Literary Washington, D.C.

In The Art of Travel Spring 2017, 10. Books (2), Washington DC by Daniela1 Comment

Reading Literary Washington, D.C. not only gave me a more artistic perspective on a city that seems so political and cold at times, but it reinforced many of the oddities of the city that I have come to notice and often discuss in these blog posts. Immediately in the foreword, Alan Cheuse writes that D.C. “serves as a capital for who have no permanent sense of place,”  referring not only to those who come here for work, but  to our political leaders who shuffle in and out of office at a dizzying rate. If D.C. is where people end up only temporarily, then it makes sense, as Cheuse explains, that artists would follow this same pattern. Upon taking in this reasoning, I believe now more than ever that the abstract “we” should shift focus from the transients of the capital city to those residents who need their voices heard.

In another excerpt from the book, Charles Dickens explains how in Washington, everything is located in the exact place you would think it did not belong, and that the basic layout of the city does not make sense. I have come across this dilemma myself and so have those who I have talked to or have visited me while I have been here, the dilemma being that the way Washington is laid out does not appeal to common sense. There are diagonals that cross through the more sensical grid system and in doing this, create an even more confusing layout than if there had been diagonal streets in coordination with a less grid-like system. The city itself was extensively planned and was designed to showcase the Capitol building’s immense power by putting it on the top of the highest hill in the area and connecting it to the White House in a symbolic yet physical line drawn between the legislative and executive branches of government. This concept is beautiful and full of symbolism but in practical application makes everything more confusing and impossible to follow without a map.

I very specifically identified with one phrase that Dickens uses to describe the triangle used as a calling bell for servants in the hotel he was staying at: “tingling madly all the time.” I see Washington as “tingling madly all the time” and it often makes me feel on edge, as the servants probably felt listening to that pesky triangle. There is constantly something going on that is super important and that seems to be something everyone should care about, nagging in the back of one’s mind as the triangle nags one to go where they are being called even though they are occupied with something else. Compared to New York where each person creates their own agenda and we have all seen the equivalent of a New Yorker jogging down Broadway in a sheer red top and red thong, it is almost as though Washington shapes the interests one should have and discards any it does not find important enough.

Comparing the words written long ago (19th century) to the more contemporary works found later in the book, I can see how Washington has grown into the city that I see today, with its own commerce and its own purpose somewhere hidden in a deep place where tourists cannot see it. It feels reminiscent of a giant sorority when Allen Drury describes the different relationships Senators, House Reps, and their Leadership have outside of work, which they never learn to detach themselves from. Living in and breathing the same air, all in close quarters almost by choice, the politicians on the Hill almost do not get away from each other even upon returning home. Politics is an immersion game that Drury illustrates perfectly with his scenarios that seem to recycle the same players with the same titles again and again. I have seen this first hand, as there are so many people working for the government in NYUDC, it is easier to ask who does not work on the Hill than to ask who does.

In this way, Washington D.C. tries very hard to be more than just politics but to find this layer of “realness,” one must look more deeply than one would expect.


  1. Hi Daniela! This was such a great read! I’ll be in DC next fall, and so it was incredibly interesting to hear about the quirks (and frustrations) of the city — through your eyes and Dickens’! Thank you for sharing! Have a great semester!

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