When Christopher Hitchens addressed the idea of Washington, DC, as being literary place, he displayed his usual impressive command of history, politics, and literature. To wit: “I once heard Newt Gingrich rebuke someone who was bad-mouthing [Gore] Vidal’s politics, insisting that he wished to hear no ill of the author of the magnificent Lincoln.” If that isn’t deliciously insider-high-culture, I don’t know what is.
DC, says Hitchens, should be a fantastic setting for a great novel. The foibles, vices, ambitions, and duplicity that swamp the Capital City would make for brilliant character study. And maybe this was possible when DC hosted the high culture of sartorial diplomats and senatorial dinners, but most of the lower Potomac books we have now are political/military power thrillers. A mundane trip, when Washington’s actual intrigue “[has] a way of outpacing the imagination of pulp writers.” And this is what makes the thriller seriously boring – it plays on the same over-sensationalized emotions that run the 24-hour news cycle.
Hitchens’s traditionalist literary tastes (if not his opinions) seep through as he identifies the real issue. Perhaps there has not been a great Washington novel because a character-study of the Washington-type really does not matter to us. The Washington game is so overwhelmed by telegenic and scripted personae, its characters so drawn by the means of mass media, that their cartoonish flaws are no longer dramatic exaggerations of those we see in ourselves.
But Hitchens still loves the nation’s capital. There really is a great Washington novel to be written, because there really are deep reasons for being attracted into the Beltway. Yes, there is much to scorn at in DC, especially from the outside – it is the ultimate critics’ scapegoat. But the participatory seat of government draws out the yearning question of our history: Is America right? “We still await the novelist who can address the matter of the last, best hope of earth and treat it without frivolity, without cynicism, and without embarrassment.”
Irony will not write the great Washington novel. Thrill will not write it. Snark will not write it. If the deep question is possibly one of personal and national uncertainty, then the probing, dramatic story of Washington is whether we can continue to be Americans, why we want to be, and whether alternative approaches can escape the horror of not knowing national identity. Does this mean nationalism is a fake? No. But the fascination with the hub of power, and of identity, might be one of the gates to some great soul-ish story that hits a nerve you haven’t quite articulated before.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.