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Capital Speculations
Writing and Building Washington, D.C.
Sarah Luria

Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies

New Hampshire
2005 • 232 pp. 25 illus. 6 x 9"
Cultural Studies / Literary Criticism / Architecture

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“One of the most lively and engaging books now available about Washington's urban design, architecture and interior spaces... Capital Speculations is the successful fruit of a cross-disciplinary approach to writing about place that draws on everything from literature to politics to paintings and maps... Capital Speculations has the potential to change several of the academic fields in which Luria is conversant.” The Washington Post

An imaginative analysis of the interplay between rhetoric and physical space in the creation of the nation’s capital.

In this lively study, Sarah Luria pursues the vital political connection between architecture and literature in the formation in 1791 of America’s grand new capital city. City planners believed that designing Washington, D.C. as a physical model of the Constitution and its balance of powers would help citizens bond with the newly created nation. Although wildly ambitious, this design was made feasible through financial speculation. Dazzled by the plans for an “American Rome,” citizens would buy up its empty lots and make the nation’s capital their home. Luria demonstrates how political and financial speculation combined to build Washington and, once established, how the capital became a stage for the visions of subsequent reformers.

Luria examines five political reformers and the Washington sites they used to promote their ideas: George Washington and the design of the “Federal City”; Abraham Lincoln and the enlargement of the Capitol dome during the Civil War; Walt Whitman and the capital’s Civil War hospitals; Frederick Douglass and his impressive estate overlooking the Capitol; and Henry Adams and the double house that he built with poet-statesman John Hay on Lafayette Square. Although each author’s work describes a different dynamic relationship between text and physical space, all five combine political speculation and marketplace psychology. They construct their visions and attract investment in them through their novelty, boldness, and extravagant scale.

Clarifying the dynamic relations among discourse, economics, politics, and the built environment, Luria’s book demonstrates how keenly architectural history is interwoven into American literary and political life.

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Reviews / Endorsements

“Luria deftly conceptualizes the politics of circulation as expressed in roads, canals, and railroads, extending that concept to the cast-iron Capitol dome constructed during the Civil War, Whitman’s nationalistic poetry, and Lincoln’s unifying political rhetoric.”—Journal of American History

“With eloquence and imagination, Sarah Luria sheds light on the ever-changing social, political, and literary meanings of the nation’s capital. Examining historical figures as different from one another as L’Enfant, Washington, Lincoln, Whitman, Douglass, and Henry Adams, the book moves fluidly through a wide range of materials—novels, poems, domestic architecture, speeches, and photographs—to show how changes in the layout and look of the capital during its first century of existence mirrored ongoing national debates about the meaning and purpose of American democracy. Capital Speculations beautifully blends urban geography, politics, literature, and material culture to enhance our historical understanding of the city inside the beltway.”David M. Lubin, Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art, Wake Forest UniversityAuthor of Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images

“A book that changes a field is a rare find. A book that changes several fields is a treasure, indeed. Sarah Luria’s Capital Speculations infuses the genre of the city history with fresh intellectual energy,connecting literary criticism with the analysis of art and architecture in deeply creative and historically-grounded ways. Luria’s work changes landscapes both physical and metaphysical.”Catherine Allgor,Associate Professor of History, University of California at Riverside and author of Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and Government

Author Photo

SARAH LURIA is Assistant Professor of English at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Sat, 30 Sep 2017 13:46:00 -0500