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Washington, DC has always been in the spotlight, but since the election of Donald Trump even more so. This July it will be 227 years since Congress passed legislation making it the new capital city of the United States. Since then, the District has been home to the President, Congress, advisors, cabinet departments, lobbyists, defense contractors and everyone else who makes up the machinery of government. Countless books, stories, films, TV programs and, of course, newspaper articles are set here, but the writers aren’t always kind to their city of residence.
A number of well-known authors were born or lived in the city: Michael Chabon, Sinclair Lewis, Frederick Douglass, Jonathan Safran Foer, A.M. Homes, Nora Ephron, Katherine Anne Porter, Mary Robison. Not all of them lived in DC for long, and the city doesn’t figure prominently in their work. For others, though, Washington is more than a setting. It’s the story itself.
Here are five writers who made the nation’s capital their home and struggled, within their work, to understand the city and what it means.
George P. Pelecanos
George Pelecanos has spent his life living in and around Washington. He worked as a bartender, cook, dishwasher and shoe salesman before the publication of his first novel in 1992, A Firing Offense. Esquire magazine called him “the poet laureate of the DC crime world,” and Stephen King claimed he was “perhaps the greatest living American crime writer.” His novels are filled with murder, duplicity, detection and deals gone wrong. Most of the action takes place in Washington, though he occasionally wanders into nearby Virginia or Maryland. For Pelecanos, setting is key. Vivid, specific and concrete. When you read his books—Hard Revolution, Soul Circus, The Cut, Shoedog—you can see, hear, smell and taste the city. It lives deep in the bones of his writing. You know exactly what the liquor stores and Greek delis look like. What dishes the patrons order and what the food tastes like. What kind of music the main character listens to, and in what situations.
Pelecanos spends most of his time in Shaw, a traditionally poor, black neighborhood that’s been gentrifying for the past 20 years. He shows us these changes. Washington, for him, is a living thing. It evolves with each novel, as real cities do. His books represent a social and people’s history of DC over the past 50 years. Pelecanos has chronicled the lives of people from different social and ethnic groups and varying economic backgrounds. They’re all three-dimensional characters. After reading one of his books, we know how each one drives, walks, talks, dances and drinks. They all speak with individual voices. Washington is one of these characters. Like Balzac and Kerouac, Pelecanos is creating a panoramic history of the city. Everyone—even a side character with three lines—is likely to turn up in a future book. They’re not just flimsy characters who appear briefly and then walk off page forever. His books are hardboiled yet realistic. Compelling characters, great dialogue, deft prose but, perhaps more than anything, a strong sense of place. His stories are never merely set in “Washington.” They’re set in a particular neighborhood, on a certain block, on the south side of the street. We know what the storefront looks like and what it sounds like when the metal security gate is pulled down at closing time.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama—the daughter of former slaves—and spent time in New York and Florida, but Washington is, in many respects, her spiritual home. She was a poet, novelist, anthropologist and folklorist, among other things. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1938) is one of America’s great novels. In 1918 Hurston moved to DC to study at Howard University. She attended college intermittently, for six years, but never earned a Bachelor’s degree. Nonetheless, she was deeply involved in the life of Howard and the city. She joined a literary club founded by her English professor, Alain Locke, who would later include her work in The New Negro anthology, the bible of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s first work was written and published when she lived in Washington. A story and poem were included in Stylus, the college literary journal. Fittingly, she lived for a time in the Phyllis Wheatley YMCA, named for America’s first published female African-American poet. Much less fittingly, she joined a campus sorority. These were profoundly influential years, much of them spent in and around the Shaw neighborhood. Hurston was invited to a local salon, The Saturday Nighters, which included other prominent DC writers, such as Jean Toomer. Washington also affected Hurston’s non-fiction. With a grant from The Association for the Study of Negro History, based in the city, she moved to Florida to study African-American songs, stories and rituals. At the time, in 1927, this was a radical idea. During the Depression Hurston worked for the WPA, another DC-based organization, conducting anthropological work. The fruits of her labor found their way into the essays Mules and Men (1935) and as significant details in her fiction.
From Washington, Hurston moved to New York and became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, but her apprenticeship was in DC and that’s where she became who she was. Washington isn’t often represented directly in her writing, but it’s still there, simmering just beneath the surface. The city is where she was educated and began her career. It’s where she became a writer and an anthropologist. Like Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston’s apprenticeship was in the nation’s capital.
