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Visiting the American Writers Museum

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

Ceiling inside the American Writers Museum, on which books are suspended radiating across the ceiling in colorful rows. The ceiling is dark but dramatically backlit, with an Exit sign prominent off to the side.

We find ourselves in a time when questions surrounding American identity — What is “Americanness” and who has the right to call him- or herself an American? — seem to lurk under the daily headlines, taking up a refrain that has been repeated throughout this nation’s history. In some ways, then, this is the moment when a museum celebrating the writer’s role to define American identity is most necessary. Yet it is also the moment when such a project becomes most challenging and fraught.

Before visiting the American Writers Museum in Chicago (opened May 2017), I wondered how a museum with the stated mission “to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives” could deliver on this goal. Even putting aside this contested territory of Americanness, our fractured sense of what constitutes a cohesive “history” or “culture,” how, on a practical level, does one even go about creating a museum to the written word? As a writer, I’d like to believe that words and books are alive and inherently resist being pinned down inside a glass case like so many specimens of rare butterflies.

The curators and decision-makers at the American Writers Museum would seem to agree, for they have created an institution where the written word is meant to be experienced, not read. With guidance from the Smithsonian Institution; design from the firm Amaze Design; oversight from leading writers, scholars and publishers; and countless grants, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities, they have transformed an admittedly limited, second-floor space on Chicago’s “cultural mile” into something expansive, even endless, with the wealth of interactive displays packed inside.

At the entrance, helpful staff will recommend beginning your tour at the timeline whose first entry, at 1492, you’ll find next to a screen playing an informational film on a loop. But, of course, you can also start in one of the special exhibit galleries or go to the left of the ticket counter to peruse large banners displaying key facts on Chicago writers, hung on a sort of clothesline so you can move the banners around to get a clearer view of your favorite writer. Of the exhibits I saw, I found the timeline to be the least engaging, though I would agree the recommendation to start there is sound, as it forms a good foundation from which to take in the other exhibits. The timeline displays one hundred representative American writers positioned in the order of their birthdates, the timeline itself parceled into the various literary and historical periods, so that the entire wall serves as a sort of crash course in American literature. Indeed, I can’t imagine how the museum could succeed in its mission without this necessary education.

Perhaps to reduce all of American letters to a single wall of one hundred writers seems on its face not simply ambitious but impossible, bedeviled by questions of why this author and not that one (I, for one, was particularly disappointed by the exclusions of Sylvia Plath and Toni Morrison). Perhaps. Nevertheless, to shy away from this endeavor would, I believe, have been a mistake, since by necessity this timeline should serve as a kind of “backbone” around which the rest of the museum moves.

I therefore had a few thoughts on how the exhibit could be improved. Beyond the obvious need to make the wall more interactive (it’s the most text-heavy exhibit in the entire museum, with three-sided spinning “blocks” that give very brief overviews of each writer, so that by writer #100, even avid readers feel quite fatigued), I found I came away with very little real knowledge in exchange for all this reading. Rather than thinking about American writing from the mindset of a canonical literature course, it would have been more interesting if the curators had thought in terms of how writers conversed with one another, with their times and with us in our current moment. Do neatly delineated “movements” and “periods” really reflect such conversations or speak to the seeming messiness of the present discourse? And, though a writer is certainly animated by the events of her time, does a birthdate necessarily mark her place in American literature? Does it tell us what she means to readers here, now, what her work continues to mean for the future? Or does it even necessarily speak to her creative concerns, or the source of her inspiration? For example, Gertrude Stein, who does appear on the timeline, both influenced and was influenced by Ernest Hemingway, twenty-five years her junior. Better to do away with chronology and categories and incorporate a touch screen (much like the table-size screen found on the other side of the museum, which I will address below) that can be organized around issues, style and influences, so that museum-goers can find the nexus points for themselves, thereby engaging more deeply with the most pressing questions of American identity. Because America is, in essence, a nation founded on an idea, a timeline meant to show how writers understood and shaped this idea cannot be static.

A monumental wall onto which is projected white text, a bit blurry here because the projection is in motion.

One of my favorite exhibits was a wall near the timeline called the Waterfall of Words, where key phrases from a multitude of American writings are carved in relief, lighting up in a kind of moving word-image that highlights each quotation in its turn. I found myself transfixed watching different passages reveal themselves in mountains or emerge from Matrix-like streams of letters, but without a seat to test how long this loop of “quote-art” (each arrangement more riveting than the last) could continue, I soon felt compelled to move on to other exhibits.

Of these, the most popular seemed to be the working typewriters, where museum-goers could sit down and tap out their opus: given time constraints, a short story which can then be offered up for display. I had never realized how loud these machines could be and imagined the writer whose rhythmic accompaniment was the piercing clicks and clacks of his own creative pace. Perhaps the loss of the typewriter as a creative tool means severing a writer’s bodily connection to the rhythms of thought, the sound of language?

I, however, gravitated to a large touch screen table which had a series of icons flowing across it like a river. Take your place at this table and with your finger drag one of the icons towards you like a dish to be savored. A list of hyperlinks pops up telling you the author for whom this icon is representative and why, the author’s inspiration, audio clips of the author or of the works being read, excerpts, etc. Certainly this is what I would have hoped for in the museum’s first gallery – a way to contextualize the work, instead of being limited to the writer as a Borgesian “I.” Surrounding this table were other interactive screens, such as those walking visitors through a writer’s process in minute detail (the literary use of adjectives, for example) as well as a Wordplay game allowing visitors to hone their skills with friends.

When I visited, two special exhibits were on offer: one a gallery of photos portraying Chicago writers, and the other a look at the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. Of these, my favorite was the Laura Ingalls Wilder exhibit, which I found interesting despite not having been a devoted reader of the series as a child. The photography exhibit did seem to imply a native’s familiarity with Chicago writers and their biographies, though the photos could be appreciated as art in and of themselves.

As a non-native of Chicago, I cannot take advantage of the museum’s regular programming which, according to their website, includes story time, readings, lectures and “Write In” events meant to foster a love of writing in students. However, I’m thrilled to find such programming is a core component of the museum’s mission and look forward to staying connected in the hopes of attending one of these events very soon.

For now, however, I remain not simply impressed by the breadth of the exhibits and the ingenuity with which they animate the written word, but also excited for the future, as the American Writers Museum seems, to my eye, poised to outgrow its space with an ever more dynamic mix of thought-provoking displays. For the setup is by its nature provisional, that is, it does not suggest a certain way of “reading” American literary history but rather leaves it up to the visitor to situate the literature she is exposed to. One key takeaway from the American Writers Museum is that there is, in fact, nothing singular about this moment, that questions of identity have always plagued Americans and, as a result, seeped into American writing. And isn't that exactly the perspective missing from today's societal discourse? A nation founded as an experiment cannot lay claim to a single American culture, but rather, is "Americanness" in flux, continuously in the process of defining and redefining itself. A museum of American writing should be no different.

Text and photos © 2018 Amanda Sarasien

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