What makes a voice uniquely American? How does literature shape history? Who knew that poet Ezra Pound was such a hottie?
The first two are the two central questions tackled at Chicago’s American Writers Museum….and the third is an offhand discovery of the sort that will delight visitors at this eclectic, charismatic museum, which debuted in the summer of 2017. A bookworm’s mecca, the AWM is also tech-savvy enough to interest those readers who never got past the Harry Potter series.
The museum sets the stage with a whirlwind tour through 400-plus years of American writing at the Gallery of American Voices. Along the walls of a wide corridor, writers of all sorts—science writers, politicians, novelists, cartoonists—are profiled with photos, excerpts from their works, and biographical information, all on spinning panels (a fun touch). Here visitors discover that the first published African-American author was a woman (Phyllis Wheatley); that the first American bestseller was also written by a woman (Susanne Rowen's potboiler Charlotte Temple); and that Benjamin Franklin created the concept of the "self-made man." The wall ends with a touching tribute to Cuban-American author Oscar Hijuelos, who was a potent example of how the American story is often illuminated most brightly by immigrant tales (Hijuelos was the first Hispanic author to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction).
The next gallery gets even more interactive, with visitors urged to try their own hand at writing on a range of old-fashioned typewriters and the results displayed on the walls. This is followed by set of whiz-bang table-sized tablets, where museum-goers can choose a poem, a passage from a play, a novel, a work of non-fiction, or a speech, and learn about what the critical reception to the work was like when it first came out, what likely inspired/influenced the author, how the writer's (often) famous friends responded, and more. On some selections there are even videos or audio of the author reading the work aloud (Robert Frost makes his poetry sound a bit like a shopping list). This book nerd ended up spending a complete hour just playing with that darn table!
Alongside all of this are changing exhibits, a room dedicated to children’s literature (with stuff for the little ones to play with), and a flag-draped gallery dedicated to authors who were real rabble rousers. All in all: a superb addition to an already museum-rich Chicago.