Roald Dahl Typed Here
"There’s a richer literary history here than we usually give ourselves credit for," says Kim Roberts, a D.C. poet who's spent the last five years gathering evidence to prove that point. Last week, Roberts and collaborator Dan Vera, a poet and author, launched dcwriters.org, an impressive compendium of more than 120 dead authors who called the area home, along with information about where they lived.
As my colleague Shani Hilton pointed out last week, one of the site's coolest aspects is that it sheds light on a number of authors not typically associated with the District, like Sinclair Lewis. Lewis wrote three books in the District—Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith—and lived in homes in Georgetown and Logan Circle.
Roberts and Vera's research started as a hobby: They combed through writers' correspondence and old city records, and, if the home was still standing, they photographed it. "It takes a certain kind of compulsive person to do this kind of research," says Roberts. The work eventually yielded an article on D.C. writers' homes in Beltway Poetry Quarterly, which Roberts edits. From there—and with support from the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., the Split This Rock poetry festival, and other groups—Roberts and Vera set to build their work into a website.
Writers whose homes have been demolished—like Walt Whitman's—weren't included. Nor were living authors—"because of issues of privacy," Roberts says. "We wanted to make it more about honoring the history of the city." So you won't find, say, George Pelecanos' Silver Spring home on dcwriters.org. (Then again, if you do a public records search...)
The website has some pretty nice gets. Philip K. Dick, the celebrated sci-fi author, lived at 708 Varnum St. NW in Petworth for several years as a child, when his parents, who both worked for the federal government, were separated. When Roberts and Vera visited Dick’s Petworth home, the “older woman who lived there had noooooo idea who Philip K. Dick was,” says Vera. “Her son came out and I mentioned some of the movies [Dick] inspired,” like Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. “He was amazed.”
Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (a travel writer who had the idea to plant cherry trees in D.C. back in 1885) and John Dos Passos, the prolific and controversial 20th century novelist, lived in the same house in Dupont, many decades apart.
Before beginning his literary career, the Welsh children's author Roald Dahl lived in three homes in the District. “He lived here in a sort of previous life as a spy during World War II,” Vera says. A member of the British Royal Airforce, Dahl served in D.C. as Assistant Air Attache but also worked with the Canadian master spy William Stephensen. Dahl wrote his first published essay, “Shot Down Over Libya,” here.
Roberts says she was pleased to include Zora Neale Hurston, who lived in Columbia Heights in the early 1920s. "She’s really associated with Florida and New York," Roberts says, but Hurston was published in a periodical at Howard University, where she began her undergraduate degree.
One of the site's more interesting inclusions is Ezra Pound—the poet, editor, and Fascist mouthpiece—who was incarcerated for treason at St. Elizabeth's for 12 years following World War II. "We debated if we should include institutions," says Roberts—but because "there was a community that was galvanized around his incarceration," Pound made the cut.
So, yeah, there's a lot there. If all of this starts some new literary turf wars—see Philadelphia and Baltimore's sparring over who deserves to house the remains of Edgar Allan Poe—Vera and Roberts should be proud.