Literary Capital
A Washington Reader

Edited by Christopher Sten

The nation’s capital seen through the eyes of some of our best writers


Literary Capital is great in concept and even better in execution. Christopher Sten has skillfully selected an assortment of the classic and the contemporary, the literary and the reportorial, the appreciative and the denunciatory, in writings about life and habits in Washington. In a fair world, this collection might slightly raise the esteem of Washington in the public’s eyes. In the real world, it makes for wonderful reading.”
—James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic

"It would be hard to find another book that so magnificently pays tribute to the two centuries of Washington cultural life than Literary Capital."
Washington Independent Review of Books

“All the readers of Literary Capital will be indebted to Christopher Sten for the fine and moving collection of ‘Washington writing’ he has gathered here. It is full of familiar and surprising entries that offer a good mix of national and local subjects and points of view—foreign, native, power holding, power seeking, and the disempowered. Literary Capital captures the ‘story’ that makes Washington so interesting as a place.”
—Sarah Luria, author of Capital Speculations: Writing and Building Washington, D.C.

“As tempting as it might be to question Washington’s significance as a literary capital, Christopher Sten demonstrates not just the presence over time of a rich and varied set of representations. In many instances, such work discloses much about our national character that can be as troubling as it is revealing. Sten’s selections will surprise readers in the breadth of the views represented and the challenges they pose to values we hold dear as a nation.”
—Howard Gillette, author of Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C.

Literary Capital is an indispensable guide to the literature, culture, and history of Washington, D.C. Here, finally, is a book that captures the nation’s capital in all its glory and tawdriness, revealing why it has long been a ‘magnet for writers,’ as Christopher Sten writes in his superb introduction. With its brilliant selection of writings, it is one of the very best books on the literature of a city.”
—John Stauffer, Chair of the History of American Civilization and Professor of English at Harvard University

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Washington, D.C., has long been a magnet for writers and an object of interest and fascination to essayists, novelists, and poets. Literary Capital offers a compelling portrait of the city through the work of seventy authors ranging from early Americans such as Abigail Adams and Washington Irving to contemporaries such as Edward P. Jones and Joan Didion.

Arranged by both period and theme, this anthology begins with the founding of Washington in 1800 and extends through the early twenty-first century. In the introduction Christopher Sten explores two broad categories of prose—historical writing focused on politics and writing about the lives and times of the people of D.C. with official Washington as the setting. Sten also defines a core group of “Washington writers,” native and naturalized authors who focus much of their work on the city: Frederick Douglass, Henry Adams, Jean Toomer, John Dos Passos, Gore Vidal, Ward Just, and Susan Richards Shreve, among others.

Included are letters, essays, short stories, poems, and excerpts from novels and historical writings by a broad selection of such renowned American and international authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Alexis de Tocqueville, Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, and Joseph Heller. The reader also incorporates many writings by well-known African American authors, including Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jean Toomer, Sterling A. Brown, Langston Hughes, May Miller, Ralph Ellison, and Marita Golden.

Page count: 424 pp.
8 b&w photos, 1 map
Trim size: 6.125 x 9.25


List price: $32.95

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Christopher Sten is a professor of English at George Washington University. He is the coeditor of “Whole Oceans Away”: Melville and the Pacific and author or editor of three other books. He lives in Washington, D.C.