THE WASHINGTON I MOVED to in the fall of 1960 was a very different city from the Washington of today. The excitement of the Kennedy-Nixon race, then in its waning moments, belied the sleepy Southern-ness of the Capital City. (I was startled to see the signs, in rowhouse windows, announcing: "Room for Rent--Colored," or, "Apt.--White Only.") Still, it was the beginning of the end of an era. And one of the soon-to-be-changed elements was the nature of the literary climate.
"The perception of the drama in politics was long overdue," says Glendy Culligan, who was the book editor of The Washington Post from 1956 to '65. "We used syndicated book reviews until the early '50s, and the book page was considered laughable by anyone interested in serious books."
Across town at The Evening Star, book editor Edwin Tribble (who held that post from 1958 to 1972) found the local scene at the time equally arid: "I once got a memo from Mary McGrory which said, 'Do you only write about resident writers, most of whom are in the IRS, as far as I can make out, and compose manuals in their spare time?' "
Of course such selected quotes present a harsh view, perhaps even an unfair one. There has been great writing and great writers in this city as long as there has been a Washington. And at one time or another all the major writers have come through here, leaving their marks. What's more, we have a little-known but nonetheless rich history of small press--or "independent" --production. Be that as it may, the Washington of the late '50s and early '60s was hardly thought of as a writer's town.
"The old way of selling books out of Washington," says a New York agent who preferred not to be named, "was for Cass Canfield Sr. to get on the train and go down to Washington to see his old friend, the retiring secretary of state, and that's how the deal would be made."
"In those days," says Ann Buchwald, a Washington- based literary agent since 1974, "a New York publisher thought of Washington as being somewhere near Brazil. And they talked about coming here the way people would talk about going to Paris: 'I'll be there in the fall.' To them, Washington was a very remote and scary part of the world."
Washington-based authors who did make good nationally found themselves in a clear minority. Andrew Tully, who holds the distinction of being the only author ever to have a best-seller on both lists, fiction and non- fiction, at the same time (Capitol Hill and CIA: The Inside Story, 1962) recalls, "When I got here in '48 there were no writers here, though you'd see an occasional political memoir or a book by Lippmann, but it began to change after my CIA book came out, and of course after Allen Drury had become famous in every possible way. I give him credit for creating the situation that opened the way for Washington writers."
Drury's hugely successful Advise and Consent, which came out in 1958, did not change things overnight. Joseph C. Goulden found that, "When I came here in '65 as the bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the fact that I'd already written a book (The Curtis Caper) made my journalistic colleagues look at me as a curiosity. And even a couple of years later, the occasional newspaperman who would write a book would be looked at in awe by others at the National Press Club. At that time I didn't know a single soul in Washington who wrote books, and there was no literary community to speak of."
In general agreement with Goulden is Paul Dickson, another former reporter who turned to books (and has since written 13 in as many years, including There Are Alligators in Our Sewers & Other American Credos which he just co-authored with Goulden). "When I left McGraw-Hill in '69 to do my first book, the only other writer I knew was Joe Goulden, though later I met Munro Leaf, the famous children's book author (Ferdinand the Bull), but that was because we both lived in Garrett Park. There was a clich,e at the time that all the books coming out of Washington were either politics or science. And someone said that the only place Washington writers ever gathered socially was on the train to or from New York."
As the 1960s faded, it was increasingly clear that journalists were no longer reticent about writing books. One hesitates to begin listing names for fear of leaving someone out, but the names that come easily to mind are: David Wise, Robert Sherrill (almost every year it seemed), Patrick Anderson, Les Whitten--to mention two who found greater success with novels--and what seemed like the entire staff of The Washington Post.
