Scott W. Berg’s books include “Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.” He teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University.
Perhaps cities get the written histories they deserve. Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s “Gotham” is, like New York, thunderous and massive; Mark Binelli’s “Detroit City Is the Place to Be” is perfectly sad, sublime and uproarious; and the title of Donald L. Miller’s marvelous “City of the Century,” about Chicago, seems to make a dubious claim until one realizes that the “century” in question is the 19th. Some such works aim to become “History,” some modestly proclaim themselves “a history,” but whatever their ambitions, the best examples manage to convince us that we, as readers, have wrapped our arms around a city, that through this embrace, we are able to feel its beating heart.
The most recent attempt at such an overview of Washington, two exhaustive volumes by Constance McLaughlin Green published more than 50 years ago, garnered her the Pulitzer Prize. But, well, a lot has happened since then. The level of scholarship connected to the city’s past has steadily risen over the years, thanks in good measure to the often-unsung efforts of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University and Cultural Tourism DC, as well as a bevy of independent scholars who have illuminated such pockets of Washington’s history as the origin and planning of the city, the city during wartime, black migration to the city and the history of the city’s neighborhoods.
Tom Lewis, an emeritus professor of English at Skidmore College and the author of “The Hudson,” now provides us with “Washington: A History of Our National City,” a valuable and satisfyingly readable synthesis of much of this existing research and scholarship, presented through a sequence of individual stories. The book’s thesis, such as it has, is that Washington is a kind of stage on which various players strut and fret at their appointed hour, one after another after another. I lost count at 100 people who appear, do their bit and exit, never to be heard from again. In his introduction, Lewis describes this approach as a “selection” of “stories and details,” but it might be better termed a parade at which readers sit back and watch a show of mostly lesser-known people and incidents pass through the city and, however briefly, in front of their eyes.
This approach makes “Washington” a remarkably amiable tale for a city that has seen so much trouble and conflict. Some of the people we meet are good (Mary Church Terrell, a founding member of the NAACP), some bad (James Greenleaf, real estate con man extraordinaire), while most slosh along somewhere in the middle. But Lewis seems less interested in their moral qualities than in the contribution each can make to the mix. Still, it was a pleasure to arrive at Page 419 and Lewis’s contemptuous portrayal of South Carolinian John L. “Mac” McMillan, chairman of the House Committee on the District from 1945 to 1973, a fire-breathing opponent of home rule and a resolute racist who, out of a long line of national politicians antagonistic toward the federal city and its local interests, stands out as one of the most vituperative and damaging. (In 1967, when Walter Washington, an African American, was first appointed mayor, Johnny Mac sent him a load of watermelons. And that’s just a start.)
Lewis can’t stand Johnny Mac. And I was right there with him, my own animus for the man pleasantly reanimated. Such moments of collaborative judgment between author and reader are one of the true pleasures in works of narrative history, and I wanted to read more about this villainous lawmaker, a lot more. I’m delivering a roundabout compliment, but it is a compliment: Lewis does more to whet my appetite than to sate it. By choice and necessity, he fills the first quarter of the book with such better-known figures as George Washington, Peter Charles L’Enfant, Dolley Madison and Charles Dickens. But he soon delves into the weeds of the less famous and comes up with a long succession of fascinating thumbnail portraits: Rose O’Neal Greenhow, socialite turned spy, credited with winning the First Battle of Bull Run from her drawing room; John Sessford, the meticulous Scot whose hobby it was to record the growth of the city, house by house; Alexander Robey “Boss” Shepherd, whose four-year reign as the city’s infrastructure czar after the Civil War introduced Washington to the wonders of electricity, sewers and pavement; A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who faced down Franklin Roosevelt on the question of racial discrimination in government jobs; and many, many more.
“Washington” is a determinedly localized book for one that uses the phrase “our national city” in its subtitle. This is a double-edged sword. The word “Watergate,” as far as I can tell, doesn’t appear; the year 1974 is represented instead by the vote for Walter Washington as the city’s first elected mayor in more than a century. The Bonus Army protests, Marian Anderson’s concert, the March on Washington — all are narrated expertly but with little consideration of how these events played in Peoria.
In fact, Lewis seems mostly uninterested in the city as metaphor, despite the fact that Washington may be the world’s most metaphorical city. We see the Beltway being built, but we don’t hear about how “inside the Beltway” became nearly universal pejorative shorthand for the city. (In the 19th century, something similar happened with the word “swamp.”) Marion Barry gets three pages — in this book, a significant allotment — but nowhere in them does Lewis consider what Barry’s mayoralty said about the city to the rest of the country. And we get no description or discussion of 9/11 at all, which is, in the end, the only omission in the book that truly gives me pause. A chapter on that day’s events might have been an ideal way to consider questions of national perceptions of the city, of our twinned urges to damn it and to protect it. Events in Washington carry a certain weight, and carry it in a certain way, that events elsewhere do not.
But, in fairness, such concerns are not a part of Lewis’s mission, and it is no bad thing to tell the story of the capital from within. If Washington is a parade at which we are asked to do a lot of watching, it’s a captivating parade, and, in the accumulation of personalities of all types, the flavor of the place does emerge. As a single example, look at Lewis’s portrait of the city during World War I, which in only a dozen pages or so chronicles the rise of spy culture, the influx of young single women and men crowding into boardinghouses, the elan and determination of the suffragette movement and the rapid integration (and equally quick postwar resegregation) of the city.
The entire narrative, first word to last, is told with this kind of brio and keen curiosity. It’s no put-down of Washington to say that we’re still waiting for a definitive history that, a la Burrows, Wallace, Binelli or Miller, fully gets inside the city’s essential energy, its unique meaning, its slippery potential and its undeniable weirdness. Lewis succeeds in showing us the human face of Washington; and for Washington, too often perceived as faceless, that’s achievement enough.
By Tom Lewis
Basic. 521 pp. $40