First draft of American Writers Museum is highly promising

Canadian architect Dennis Rovere and his daughter, Adrienne, 19, came from Calgary to visit the new American Writers Museum, which opened on Michigan Avenue Tuesday. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

No man was ever as ready to dislike a place as I was primed to loathe the new American Writers Museum. As I strolled toward Michigan Avenue Tuesday morning for the museum’s grand opening, I was practically stropping the blade of scorn, eager to put it to use.

I had studiously avoided all previous AWM publicity, my opinion of such places set years ago after visiting Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a mausoleum that reduces the vibrant disruptive force of my generation into dead glass cases of fringed jackets and sequined shoes. Just last month I had plunked down four euros to enter Casa di Dante in Florence, the slapped together tourist trap the city established to prove Florentines are the same frauds that Dante sunk into hell 700 years ago.

How could so vast a subject as American writing be condensed into an 11,000 foot space? It would be reductive, like the Illinois Holocaust Museum, turning the greatest atrocity of the 20th century into a school lesson about bullying.

I was the third person in line, behind a father and daughter from Calgary who came here, specifically, they said, to see the only historical artifact on display: the 120-foot-long scroll of taped-together typewriter paper upon which Jack Kerouac batted out “On the Road.” (“They’re not writers,” Truman Capote quipped of Kerouac and the Beats. “They’re typists.”)


That relic aside, the museum is all displays of the curator’s art — timelines and interactive video screens, games and quizzes. I decided the standard for the AWM had to be the standard for any writing anywhere — is it interesting? — and I’m compelled to relate, it is interesting. The big guns were all there, of course, but also writers I had never heard of, such as Abraham Cahan, founder of the Jewish Daily Forward, a paper that, we are told, “mixed shund (sensationalism) and literatur (seriousness).” Some things never change.

On video, scholars discoursed on subjects like “Promise” and “Edge” and “Identity.” I chose Edge, and NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan nudged me toward something that I’ve never considered doing — reading Nathaniel West’s “Day of the Locust,” which she painted as a relevant look at what watching screens does to culture. She mentioned how 300 readers of the New Yorker canceled their subscriptions after Shirley Jackson published “The Lottery,” a fact I might find useful when the readers are in full cry.

Chicago actor Kevin Marquette, dressed as Mark Twain, hands out pamphlets giving 20 percent off the $12 admission at the American Writers Museum, which opened on Michigan Avenue Tuesday. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Physical spaces are good, even important in our increasingly online world. So I’m glad the American Writers Museum is here, though it would benefit from more real objects. “On the Road” will be swapped out in October for something as yet undetermined. But consider the room on Children’s Literature. Big graphics, interesting displays on “Charlotte’s Web” and “Little Women” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” But the room really cried out for a framed Dr. Seuss sketch, or some such thing, and I’d point out that bringing a child younger than 10 could be considered abuse.

A few other flaws: the touchscreens did not always leap to work. Some text, printed on glass, is rendered nearly illegible by shadow. And all of the authors featured in permanent displays are dead. I asked an administrator about this and he said contemporary writers will be represented in their programming and special exhibits, which is fine, though good writing is disruptive and by drawing the veil — one timeline stops in 1970 — dynamism is lost.

Though the museum is flexible enough that it can get it back. The central area is a changing exhibit space, now devoted to W.S. Merwin, who is alive. Though it focuses on Merwin’s palm tree plantation in Hawaii. Visitors are invited to write thoughts on paper, which will be used to mulch the trees — itself a mystic, creepy, almost wrong misreading of the use of words.

One hall focuses on the mechanics of good writing in an engaging and useful fashion. And since editors are taught to stress the positive with beginners, I would scrawl “highly promising” across this first draft of the American Writers Museum.

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