Hitchens On the Worthless Washington Novel

  haha he liked harlot's ghost

Washington novels are terrible, as you maybe noticed if you’ve ever mistakenly picked up a novel about Washington. Christopher Hitchens has some theories:

Can one imagine a Dickens without London or a Zola or Flaubert without Paris? The radix malorum can probably be found in the famous bargain between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, made when New York was still the capital of these United States. In exchange for an agreement to build the constitutionally mandated new Federal City on the border of Jefferson’s beloved Virginia, Hamilton could have his coveted national bank. Thus, and allowing for certain Philadelphian interludes, it was decided early on that the cultural capital of America would be separated from its political one. Other countries that have made similar two-headed arrangements include Australia, Brazil, Burma, and Canada: we yet await the Brasilia or Canberra novel.

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A writer and editor of this website from 2006 to early 2012, Ken Layne is occassionally seen on Twitter and writes small books and is already haunting you from beyond (your) grave.

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49 comments

  1. mereoblivion

    True dat, for New York we would need a whole bunch: House of Mirth, Call it Sleep, and Catcher in the Rye are the first three that come to mind, but it's late and I'm bushed. Last Exit to Brooklyn? I dunno. But at least those are all very good-to-great books. Has there been even one very good Washington novel?

      1. mereoblivion

        Indeed! That Edith W. knew a thing or two about the human soul. House of Mirth is my favorite of hers, but Age of Innocence is not far behind.

  2. XOhioan

    What. I'll give you Philly, but there are dozens of great novels written with New York as a leading character. I'm reading a newer one right now: Netherland. Just a few others: Great Gatsby, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Catcher in the Rye, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Chosen… haven't even made it into the 1970s with that list…

    1. V572625694

      Franklin: "I say, Madison, where's Jefferson this evening? It's finally cool enough to get some work done."

      Madison: "He's off making the two-backed beast with that high yellow of his, Sally Hemings."

      Paine: "Well tell him to get in here with his draft of the letter to King George!"

  3. charlesdegoal

    “[The consensus is that] the great Washington novel is something of an oxymoron,” says Jeffrey Charis-Carlson, the opinion page editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen and a scholar of District literature. For the past four years he’s devoured more than 200 novels for his University of Iowa dissertation on D.C. fiction.
    And yet: Primary Colors

    1. BerkeleyBear

      Not really about DC, though, as opposed to politics. Perhaps that's the real problem – the "real" Washington that would make a good character is so distinct from its "official" character that everyone learns in grade school that it doesn't work.

      I'm thinking of the Washington of the turn of the 20th century, by the way, when guys like Hays and Adams were the unofficial lords of the city regardless of what happened in politics.

      1. horsedreamer_1

        The harDCore scene seems idiosyncratic enough it could produce a story or three worthy of novel.

    2. GuyClinch

      Haven't read him yet (I should, since I live in DC), but George Pelecanos has written a number of well-received detective fiction set not in politics but in the neighborhoods of DC. Also wrote for the Wire, which I'm finally getting around to watching.

  4. emmelemm

    Long, long ago, when I attended a pretentious liberal arts college, I took a class about the history of NYC as depicted in film. There is no shortage of films (going, of course, back to the days of the silent movie) in which New York City itself is an important "character". Of course, if you want to go that argument, there are tons of movies about Washington DC (political movies, that is) that do it justice quite nicely.

  5. Bluestatelibel

    I think Peter Blakely's "The Exorcist" is the epic Washington novel–it reeks of the horror, filth, and vomit that so typifies our capital.

    1. charlesdegoal

      Unnecessarily mean. Whatever he has said or written since, Hitchens at one time and to his everlasting credit was famous for accusing Kissinger of being a war criminal.

      1. LetUsBray

        Well, what's he done lately, besides slobber on the Deciderer's codpiece? His early jeremiad against Kissinger makes his shilling for the neocon Insane Clown Posse all the more inexplicable.

  6. mavenmaven

    The Overton Window, of course. The definitive novel of, like, everything. Along with Atlas Shrugged (needless to say).
    Damn, my brain exploded after writing that.

    1. CrankyLttlCamperette

      I thought Fight Club was set in Wilmington, b/c of the plethora of credit card companies that were HQ's there (thanks Delaware's lax biz laws!)

    1. GuyClinch

      Yesterday I youtubed a debate about religion between him and Tony Blair that happened last weekend in Toronto; Hitchens absolutely skewered (albeit with polite, withering wit). Tony was very often conceding points that Hitch hadn't even brought up yet. Fine entertainment.

  7. ttommyunger

    The premise deserves the same response as does the man putting forth the premise: who gives a fuck, really?

  8. inedal

    many years ago GORE VIDAL wrote a novel about Washington, DC.

    doesn't anybody here remember that book? or are you all too young?

    it probably captured the essence of DC in those pristine days…

    maybe it's the best of the lot, concerning books about our nation's capital.

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