorite selections?
A: That’s kind of like asking about my favorite child! Certainly one of my favorite Washington writers represented here is Jean Toomer, who grew up in Washington. He was a very gifted writer, a mercurial figure, who went to about half a dozen colleges, though he never finished. He was black but didn’t believe in racial identification. He thought of himself as trans-racial. The book he wrote, called Cane, has about a third of it devoted to Washington. It’s a series of short stories—portraits—interspersed with poetry. It’s a wonderful piece of modernist writing; it’s also an example of Harlem Renaissance writing. There’s pride in being black and being a black writer. That’s certainly a favorite piece. It’s a piece I love going back to teach on a regular basis, in any course I can fit it into.

Another favorite selection is by Solomon Northup from a book called Twelve Years a Slave. It was suggested to me by a friend, but I had never heard of this guy or the text. It’s not a particularly wonderful piece of writing, but it’s by a man who was never a slave until he was caught by slave catchers—he grew up free. He was forced into slavery, and they beat him, with the claim that “You’re a slave and everything you say is a lie.” So he spent 12 years as a slave, after having known a different life and having been a family man. He spent time in the slave pens or prisons here in Washington. That narrative provides a very illuminating window into that period of history and to Washington as a center of the slave trade. So that piece, for me, was a new discovery.

Q: What did you learn that surprised you about Washington?
A: I’ve been surprised by the persistence of some of the early perceptions of Washington—that is, that things don’t change in spite of all the change. That Washington is a city that’s interesting to travelers but they don’t want to live here, that they want to be critical of it. Washington is a source of fascination and a kind of disappointment, or even anger, as we still often feel now in terms of the popular reaction to what’s going on. People think of it as a kind of backwater, not a really sophisticated place, dominated by politics—and politicians tend to be somewhat scruffy. There’s a kind of class contempt that’s been persistent. It’s clear in the early examples. Dickens came here and wrote of Washington as a city of great pretension, magnificent intentions, but sort of overblown—not yet ready for prime time.

A second and contradictory thing that surprised me is the number of writers who had enough faith in the federal government to come here and work. The poets who came to work in the Library of Congress are an example. Bret Harte and his contemporary Mark Twain both came looking for jobs. Herman Melville came looking for a consulate job, and Nathaniel Hawthorne got a consulate job, in Liverpool. James Fenimore Cooper worked for the Navy. There’s been a positive relationship, contradictory to what I saw before. They sought it out for the work, they believed in the cause of Washington. Archibald MacLeish, a poet, sacrificed much of his writing career to work in various positions for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was pretty clear they thought it was valuable. Bret Harte came to Washington to be editor of a new magazine, and he wrote to his wife something like, “Washington is a sure place to be a great success.”

Dr. Sten will read from Literary Capital: A Washington Reader at Politics and Prose on Saturday, July 16, at 6 p.m.


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