New American Writers Museum tells the great American story | Way of life


CHICAGO – The American Writers Museum, under construction for seven years, is a business even the most daring author could avoid: How, on one floor of an office building, do you tell the story of centuries of American language?

The museum curators wanted the concept of writing as broad as possible, a concept that includes not only novels, memoirs and poetry, but also screenplays, journalism, rap lyrics, advertising slogans and even the booth. -up. Prince and Tupac Shakur are pictured with Harper Lee and Thomas Jefferson.

Homes and institutions across the country are dedicated to individual authors, whether it’s the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, or the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. But this museum, which opens Tuesday in Chicago, is the first to attempt a full portrait.

Chicago, centrally located and associated with great American writers like Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, and James T. Farrell, was seen as the perfect setting.

The museum, 11,000 square feet on the second floor of a Michigan Avenue office building between a Citibank and a noodle shop, does not have marble floors or large arcades. The layout is bright and intimate, perfect for school outings and family outings.

In addition to the colorful banners, timelines, signs and the word “waterfall”, there are interactive games and activities. Trivia contests ask questions like which book begins with “Remote ships have every man’s wish on board” (Their Eyes Watched God by Zora Neale Hurston) or who coined the term “factoid” (Norman Mailer)?

An area allows visitors to create their own stories, with notepads, a manual typewriter, and a bulletin board to display the results. The museum also has a “Readers Room” with libraries offering selections such as “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the poems by Elizabeth Bishop and the screenplay for Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard”. Wall displays sum up everything from the “evolution” of bookstores to “Voices of Dissent”.

Relying mainly on private funding, the American Writers Museum was designed in 2010 by Malcolm O’Hagan, former CEO of a manufacturing trade organization which drew inspiration from the Dublin Writers Museum in Ireland.

“The goal is to tell the story and stories of America’s contribution to human literary expression,” said Max Rudin, member of the museum’s content management team and publisher of the Library of America, who publishes hardcover editions of classic American writings. . “And (we seek) to do so in a way that captures the energy of our uniquely democratic literary culture in all its diversity and sometimes even its eccentricity.”

“When people think of writers and writing, you think of novels, and that can seem out of date,” says museum operations director Christopher Burrow. “So we wanted to make it modern, interactive, bring the past to the present and inspire the next generation of writers.”

A “writer’s room” offers a showcase for an individual book or author, starting with “Sur la route” by Jack Kerouac and his working manuscript, the extraordinary 120-foot roll he unfurled in front of surprised publishers. . A passage near the museum entrance slides you into the hushed, tropical atmosphere of the poet WS Merwin’s home in Hawaii, an installation / greenhouse complete with live palm trees and audio recordings of Merwin’s poetry.

“His house is on the side of a hill, surrounded by palm trees, and sometimes when you’re in the house you barely know if it’s sunny outside,” says Merwin’s son-in-law, the author- screenwriter John Burnham Schwartz, who visited the museum. “He loves the feeling of being completely wrapped up and I think they captured that feeling well here.”

The museum that the public will first encounter is unlikely to be the same museum in the months and years to come. Exhibits will rotate and the permanent collection, centered on deceased writers and other public figures of the past, will inevitably require more space. Museum chairman Carey Cranston said if “demand and interest” is high enough, it could expand to the top floor and double the space.

Because the museum, by definition, is a kind of canon, debates will eventually develop over who belongs and who does not. An “American Voices” wall timeline highlights both the expected (Melville, Hawthorne, Hemingway) and lesser-known figures like 19th-century novelist Sophia Alice Callahan.

“It’s a way of thinking about language and craftsmanship,” says Rudin. “Writers influence our lives in ways that are both profound and ordinary. As a counterpoint to the more traditional “serious” writing elsewhere in the museum, the writing, comedy writing, editorials, and lyrics highlight the many shapes and sizes of American writing.

History readers may be disappointed. Francis Parkman and WEB Du Bois are featured on the Wall’s timeline, but you’ll see little or nothing about Barbara Tuchman, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter, and John Hope Franklin, among others. The writings of the Supreme Court, currently absent from the museum, are an “obvious subject” for a future exhibition, says Rudin.

Statesmen and politicians are represented, with a few notable exceptions. Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin are duly prominent, but references to another founder, a Federalist Papers lead author remembered singing at the nearby PrivateBank Theater, are hard to find.

Alexander Hamilton’s turn will have to wait. – (AP)

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