George Watterston (1783-1854) was perhaps the most prominent writer to establish himself in early Washington, DC, and one of the first people to head up the Library of Congress. He was the author of a number of satirical novels about social life in the young capital, which is how I first became acquainted with him.
Watterston was born with the nation, in the year that marked the end of the Revolution, to an unknown mother aboard a ship docked in New York City harbor. His father, a Scottish immigrant and master builder, moved the family to the District of Columbia in 1791, soon after it was designated as the location for the new capital. Watterston’s development and that of “Washington City” were thus closely intertwined.
Watterston was educated as a lawyer but turned away from the profession in distaste. Instead, he wrote a novel entitled The Lawyer; Or, Man as He Ought Not to Be, published anonymously in 1808, and with that his literary career was launched. In 1813, Watterston became the editor of the Washington Star Gazette, a Republican newspaper, promoting and chronicling Washington as it grew.
Two years later he was named Librarian of Congress, the Congressional Library being then a young and small institution. What there was of it had, in fact, been destroyed in 1814, when the British succeeded in invading the capital, torching the Congress’s new home and the books inside. Watterston rebuilt the collection, aided by Thomas Jefferson, who generously donated his personal library.
Watterston’s patronage job, which he held for the next 15 years, freed him to write. His literary output entailed funny, shrewdly observed novels; statistical compendia; books on gardening and landscaping; sketches of political figures, and traveler’s guides. A Whig in politics, he got a rude jolt when Andrew Jackson became president and promptly dismissed him from his post as Librarian, in order to put a Democratic supporter in.
Watterston then founded the Washington Monument Building Society, which envisioned and built the massive obelisk that dominates the Mall. This massive and expensive undertaking, begun in 1833, would not be complete until 1885. At the time of Watterson’s death in the mid-185os, the Monument had attained a height of just 150 feet. Still, I think it’s a terrific thing to have to one’s credit, don’t you? Watterston deserves a biography, if not a modest monument of his own.
Among the heroes of public culture, James Billington, the long-serving Librarian of Congress, ranks high. Under his leadership, the Library of Congress has been on a drive to digitize its vast collections and make them accessible online to a global public. Sound recordings, films, photographs, old prints, drawings, maps, manuscripts—millions of items can now be viewed and freely used, to the extent that copyright law allows. Many of the illustrations on Our Polity are from its website.
Among the Library’s holdings are a collection of photographic portraits by Carl Van Vechten, taken mainly in the 1930s. Van Vechten (1880-1964) was an Iowa native and graduate of the University of Chicago who, in 1903, moved to New York City and became a journalist under the tutelage of Theodore Dreiser.
Van Vechten first made his reputation as an art and music critic, writing mainly for the New York Times, where he was a champion of then-neglected forms of popular music such as folk, jazz, and blues. He also wrote about, and got to know, the many gifted African-American artists, writers, and intellectuals who, in what was referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, were first making their mark at this time.
Only in the 1930s did Van Vechten turn to photography, the field in which he scored his greatest lasting achievement. Several thousand of his portraits survive, most but not all taken in his studio, amounting to a fascinating collective portrait of cultural life of the time. Included among his subjects were noted composers, actors, singers, ballerinas, folk artists, novelists, poets, and prize fighters. Many were Van Vechten’s friends; others were new or making a passing appearance on the scene.
Van Vechten’s photographs mirror the diversity that was then a new feature of America’s culture. It was our first truly cosmopolitan, modern decade. The Russian ballerinas, Jewish publishers, gay expatriate arts patrons, Spanish surrealists, and black opera-singers that thronged the cities represented a welcome and radical shift in a culture that had long been dominated by a pale, genteel population that was far more narrow and homogeneous. In the thirties, American culture came of age, incorporating into itself the global currents that formed, and continue to influence, the culture of the present day.
Images from the Van Vechten Collection: (top) Actor Earl Jones; (inset, left to right)
Ethel Waters, Ram Gopal, Gertrude Stein, Leontyne Price, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.