It’s not often that a literary history comes alive by inviting the reader to walk around and experience where prominent writers wrote. Such is Kim Robert’s A Literary Guide to Washington, DC published in 2018 by the University of Virginia Press. The sub-title of this guide further defines the scope of Robert’s work—Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston.
Four walking tours anchor the guide with emphasis on Walt Whitman (tour 1), Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Dunbar-Nelson (tour 2), Henry Adams (tour 3), and Langston Hughes (tour 4). The timeframe is 1800 through 1930. What sets this guide apart from other literary walking tour books are the bridging literary portraits and the examples of their work—mostly poems and excerpted fiction. These portraits often provide additional destinations not noted on the four tours.
While there are poems from Walt Whitman and the Dunbars and short prose quotations from Henry Adams, no poems by Langston Hughes appear. There is, however, a quotation from his autobiography called The Big Sea. This quote gives a sensate understanding of what DC’s 7th Street was like for a man of color who could be “mulatto” to “deep dark-browns” and still enjoy without prejudice the “watermelon, barbeque, and fish sandwiches” and such experiences as the “shouting churches and the songs.”
A pleasing layout makes the book easy to read, especially if the reader is on the street trying to understand why the destination has been singled out for literary tribute. The maps and the photographs help identifying precise locations.
The Steiny Road Poet has been on walking tour 4: Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance along U Street with Kim Roberts narrating. This tour includes the most stops because it combines the intertwined histories of such jazz musicians and composers as Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton. It includes the story of the rise of the Black middle class, detailing public schools of prominence in segregated DC as well as the story of important professors at Howard University like Kelly Miller and independent teachers as Jessie Redmon Fauset who mentored such young writers as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. Additionally, it’s the story of Black business development—Black newspapers, hotels, a ballroom named Murray’s Palace Casino that could hold 1800 patrons. Langston Hughes pops up in many of the stops on this tour—places in which he lived, worked, hung out like the
Saturday NIghters Club in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s house at 1461 S Street NW.
For years, Steiny hung out at 1404 S Street NW working on The Word Works books of poetry at the home and studio of artist and book designer Janice Olson. It wasn’t until Kim Roberts led Steiny to the Douglas Johnson house, and recited the litany of prominent Black writers who frequented this house, that the full historic weight was felt and understood. Georgia Douglas Johnson’s house was a place frequented by Kelly Miller and his daughter May Miller (Steiny knew her as an elderly poet who was still getting her books published in the local DC small press scene), Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.
Kim Roberts at the Douglas-Johnson house
Steiny is well aware of the role that Black artists played in bringing Four Saints in Three Acts, Gertrude Stein’s first opera with Virgil Thomson, to national attention in 1934. It was the first time Black singers were featured in a performance that had nothing to do with minstrel shows and had everything to do the emergence of artists out the Harlem Renaissance. What Kim Roberts has done is document how the Harlem Renaissance had deep early roots in Washington DC and included Madame Lillian Evanti, a DC-based opera singer who translated the libretto of La traviata into English. Yes, Madame Evanti lived at 1910 Vermont Avenue, NW and got her music training at Howard University. She also wrote music and set Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poem “Hail to Fair Washington.”
Lots of historic nuggets to mine in Kim Robert’s A Literary Guide to Washington, DC.