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Reading American Cities: Washington DC in books

Despite being the political centre of America, literature set in and about Washington is not particularly urban. What would you add? Let us know for next week's readers list

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Washington DC is an awkward city. Like New York City, its significance transcends the geographical boundaries of the metropolis, but unlike New York, the city's urban design is such that it's almost hard to see it as a city at all. The boroughs of New York are demarcated and distinct, as are the north and south sides of Chicago; in Washington, the districts of Virginia, Maryland, and Columbia tend to blur city centre into suburb inextricably. The different tenor of the urban environment perhaps accounts for the way its literature is probably the least "urban" of all the cities on this list.

Washington is predominantly, of course, America's political centre, and, "Bartleby" and Little Dorrit aside, bureaucracy doesn't tend to make for great literature. There are, however, some exceptions here: Democracy, by Henry Adams, is an incisive study of politicians, socialites, wannabes, and the nature of power that has aged remarkably little since its first publication, anonymously, in 1880. The political system is seen through the eyes of Madeleine Lee, an outsider who moves to the city seeking "the mysterious gem which must lie hidden somewhere in politics", and her salon soon becomes the place to see and be seen in Washington. But she rapidly becomes the object of an increasingly vicious conquest by two ambitious, machiavellian politicians, and by the end she leaves, disillusioned, for Egypt. Adams believed absolutely that the future of the world lay in the United States and that the future of the United States lay in Washington, but as Madeleine declares, "half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight to perdition; the other half that it is fast becoming perfect. Both cannot be right. [...] I must know whether America is right or wrong." It isn't clear if Adams himself could quite make his mind up.

"In June of the year 1957, my half sister, Nina (known henceforward as Nini) Gore Auchincloss, married Newton Steers in St John's Church, 'the church of the presidents,' in Washington, DC. For over a century presidents, of a Sunday, would wander across the avenue that separates White House from Lafayette Square and its odd little church, whose chaste Puritan tower is topped by an unlikely gold Byzantine dome metaphor?"

"And the streets how their throbbings throbb'd, and the cities pent lo, then and there,/
Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,/
Appear'd the cloud, appear'd the long black trail,/
And I knew death."

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