At one point I realized that of the five regulars in my summer tennis group, only one of us had not written a book. Those who had included, in addition to me, John Herbers of The New York Times (who had written three), Norman C. "Mike" Miller, Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal who'd done a book on the great salad oil swindle, a story that had won him a Pulitzer, and Dick Stout, then of Newsweek, who'd written People, an account of Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign and movement. The lone holdout was Wayne Kelley, but he could be excused because he was busy becoming the publisher of Congressional Quarterly and had put Dan Wakefield up in his basement while the former journalist finished his first novel.
In 1970, UPI's Dan Rappaport and John Pekkanen of Life were Nieman fellows at Harvard. "I was suprised," recalls Rappaport, "that at the end of the year, an editor from Houghton Mifflin came in and addressed our entire group, and said, in effect, 'If you ever write a book, remember us.' Pretty soon it was the accepted thing for a reporter to do a book about whatever he had been covering." Today both Rappaport and Pekkanen are free-lance writers and authors. (Rappaport is president of Washington Independent Writers, about which more later.)
Seymour Hersh points out, however, that journalists have been writing books for decades, and while there might not have been as many authors in their ranks in the '30s and '40s, there also were not nearly as many journalists. Milton Viorst mentions such past and present Post people as Alan Barth, Morton Mintz, and Tom Wolfe. (And today, New York Literary agent Esther Newberg, who says she was hired specifically because of her Washington contacts, finds that "being on The Post is of itself a good, and sometimes a sufficient, credential in the eyes of publishers.")
Thus by the early 1970s Washington was established (re-established?) on the literary map. And then there was Watergate.
By 1974, Art Buchwald was suggesting to his wife that she become a Washington-based literary agent, a rare and most unlikely species at the time: "Artie knew that there were all those good writers here on the papers and in the bureaus. Washington was a political news center but was not thought of as a writers' town. And he knew that it was usually harder for them to get a good agent than it was to get a publisher. So writers from Washington began doing books about what they had been working on, what they had been covering, and that, as it turned out, was both a strength and a weakness." But the Washington writer was very welcome in New York.
"Everybody in Washington tends to write a book or is in some stage of it," says Art Buchwald, with very little tongue in cheek. "You ask them 'How's it going?' and then everybody lies; the production is low but the pronouncements are high. But publishers are very impressed with Washington because it's as foreign to them as to everybody else. They all want a Washington book but they don't know what they want. Today there is a New York-Washington connection that probably isn't true of New York to California, say. But the level of pomposity that comes out of these books is amazing. Too often the writers are as pompous as the people they're writing about." Another Washingtonian with strong reservations about the quality of books from this city, especially the Watergate confessions, is Mary McGrory (who, it should be remembered, came to Washington from Boston as a book reviewer, not a reporter or a columnist. Her break came when Star editor Newbold Noyes assigned her to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings.)
"I've never thought of this as a writing town, in large part because it produces so many books that don't need to be, and also because it generates federal prose, which is as obfuscatory, sloppy, and soggy as it can be. But my main objection is that there are books that tell you everything but what you really want to know. Look at LBJ's memoirs: one page on the Vietnam war. Or my particular favorite, Chuck Colson's confessions where he devotes half of one sentence to E. Howard Hunt, a man who affected the history of the republic, but pages and pages to the tricks he pulled during the senatorial campaign of Leverett Saltonstall, for God's sake. That's pretty much the level around here, more reminiscences of the stripe of Chuck Colson's."
McGrory notwithstanding, there are many who do think of Washington as a writing, or at least a writer's, town. And they do so mainly because of the growth of two fine organizations that serve writers, would-be as well as published, the Washington Independent Writers (WIW) and the Writer's Center, which, if you note the placement of the apostrophe, takes a slightly different approach.
WIW, launched in 1974 with $5,000 seed money from philanthropist Philip Stern, had by the end of its first half-year, 250 members. Today it has between 1,350 and 1,400. It provides group benefits, such as medical insurance, and has a job bank, lecture and workshop series, and a useful newsletter.
