When the American Writers Museum opened in Chicago in 2017, I wondered, “What took so long?” The only museum that is dedicated to American writers–a category that is expansive–it’s puzzling to think that someone didn’t come up with the idea sooner.
The mission of the American Writers Museum is to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives.
If you’re a reader, musician, poet, journalist, playwright, artist….one of the writers here has touched your life with their words. Guaranteed.
Small museum covering over 400 years of writing history
American Writers Museum is on the second floor of a building at 180 N. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Several cities wanted to be the site, but good old Chicago politics (probably) prevailed, and the committee announced in 2011 that Chicago was the “preferred location.” Deciding on the exact spot took some time, but the final choice is excellent. The museum is easy to find, just between Millennium Park and the Chicago River.
Be prepared to spend a couple of hours here. Displays are interactive; some are old-school, others are modern-tech. You’ll quickly realize two things during your visit: How much you’ve forgotten and how big your “book bucket list” is…or is about to become. Bring something to take notes about authors and their works that you’re ready to tackle. Use your phone to take photos. There’s no way you will remember them all.
Ready to visit the American Writers Museum? Let’s start…
The Nation of Writers Gallery has two interactive sides. The timeline (left) has 100 authors, starting with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer who technically qualifies because his ship accidentally landed near Galveston, Texas, in 1528. He spent the next eight years wandering and trading in what is now the American Southwest, sometimes posing as a faith healer to save his own hide. Eventually, he got back to Spain and wrote a book about his journey, Naufragios y comentarios (“Shipwrecks and Commentaries”).
Slowly shuffle to your right as the timeline unfolds and you consider these famous authors. Next up will be John Smith, William Bradford, and Anne Bradstreet. Of course, you’ll find Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway. Then there are those from your American Lit classes: James Fenimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, and Richard Wright. But can you honestly say you’re familiar with the works of Phyllis Wheatley, William Apress, or Charles W. Chestnutt? Surely I can’t be the only one who’s embarrassed to admit they were new to me…
Can’t get to the American Writers Museum today? Visit the Virtual American Voices, follow the timeline, and learn about the featured authors. Each one has the same three “panels” you’d read if you were there. You won’t get everything that’s in the Nation of Writers Gallery, but there’s a good sampling.
The Bookshelf will surprise you!
After you’ve taken in the Writers Timeline, turn and make your way back to the start. This time, you’ll make your way down the wall that’s opposite. This is the Surprise Bookshelf, with 100 examples of writing, in all its categories. Here’s where the American Writers Museum celebrates words of all kinds. Poems, opinions, short stories, music, nonfiction, letters, advice, essays… “Open” each “book” to learn more–or hear a bit of song, speech, or–well, I’ll let you find out for yourself. Surprise!
Still want to learn more? The American Writers Museum offers three different podcasts. Just subscribe with iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. You can also click on the website links:
- Dead Writer Drama: Once a month, “co-hosts Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Zakiya Dalila Harris discuss the professional feuds, sex scandals, messy public breakups, and controversial legacies of history’s literary legends…” Episodes have featured Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston; Ray. Bradbury and the FBI; Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and James Baldwin.
- AWM Writer Talks: If you prefer current authors and discussions, this weekly podcast offers edited versions of the museum’s frequent presentations. These programs may help you find a new favorite writer; so far there have been about 60 episodes. Recent podcasts have included Aaron Brobow-Strain (The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez), Dominic A. Pacyga (American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Polish Chicago), and Jess McHugh (Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books).
- Nation of Writers: A monthly series that highlights one of the authors. Here’s a way to get to know these writers better. The first episode starred Edgar Allen Poe, then moved on to Sequoya. What do you really know about Louisa May Alcott? And maybe it’s time to brush up on or be introduced to Reinaldo Arenas and Hisaye Yamamoto.
Next, it’s your chance: Welcome to the Readers Hall!
After that intense refresher course in American writing, turn the corner, and enter a large room. The Readers Hall! Brightly-lit, it celebrates YOU, the Reader. The displays on the walls describe what people have read over the centuries. Some examples:
- Bay Psalm Book, 1640: The first book printed in British North America, it was designed so the entire congregation could sing psalms together at church and at home. The small book was meant to be carried everywhere, helping pilgrims remain faithful–being that temptation abounded in the new land. With a few revisions, it remained in use for over a century.
