Road Trip

Literary Inspiration on the Streets of D.C.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

WHERE: The District.

WHY: Writerly homes, anti-Bic pens and caffeinated poetry.

HOW FAR: About 14 miles from start to finish.

Since Thomas Jefferson first came to Washington, the city has played host and home to some of the most prolific and celebrated writers to put pen to paper. After meeting President Abraham Lincoln here, Nathaniel Hawthorne was moved to write the essay "Chiefly About War Matters," published in the Atlantic Monthly's July 1862 issue. During the same period, Louisa May Alcott worked as a nurse at a Civil War hospital in Georgetown before writing her novel "Little Women" in 1868.

Writers "come here for all different reasons," says Paul Dickson, a local author who co-wrote "On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C." "For all people, this has always been a place to express themselves."

Before the National Portrait Gallery became home to a painting of Walt Whitman, the grand old building housed the Patent Office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where the "Leaves of Grass" poet did his 9 to 5. During the Civil War, the building became a makeshift hospital where Whitman spent many evenings tending to the wounded, an experience that inspired much of the poetry in his 1865 collection, "Drum Taps."

Elsewhere in the city, Whitman contemporary Julia Ward Howe not only slept at the Willard Hotel but by candlelight scribbled the words to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

And pay attention, wannabe Maya Angelous: Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes proved that being discovered doesn't happen only in New York and London publishing circles. While working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel, now owned by Marriott, Hughes grabbed the attention of American poet Vachel Lindsay by dropping his poems next to Lindsay's dinner plate.

As for tomorrow's talent, check out the poetry scene at Ebenezers Coffeehouse. Who knows? You might be listening to the next Sterling A. Brown, the first poet laureate of our book-smart city.

-- Karen Hart

© 2008 The Washington Post Company