The American Writers Museum highlights writers from William Faulkner to Harriet Beecher Stowe

November 17, 2017

When I caught a whiff of strawberry jam at the new American Writers Museum in Chicago, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me because I had skipped breakfast.

I soon discovered the scent emanated from an installation called “The Surprise Bookshelf.” Along a wall, plaques bear the names of books and their authors. Visitors open the plaques to find a literary revelation about the book that may include text, sounds and, yes, smells. Turn the plaque for M.F.K. Fisher’s book, “The Gastronomical Me” (1943), and there’s a nostalgic passage about the author’s childhood memories of her grandmother making strawberry jam, accompanied by a sweet, enticing aroma that made me long for a scone.

The museum is the brainchild of Irish-born literature enthusiast Malcolm O’Hagan. Eight years ago he returned to the United States from one of his many visits to the Dublin Writers Museum eager to compare it to an equivalent museum in America, but he couldn’t find the place — because it didn’t exist.

O’Hagan was shocked. How could a nation with such a rich literary tradition have no counterpart institution to celebrate the collective accomplishments of its great writers, he wondered.

The retired manufacturing executive, who lives near Washington, D.C., made it his mission to change that and formed a nonprofit dedicated to the project. His dream is now a reality.

On May 16, the American Writers Museum opened on the second floor of a Michigan Avenue office building, just a block from Millennium Park. It is surprisingly ambitious.

Thirteen permanent exhibits unfold in six galleries, all designed to explore writers’ influences on history, culture and national identity. They span a wide range of genres: fiction, nonfiction, plays, children’s literature, even cookbooks and sports writing. Playwright Tennessee Williams, cookbook author Julia Child and advice columnist Ann Landers are all represented.

Some visitors are surprised that there are so few books, but this was never meant to be an athenaeum filled with dusty manuscripts that would only excite literary scholars. On the contrary, the 11,000-square-foot space is educational, but entertaining, packed with high-tech, multimedia installations that offer fun, interactive experiences.

Multimedia showcase

A digital wordplay game challenges visitors to fill in the blanks from passages in famous literature. For instance, in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch said it is a what to kill a mockingbird? The word you are looking for is “sin.”

It’s possible to spend hours in the “American Voices” gallery, a timeline of deceased writers that chronicles the national history of the written word from the 16th century through the 2000s. Visitors turn panels to learn about authors and their works.

Some writers are a bit obscure, such as Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a 16th-century Spanish explorer who was part of a doomed expedition that left him stranded off the coast of what is now Florida. He was the first European to describe in detail the flora, fauna and indigenous peoples of Florida and Texas.

Other writers are household names. Flip the panel displaying a pensive image of playwright Arthur Miller, and it reveals his motivation for writing “The Crucible,” required reading for many high school students. The historical drama about the 17th-century Salem witch trials was inspired by McCarthyism, an insidious part of the political climate at the time the play was written, in 1953. Rotate the panel with a photo of naturalist John Muir to discover how his lyrical articles and books on conservation helped pave the way for the National Park System, and peek behind Eudora Welty’s image to gain insight into her down-to-earth stories set in her native Mississippi.

The gallery also showcases luminaries such as John Steinbeck and Harriet Beecher Stowe, writers who used the power of the pen to shine a light on social injustice and galvanized a call for change in American culture.

Place of ideas, not artifacts

Naturally, writers who worked in the Windy City have their own gallery, “Chicago Writers: Visionaries and Troublemakers.” Probably nobody fits the “troublemaker” category quite like Mike Royko, the Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist known for his cantankerous sense of humor and scathing political commentary. If he were still alive, there’s no doubt he would wear the label with pride.

This isn’t the kind of place where you will see Louisa May Alcott’s writing desk or William Faulkner’s portable typewriter. There are numerous hometown museums around the country dedicated to individual writers, but this center promotes ideas over artifacts.

The Children’s Literature Gallery inspires a love of reading in the youngest visitors. A playground for the mind, this whimsical space features colorful murals of favorite characters, such as Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat. There are plenty of books ready to be plucked from the shelf. A comfy sofa encourages kids and parents to curl up with “Charlotte’s Web” and other classics.

Temporary show on Wilder

When it comes to beloved children’s authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder holds a special spot in the hearts of many. Her “Little House” series of children’s books has captivated generations of young readers with their autobiographical stories of growing up in a pioneer family in the 19th-century Midwest.

“Laura Ingalls Wilder: From Prairie to Page” just opened, and details Wilder’s lifetime of writing. Her longhand manuscript from “The Long Winter” is a highlight of this temporary exhibit.

Also new is “Capturing Stories: Photographs of Writers by Art Shay,” a temporary exhibit that debuted in October. It showcases Shay’s compelling images of many notable writers, including his friend Nelson Algren, best known for his novels “A Walk on the Wild Side” and “The Man With the Golden Arm.” He’s long retired, but in his heyday, the award-winning Chicago-based photojournalist’s talent for capturing the essence of his subjects was legendary.

Other than the words of the writers honored here, nothing at this museum is set in stone. There are always new exhibits, lectures and workshops that keep things fresh and exciting.

As I wrapped up my visit, I realized I had been on a nostalgic journey — one that reacquainted me with authors who had touched me throughout my life and inspired me to become a writer myself.

Tracey Teo is a travel writer based in Indiana.