The Writer's Center, which recently moved a few miles from its original home in the funky remains of the Glen Echo Amusement Park, began life as a kind of poets' heaven. The Center, which has grown in 61/2 years from 400 members at the end of the first year to 1,400 today, does so many things that it makes it hard to define. It is less of a service organization and more of a learning experience. It offers a raft of workshops that cover everything from the creative stimulus to the mechanical end of putting together a book. As Allan Lefcowitz, professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy and the Center's founder and board chairman, says "The Center is a 'third place,' neither work nor home. . . We promise our workshop students a good tough editor, but we provide no guarantees."
A third organization devoted to the interests of writers, the local chapter of the Writer's Union, now has 50 members.
Another world which is startling in its profusion and excitement is that of the small press which serves, or rather is, the life breath of the area's artistic, especially poetic, community. Washington has a most active, diverse and vocal group of poets. According to Richard Peabody, editor and publisher of Gargoyle and head of Paycock Press, Takoma Park "has more poets and prose writers per square inch than anywhere else in the United States."
At the Writer's Center (at 4800 Sangamore Rd. in Bethesda) there is a wealth of small press books and literary magazines for sale. You'll find such publications as Kathy Anderson's Nethula; Alan Austin and Anne Becker's Black Box; Doug Messerli's Sun and Moon Press; Merril Leffler's Dryad; Robert Sargent's Word Works; Poet Lore run by Phil Jason and Brian Madden which is celebrating its 100th birthday; Candyce Stapen's Sibyl-child; and the work of Wendy Stevens.
Another impressive change has taken place in the academic world. Twenty years ago as a graduate teaching assistant I helped start a single, purely voluntary workshop for undergraduates in creative writing at Catholic University. We were sternly warned that we should not get the idea that such a course would ever be offered for credit. Today, that entire world has changed. You can get a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at American University, in a program set up by the poet Myra Sklarew, and also at George Mason University, both programs staffed with accomplished poets and writers. And those two schools along with Georgetown hold annual writer's conferences that offer instruction from authors known and on their way.
The word most often used to describe the increase in the number of poetry and prose readings all over the Washington area is "explosion."
The 1970 Census found 25,376 "authors" in the U.S.A., with New York having most of them, Los Angeles next, and Washington in third with 8.1 percent or 2,051. The just-released 1980 Census figures indicate we're still in third place and have about 1,000 more "authors." But that category also contains "lyricists" and "continuity writers," among others. Taking a more selective view, the Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers lists a grand total of 189 for D.C. and all of Maryland and Virginia. Finally, and for what it's worth, Isolde Chapin, the director of WIW, estimates that about 40 percent of its members are full-time writers.
Clearly, the number of writers has increased on all levels. But that raises some intriguing questions. Dr. Lefcowitz asks, "Why the huge interest in writing at a time when people aren't reading?" And GWU's Director of Writing, Astere Claeyssens laments that "at a time when more graduate students in English are enrolled in creative writing programs than in literature, I find the creative writing students almost uninterested in the great liteature of the past."
Finally, what of the status of the Washington novel? Almost everyone I talked to for this article feels it has yet to come, the truly great one, that is. Art Buchwald who has read all the attempts, says, "I don't think it will ever happen. When you start dealing with real emotions here it sounds very hokey. Can you see Eugene O'Neill writing a book about a family in Washington?" Larry McMurtry adds, "We suffer its lack because too many people who try it have not lived here more than a few years, and thus their novels are nonindigenous. Fiction has to seep, from the ground up, and their work isn't sufficiently rooted in Washington. Also, Washington is a bureaucracy, and few novelists--other than Kafka, or Gogol in the short story--can deal with it. So we're going to need a different angle of attack, perhaps someone who comes at it from the periphery." Ed Tribble recalls a comment made at a Library of Congress symposium on the Washington novel: "One of the panelists said that if the great Washington novel is ever written, it will probably be done by a black kid from Anacostia who has never even heard of the power struggle."
When that happens, I'll stand in line to buy it.