Several beautiful portraits by Carl Van Vechten, who photographed many of the 20th century’s most illustrious intellectuals and artists, have recently shown up on the Library of Congress’s Flickr feed. Among them is this particularly surreal composition, featuring a young Truman Capote, photographed against a dreamlike marbled background with puppets. At just 24 years of age, Capote was already attaining the status of a celebrity with the publication of his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Most surviving likeness of the New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley (1811-1872) are either caricatures or photographs taken in his later years. In political cartoons, he is often depicted wearing tiny spectacles, a top hat, and a voluminous overcoat with bulging pockets (one of his sartorial trademarks). In the post-Civil War photographs, Greeley is plump and sports a fringe of white beard, a little like Santa Claus but with beady eyes. Continue reading →
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.
The Washington Monument, circa 1876.
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.