• Joseph Patrick Pascale

The American Writers Museum

Updated: Jul 4, 2018

Literary Tour of Chicago

"The first museum of its kind in the nation!"

From what I've read about the origins of the new American Writers Museum in Chicago, there was confusion and resistance surrounding its creation, with many wondering how it would differ from a library. In a debate over what to name it, "Museum of American Literature" was evidently in the running, but Malcolm O’Hagan, who based the concept for the museum off of his visit to the Dublin Writers Museum, said, "The word ‘literature’ has a highbrow feel, and we wanted a broader audience...We debated it back and forth, but ultimately decided the focus on writers was the right one. People are always fascinated by creative people." That was an insightful decision to make, and it is reflected throughout the museum, since at many points you are encouraged to write with pen and paper, create letters on old typewriters, or storyboard with touchscreens and computers. It's presented as though you're doing this under the guidance of the American master-writers who have come before you.  At the entrance to the museum, it is written, "Our mission is to celebrate the enduring influence of American writers on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives." The first room we visited was the children's section. It has colorful artwork, interactive exhibits, and couches for sitting and reading the books that are available. The Langston Hughes exhibit stood out to me here.

Palm: All Awake in the Darkness

"Exhibit best experienced in a quiet, contemplative state." I'd say this is true of the entire museum. It's estimated that there are three novels' worth of text in the museum.

From what I can tell, "Palm" is one of two rotating exhibits at the museum, with the other being the Jack Kerouac/On the Road manuscript exhibit. If they plan on keeping it this way, that would mean one exhibit for a living writer and one for a historical writer. The "Palm" exhibit was created based on the "life and poetry" of W.S. Merwin. 

Thirty years ago, Merwin and his wife, Paula, started the process of turning a wasteland on the island of Maui in Hawaii into "one of the most species-rich palm gardens in the world."

This exhibit attempts to provide the experience of visiting the palm garden as well as a physical version of his poetry. The creators of the exhibit, Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris in collaboration with Ian Boyden, explain, "In this installation, we make an analogy between gardening and writing." These are two activities that are "infused with a spirit of contemplation and awareness" for Merwin. 

"Many of Merwin's poems, particularly his early work, are dark, even apocalyptic. Long before many others, Merwin saw how humans, through the rise of greed and anger, threaten their own lives, and all life on this planet. Our increasingly detailed understanding of climate change and the current extinction crisis has affirmed his early intuition. Indeed, some of his poems are poems of warning--retellings of the myth of Gilgamesh." I particularly appreciate that last part, as when I first read the Epic of Gilgamesh, I immediately imagined how the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeating Humbaba, the guardian of the forest, and cutting down the cedar trees could be repurposed for contemporary audiences. 

I've always had a curious fascination about Ezra Pound, once considered among the world's greatest poets, who came down on the wrong side of history for his Anti-Semitic views and was arrested and imprisoned in an asylum in America as a traitor after World War II. According to the exhibit, "When he was 18, Merwin visited Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth's hospital. Pound told Merwin that he should learn to write first by translating. In the shade house of our installation, you can hear Pound reading one of his translations of the Confucian Odes. Merwin is interested in the transition from poetry forms that were only heard to those that were read. Merwin talks about how poems are physical in a way that prose is not. For Merwin and many of his generation, Pound created sounds with his poetry that had never been heard before."  

Also included in what they call "Ecology of Ideas" is a poem by Ross Gay: "Gay's poem about how the murdered Eric Garner once worked as a horticulturalist for the Department of Parks and Recreation in NYC is a reminder of how ecological justice and social justice are inextricably linked."

At the entrance of the Nation of Writers hall, there is this projector screen shaped like America that cycles through various parts of America's history through the lens of writers.

On this wall, a timeline of the United States runs above notable writers from the past through 2013. 

The opposite wall is called a "Surprise Bookshelf," although they are not actually books. 

The outward faces of these panels show a text by an author and a genre classification. 

You can flip the face around to discover something on the back side.

You can spend a long time flipping these to find different surprises on the back side. 

For instance, see what you find for Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Or here, you can learn a bit about the social significance of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg.

"[Anne Bradstreet's] book The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) made her the first published poet of America."

During their lifetimes, a president and a slave, but enshrined in this museum, they're on the same ground as notable writers.

