inRetro: Christopher Sten Riffs on Washington, DC as a Literary Capital
August 3, 2012 by inReads
While we’re on vacation, inRetro takes a look back at our most popular articles since launch. This first-person essay was foreshadowing of our later shift to focus on reading and writing in DC:
Christopher Sten is Professor of English at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and the author or editor of several books on Herman Melville, including Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts and Sounding the Whale. Doing the research for his latest book, Literary Capital: A Washington Reader began as an avocation for him, something to do in his spare time; it ended up an obsession.
Here, he talks about the rich writing that’s come out of and been inspired by D.C.
Like a lot of books, this one started with a discovery. Several years ago, while preparing for class one day, it struck me that most of the authors in my American literature classes had spent time in Washington, D.C., the city where I live and teach. Up until that time, I hadn’t thought of them as being such avid travelers, or so politically minded. Digging further, I discovered that most of them had also written about the city—letters, travel pieces, and essays in the early days; short stories, novels, and poems more recently—enough material (two centuries’ worth) to fill a small library. Yet no one had ever collected these writings or attempted to tell the larger story of Washington writing before. Other American cities—New York, Boston, Chicago, LA, San Francisco—are known for their literary “schools” and rich histories. What about Washington?
In reviewing the titles in my growing library of Washington writing, I came to identify three significant traditions. One is made up of mostly big name authors (William Wells Brown, Henry Adams, Frances Hodgson Burnett, John William DeForest, Willa Cather, Gertrude Atherton, Samuel Hopkins Adams, John Dos Passos, Allen Drury, Gore Vidal, Robert Coover, Joseph Heller) who have written fiction about official Washington, political corruption, congressional intrigue, the rush to war, the specter of fascism. A second is composed of native or naturalized authors (Frederick Douglass, Henry Adams, Jean Toomer, John Dos Passos, Sterling A. Brown, Gore Vidal, Allen Drury, Ward Just, May Miller, Susan Richards Shreve, Marita Golden, Edward P. Jones, E. Ethelbert Miller, George Pelecanos) who know the local scene from first-hand experience—and sometimes a good deal about national politics as well. This latter group constitutes what I would call the solid core of “Washington writers.”
Finally, there’s a third tradition, one that overlaps with the other two and is made up of African American writers, indigenous, or transplanted. These include Alain Locke (Rhodes Scholar, professor of philosophy at Howard University, essayist), Jean Toomer (poet and short story writer), Sterling A. Brown (folk poet and historian), May Miller (poet and dramatist), Langston Hughes (poet and memoirist), Edward Christopher Williams (novelist), Anna Cooper (memoirist), Marita Golden (fiction writer), Edward P. Jones (fiction writer), and E. Ethelbert Miller (poet and essayist). It’s worth noting that the first half dozen in this group played significant roles in the “New Negro” movement of the 1920s and 1930s, a movement too often identified exclusively with New York and the “Harlem Renaissance.”
A caveat: there is also currently a large and vibrant community of remarkable writers who make Washington their home but tend not to write about the city in an explicit or self-conscious way. Their work is not represented in this collection, but only because I decided early on to focus only on the work of authors whose engagement with the city is explicit and unmistakable.
MOVED BY WHAT YOU READ?
Have you read Literary Capital: A Washington Reader or think you might? Add it to your myReads shelf before you forget!
Elsewhere in inReads: Read author Eric Gordon’s first person essay about why location matters more today than ever.
About The Author:
Reading and writing in DC.