It turns out that a great way to combine a love of local history and a love of writing is to figure out where noted authors lived in your city. That’s what poets and literary historians Kim Roberts and Dan Vera did in Washington, DC. They started with 15 authors in 2008.
Last night, at the HumanitiesDC space in the Uline Arena (more about that below), they shared their additions and improvements since then—345 authors tucked into a very friendly and searchable website at www.dcwriters.org.
Who’s In, Who’s Not
Their rules are that the author has to be dead, and their home has to still stand. That covers famous authors like Carlos Fuentes (who lived here when his father worked for the Mexican Embassy) and Zora Neale Hurston (a student at Howard). Lesser known authors like poets Richard Bruce Nugent (here in his 20s) and Betty Parry (here most of her adult life). Surprising authors (often memoir writers) like Myrna Loy and Ulysses S. Grant.
The “house still standing” rule knocks out a lot of contenders, they point out, including one they wished to include—Walt Whitman. Whitman lived here during and for a while after the Civil War, but none of his lodgings still stand.
The authors are of all races, and most “did something else” in addition to writing. Some wrote fiction or poetry, some nonfiction, some plays, some all of the above. Some lived here their whole lives, others just a year or two (although another criterion is that people had to live here, that is, not just stay at a hotel or otherwise not really put down roots).
The list belies the reputation that our area only does politics.
Finding the Places
The website includes the street address, photo, and location on a map for each known place the author lived in DC or close-in suburbs of Maryland and Virginia (metro-accessible merits inclusion beyond the DC line).
In most cases, the buildings were not already identified with the authors. Dan and Kim went to archives at local libraries and universities, the Library of Congress, and other places. City directories were useful. So were letters with addresses on envelopes or the top of the letter. (What will future generations do without these clues?) This seems like a daunting task X 345.
They related several instances when they were taking a picture and the resident came out wondering what they were doing. They would have the same response that many of us did last night, “I didn’t know [fill-in-the-blank] lived here!”
As Kim and Dan noted, “Realtors love us.” Has their work enhanced the asking price of a house or condo?
I used to live on California Street NW. Near, I learned, to novelist Vasily Aksyonov and not far from many others further up and down Connecticut Avenue.
And…thanks to the birthday list on the homepage, I now know that I share my November 28 birthday with Owen Dodson, poet, novelist, playwright, and long-time chair of the Howard University Drama Department.
Peruse the list. Do you know of an author’s house not included? Last night they said they are especially looking to fill the roster from Ward 7 in the District and from the close-in suburbs. Let them know of your finds.
No famous author lived in what was a cavernous ice arena built in the 1940s, but the Beatles played there in 1964 in their first concert in the U.S. (And they were/are certainly great writers.) HumanitiesDC—the District’s National Endowment for the Humanities affiliate—now has offices in the space, which could have been demolished 15 years ago but fortunately remains standing.