The timeline running along the top gives an idea of the writers' historical contexts.

The text is constantly shifting on the Word Waterfall.

The cozy atmosphere of Readers Hall invites you to select a book and sit down in a comfortable chair.

The screens here let you use Goodreads to select your five favorite books and turn them into a digital bookmark that will be emailed to you.

It's easy to get distracted by the Kerouac exhibit on the left, but the Mind of a Writer section opens up with beautifully maintained antique typewriters, pencil and paper, and notebook computers so that you can write about your experience at the museum in whatever medium is most inspiring.

The paintings on the wall, which include nice quotes about writing from authors really make this section shine.

Based on your selection of fuel, writing habit, favorite things, and companions, this display informs you on what you have in common with famous writers

This display lets you create dialogue.

"You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. It's just so easy to give up!" - Octavia E. Butler

"Work on one thing at a time until finished. Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards." - Henry Miller 

Isaac Asimov was beyond prolific. 

There are games in this section as well. Here, you can sit across from someone and compare your ability to accurately fill in missing words from famous writing.

For now, I'm going to jump over the section containing Jack Kerouac's original scroll manuscript of On the Road so that I can cover the exhibit extensively in the next post.

Chicago Writers

It's nice to see that the American Writers Museum also includes a section about writers from Chicago. It's likely that many visitors to the museum will also be visitors to the city like myself, so I appreciated having the chance to learn more about the literary history of the city.

Another interactive display lets you jump through different eras of Chicago's literary history.

"Considered by some to be America's first important gay novel, Henry Black Fuller's Bertram Cope's Year (1919) features a romance between the title character and his 'friend' Arthur Lemoyne...Fuller depicts the relationship as neither shameful nor melodramatic...he shows the complexity of being gay in a straight world."

"By the end of the decade, [Lorraine] Hansberry had completed A Raisin in the Sun. Her family's purchase of a home in a white Chicago neighborhood inspired the plot, but she had a bigger goal: to show the insidious impact of racism on everyday lives." 

"[O]ur America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness." - Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945) 

The only reason Roger Ebert stood out to me was because I had just read the biography of Dalton Trumbo, and he's about to review "Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got his Gun."

And of course the museum ends with a gift shop, although really, it's just some shelf space around the welcome desk, so that means it also starts with a gift shop. The wall with the map is about sister museums throughout the country. The plan is to share artifacts and exhibits between museums (many of the museums focus on one specific writer).

I don't agree with people who intimate that this project is foolish or redundant, as a library is already a museum to writers. The American Writers Museum clearly has a distinctly different mission from a library, and exploring the museum provides visitors with a unique experience. I'm sure that the museum's creators hope it can work as a complement to libraries, wherein visitors learn something about writers they didn't know and go home to their local library to read the actual books. 

Something surprising is that the museum's creators made a conscious effort not to make it a museum of literary artifacts. In an interview with Tin House, O'Hagan said, "I would like to emphasize the American Writers Museum will be 'Story Telling' institution where artifacts will play a much smaller role than in a traditional museum." Nevertheless, I think they were smart to open the museum with Kerouac's On the Road manuscript. Being an embodiment of writing and the creative process, the scroll fits their mission. But I hope that they will continue to display these types of historical literary treasures, and maybe even acquire some permanent ones of their own as the museum expands. For me personally, as much as I enjoyed the rest of the museum, it was learning that Kerouac's manuscript would be there that inspired me to drive 781 miles across five states to visit.

Click here to read part 2,

where we take an in-depth look at Jack Kerouac's original scroll of On the Road and touch on some other literary destinations in Chicago.


You're reading this, so it's time to admit it: You’ve been one–a bookstore hobo. Lingering too long among shelves of books. Sitting between the aisles reading a book you know you don’t have the money to buy, and thinking to yourself, “Oh, if I could only stay here forever.” So why don't you read my novella The Bookstore Hobos? Published in the Eunoia Review, The Bookstore Hobos is the story of Zaid, who tries to live in a bookstore when he finds himself unemployed. His adventures will take him to New York City, where he must attempt to apply what he's read to the real world. ----------------------------------------------------------

Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a comic literary novel coming from Waldorf Publishing on September 1, 2018.


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