A little specialized knowledge can be dangerous. I think of my former student, hiking with her boyfriend, who commented on a leaf she came across. Wasn’t it curious how green it was on one side and how silver on the other? Then she realized, with horror, she was talking to a botanist. “I’m not curious!” she interrupted herself. “I don’t want to know why!”
“Too late,” he said, and proceeded to fill the rest of hike with technical explanations about photosynthesis.
I’m a literary historian—I research writers who lived in Washington. I’ve found the seven locations where Walt Whitman boarded during and after the Civil War. The fact that none of them still stands is immaterial—when I pass their former locations, they’re visible to me. Some are now high-rises: the Career Technical Institute at Vermont Avenue and L Street, Northwest; the American Petroleum Institute on 13th between K and L. A couple are places where people still rest their heads: the W Hotel on 15th Street; the Claridge Tower Apartments at 1221 M, now public housing for seniors and people with disabilities.
I think of Walt in his room, writing letters to his mother in Brooklyn about the lumpiness of his mattress or the relative merits of one landlady’s cooking. He liked the boardinghouse of Edward and Juliet Grayson despite the fact that they were Southern sympathizers. The house was close to Vermont Avenue, where the poet would wait on the sidewalk for a glimpse of Abraham Lincoln, riding his horse north to his cottage at the Soldiers’ Home. Whitman wrote in 1863: “We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.”
Sitting under the glorious rotunda in the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room, surrounded by statues representing Religion, Commerce, Law, Philosophy, and, yes, Poetry, I think of Paul Laurence Dunbar, grumpily reshelving some of the very books I’ve requested. He hated the place—the dust and mold, squinting over small type—and said the stacks felt like prison. So although he had the regal annual salary of $720 when hired in 1897, he quit after a year, claiming the job had encouraged his drinking, soon to be full-blown alcoholism. The conditions certainly couldn’t have been great for his tuberculosis, whose symptoms appeared while he lived in DC. Dunbar wrote: “I hate Washington very cordially and evidently it returns the compliment, for my health is continually poor here.”
One of the places where author Zora Neale Hurston rented rooms while a student at Howard in the early 1920s is near where I live. It’s a modest two-story rowhouse on Sherman Avenue near Irving Street, not particularly well cared for. “I have been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and licked out all the pots,” she wrote. “Then I have stood on the peaky mountains wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.” Every time I pass, I give Zora an imaginary wave.
But what’s interesting to me isn’t necessarily so to others. After about the fourth time I pointed out the house to my friend Gwen, she groaned: “Not again with the Zora Neale Hurston story!”
What was that movie where the kid whispers, “I see dead people”? The Sixth Sense? I know what he means.
Cities are like a palimpsest—a tablet or parchment reused after earlier writing has been erased. We tear down buildings. We forget. But the landscape remembers. It holds all its meanings simultaneously: the people who came before, the events that remain just under the surface, the words imperfectly scraped away, traces showing through. Only a nudge is necessary for the stories to rise again and bring forth new leaves.
This article appears in our September 2015 issue of Washingtonian.