- The Power of Sympathy, 1789. A new literary genre, called “the novel,” came to America from Europe; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had success with The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. But our Puritanical roots caused Americans to fear that reading such works would seduce decent folk away from proper, edifying religious studies. Then 24-year-old William Hill Brown wrote a tale of seduction…
- Dick and Jane, 1930: If you were in public school between 1940 and 1960, you likely learned to read from this series by William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp. It promoted whole word recognition and silent reading, “with a softened moral tone.” By 1950, 80% of first graders were reading the many, many adventures of Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot. (Puff the cat came later, along with the children’s parents and grandparents.)
Can you really narrow down your favorites? If you’re a reader, it’s a daunting challenge. That’s why the museum provides a stool. This takes time and thought. You’ll be asked to select five–only five–to be entered into the database. There are tools to help sift and sort, in case you can’t remember every single one or need a clue.
Above the “Choose Your Favorites” screen is a real-time list of visitors’ favorite authors. Each time I’ve been, the list has been a little different, although Dr. Seuss and Ernest Hemingway seem to be everyone’s choices. (Interesting duo…) After you’ve made your selections, you’re offered the chance to make a souvenir bookmark. (It’s sent to your email to print elsewhere.)
How do writers come up with this stuff, anyway?
You’re now invited to enter the Mind of the Writer Gallery. Here’s where we learn how writers work: their tools, habits, and creative process. Take off your Readers Hat and put on your Thinking Cap.
The first thing you see when you enter the Mind of the Writer Gallery is a table with vintage typewriters. Sit down and try to remember how to use one, return carriage and all. Whenever I’ve been there, high school and college students are hunched over the typewriters, trying to figure out how to use them–they’re in awe of anyone who could have produced a masterpiece with such a primitive tool. Why, it’s barely a notch above a stylus and wax tablet! (It’s soooo tempting to push one of them aside and show off my stellar typing skills, learned from Miss Hightower in 10th grade…)
In one of the typewriters is the Story of the Day. Every morning AMW staff selects an opening line, usually from a memorable American book, poem, essay, or short story. You’re encouraged to add a line to to the story that will be collectively written by today’s visitors. The story can head in any direction as visitors keep the tale going, line by line. Write what you want, as long as it’s clean.
To learn more about how writers shared their ideas, visit Tools of the Trade on the AMW website. See what authors like to use when they work and learn their methods. Often, a pencil and paper were all that was necessary, especially for a first draft. A short spoken narrative accompanies each writer’s tool-of-choice. You can also check out the AMW blog, Typewriter Tuesday, highlighting a typewriter–and its owner–every, well, Tuesday.
“To write a mighty book, you must produce a mighty theme.”
There’s always a temporary exhibit in the Mind of the Writer Gallery. A small area is dedicated to an American Writer, with information about their lives; copies of their works; and objects from their writing life. Recent writers have been Laura Ingalls Wilder and Ray Bradbury.
Of course, the Chicago Writers Gallery is a must
I mentioned earlier the possibility of politics entering into the choice of Chicago as the location for the American Writers Museum. I may be biased, but the whopping number of writers who came from Chicago may also have been a factor.
Many Chicago writers came from humble starts, and continued to champion workaday people and speaking out for justice. As AWM states, “Chicago writers are also troublemakers…with a humanist bent. They have shone the light on injustice, questioned authority, and articulated bold new visions for a better world. Chicago writers are agents of change.”
This is a simple display, with banners of Chicago writers. It gets switched up, so different people are featured. Look for Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Ida B. Wells, Roger Ebert, Mike Royko, Ben Hecht, and Gwendolyn Brooks. This All-Star group will send you off with pride about the city’s–and country’s–writers.
There’s a Children’s Literature Gallery, too
Not to forget the youngest readers, there’s also a place for them. The space features the authors we know from our own childhood, or from writers we discovered when we had babies…and grandbabies.
Whether you bring a child or just pop in to reminisce, it’s fun to see The Wizard of Oz, Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon…and of course, Dr. Seuss.
When you go:
The American Writers Museum is at 180 N. Michigan. You’ll enter the lobby and the pleasant guard will direct you to the elevator or up the flight of stairs.
Check the days and hours before you go, because the pandemic has made everything topsy-turvy. Generally hours have been 10am-5pm, no matter what days the museum is open. But be a smart reader and know before you go.
Admission is reasonable, although always subject to change:
- Adults $14
- Seniors, Students, and Teachers with a valid ID $9
- Children under 12 years old: FREE
- If you purchase a Chicago Pass, it’s one of the attractions