Edward P. Jones
Edward P. Jones was born and raised in DC. He still lives there, teaching creative writing at George Washington University. He has only written three books, two in the past 25 years. His work is minimal, poised, careful, often non-linear. He’s won several major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Lost in the City (1992) and All Aunt Hagar’s Children (2006) are story collections set almost exclusively in Washington, DC. The Known World (2003) is a novel set in nearby Virginia. Jones’ stories, like Pelecanos’ novels, feature characters, both major and minor, who rise up and sneak across the page into other stories. He’s constructing, it would seem, one continuous narrative about the city, its people, their joys and struggles, the nuances that make Washington a place like no other. Jones digs into the past and tells us the story of Washington throughout the 20th century.
We meet the city curbside, witness to its sense of community and its moments of self-destruction. As Charlotte Jones writes in The Guardian, he’s “moving street by street through the capital.” We see Washington vividly, almost sociologically, or perhaps like a travel book. Do not visit this neighborhood. Especially at night. Two stars. For adventure tourism only. Washington is a city that lives simultaneously in the past, present and future, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The past is not really the past because it still breathes in the present. Jones’ work is typically in a minor key. He writes about the despondent and dispossessed. Sometimes, they find salvation. They’re always the common people, not politicians or lobbyists, the bureaucratic and powerful. For Jones, Washington is a city of 700,000 people leading ordinary lives, searching for small, good things but often finding pain and injustice. They aren’t heroes. They aren’t necessarily good. But they’re always human, always Washingtonians.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American poet to receive wide acclaim and popularity in America. The son of freed slaves, he often addressed the plantation experience in his poems, which were written in dialect as well as standard English. He also wrote novels, fiction and non-fiction. In 1897 Dunbar married a fellow writer, Alice Ruth Moore, and took a job at the Library of Congress. The couple lived in LeDroit Park, a middle-class neighborhood of DC. Dunbar worked with medical and scientific texts, earning $720 a year (which was more than, say, a schoolteacher at the time). He earned extra money by writing.
For Dunbar, Washington represented security, happiness, professional life, success and public acceptance. During his time there, he was young and married, had a good job, lived comfortably, and his literary fame was growing. This was the best time of his life. If he loved Washington, the feeling was mutual. The city named a high school after Dunbar in 1916. There are also schools named for him in Maryland, Ohio, Arkansas, Texas Florida, Illinois and Alabama. Dunbar later had to leave his job because of tuberculosis and he moved to Colorado for the fresh air. Like so many 19th-century writers, he died young, at age 33.
Dunbar wrote a poem about Frederick Douglass, a prominent Washingtonian whom he met in the city. Stories in The Heart of Happy Hollow (1904) and The Strength of Gideon (1900) are set there. DC is, of course, the center of American politics, the heart of issues that concerned Dunbar as a black man. In poems such as “We Wear the Mask” he touches on this:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
Every line in this poem is about Washington, liberty, politics, race and human dignity. Every word is aimed at the capital, wondering how the nation could be guilty of so much injustice and when it might be corrected.
Vidal was born into a political family. His paternal grandfather was a senator from Oklahoma. He was related to Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and Jackie Onassis. Born at the US Military Academy at West Point, where his father taught, Vidal moved to Washington as a boy and lived there until he finished high school. He even served as a Senate page for his grandfather. Vidal wrote more about Washington, DC than anyone ever has or, in all likelihood, ever will. His task as a writer, in both fiction and non-fiction, was to chronicle the American Empire—its history, culture, ethos and politics. He wrote fictionalized biographies of its great men and women with a particular emphasis on backroom negotiations, personal quirks, corruption and sexual predilections. Most of his work is set in Washington, including: Empire, Lincoln, Burr, 1876, The Second American Revolution, The Last Empire, The American Presidency, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace or How We Came to Be So Hated, and of course Washington, D.C.
For Vidal, the city was the seat of power, dominant and decadent as classical Rome. Washington was the primary symbol of Empire, its flaws and strength, majesty and darkness. His unique talent as a writer was the ability to negotiate the grand themes of ideology and power while also portraying the everyday lives of the nation’s most compelling public figures. He tackles, with equal skill, the big issues and the small details, both of which are required to portray the life of a city or a nation.