Wednesday, May 17, 2017

First draft of American Writers Museum is highly promising

Canadian architect Dennis Rovere and his daughter Adrienne, 19, came from Calgary to visit the American Writers Museum.

     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.
     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 undermined. 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." 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 touch screens 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.


  1. I'm glad to hear it shows promise. My book club made a donation to it back in 2013, but it's all but forgotten about it.

  2. Love the adroit and efficient put-downs of Casa di Dante and the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Now I have to go see them to confirm they're as bad as all that.


    1. The Illinois Holocaust Museum is not bad. What it is is an institution catering to fifth graders. I am not a fifth grader. I don't particularly blame them -- you have to put the feed where the chickens can get at it. But I found it unsettling in some nameless way.

    2. I've visited Florence a number of times and avoided the Casa di Dante based on a complaint about it in one of your long ago columns. Am surprised that you fell for it again.

      You should by all means go to Florence, John. Much to see and do. For a taste of the great poet, instead have a meal at Sasso di Dante, a quite good restaurant next to the Duomo.


    3. I didn't fall for it again. I remembered distinctly how fraudulent it was. But after 20 years, and for four bucks, I thought I would take another gander since I was standing right there.

  3. You know, it's entirely possible the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Casa di Dante, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and now the American Writers Museum don't (or don't yet) live up to what they're trying to do. But what it appears you want them to do might not be what they're trying to do. Museums are reductive by nature and design, but that doesn't therefore mean they fail. An artifact Hall of Fame is not going to fully replicate the vibrant disruptive force of your generation, just as the Field Museum doesn't really bring us back to when dinosaurs lived or ancient Egypt was in full bloom. An education center on the Holocaust is going to have aspects geared to school kids as well as adults. Museums in Florence might cater to tourists who know next to nothing of Dante before scholars.

  4. A problem with the Casa di Dante is that it's called the house of Dante but obviously isn't, having being built in 1911. Perhaps they should change the name. If, when again in Florence you tire of inspecting all the great art in the Uffize, the Acadamia, the Bargello, etc, the Museo Galaleo is worth a look. In addition to some quite beautiful historical scientific devices they have the great Italian's fingers on display.



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