Washington, D.C., first came to literary prominence during the Civil War. In 1862, Walt Whitman arrived in Washington to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war. After witnessing the thousands of suffering soldiers in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals. He remained for eleven years. During that time, he worked as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, a job that abruptly ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the Walt Whitman, author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found morally offensive. Before leaving the city for New Jersey, Whitman had composed some of his most famous works, including "When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain!" Louisa May Alcott also volunteered as a Civil War nurse in Washington, DC, from December 1862 to January 1863. Here she became extremely ill and the treatment she received damaged her health permanently. Her book, Hospital Sketches (1863), was based on her letters to her family from Washington.

Langston Hughes worked in the early 1920s as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC. One evening he left a sheaf of his poetry at the dining table of a hotel guest. That guest was Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay brought attention to Hughes's work by reading three of his poems before an audience in the hotel's little theater later that evening. Ezra Pound was committed to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC, from 1945 to 1958. Authorities arrested Pound near the end of World War II, charging him with treason for making radio broadcasts from Europe in support of fascism. After being held prisoner in a cage for several months, Pound suffered from exposure and was flown to Washington for treatment. There, he was found to be insane and unfit to stand trial. Thirteen years passed before countless appeals from American writers met with success and the charges against Pound were dropped.

A Washington institution with special meaning to poets and writers is the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. The Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress administers the oldest reading series in the Washington, DC, area, and one of the oldest in the United States. The Center is also the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1936, when the late philanthropist Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress. Since then, many of the nation's most eminent poets have served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and, after the passage of Public Law 99-194, as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. These writers include Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Louise Bogan, Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, Randall Jarrell, Robert Frost, Louis Untermeyer, James Dickey, William Stafford, William Meredith, Stanley Kunitz, Maxine Kumin, Anthony Hecht, and Gwendolyn Brooks.