10 observations about new Writers Museum

The May 16 opening of the marvelous American Writers Museum, the only one of its kind in the country, has been well publicized. So, instead of an superfluous announcement of its existence, here are 10 random observations from my first visit:

• It appears that a decent effort was made to include nonwhites and women. I counted 28 women among the 100 authors in the American Voices timeline, and some of the earliest female writers were unfamiliar to me: Mary Rowlandson (a colonial woman who wrote about being captured by Native Americans), Phyllis Wheatley (the first published African American woman poet), and Susanna Rowson (whose Charlotte Temple was the bestselling American novel before Uncle Tom’s Cabin). There are also a number of African Americans and Native Americans. The select group includes a former slave who couldn’t read or write, Sojourner Truth, but whose speeches were models of eloquence.

* The museum interprets notable writing broadly. Opposite the American Voices wall is a wall of 100 works representing dozens of writing forms. Since Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I wasn’t surprised to see song lyrics but did a double take about “You’re in good hands with Allstate.” But why shouldn’t a memorable advertising slogan be included? What is more American than promotion?

* Along the same lines, if you think about readership, the late Chicago Sun-Times advice columnist Ann Landers deserves her banner in the Chicago Gallery. Her words were probably read by many more people than a lot of literary writing.

• I felt surprised and pleased to learn that about 75 percent of Americans read a book last year but disappointed that The Bridges of Madison County was visitors’ seventh favorite book as of last Friday morning. The lists of top 10 books and top 25 authors will be continuously changing as new visitors vote for their favorites.

* Visitors can compose on old manual typewriters and have their creations displayed for a day. My favorite last Friday was one signed by C. Lynn Williams, who is a published author herself: “Welcome back, old friend. We’ve been away from each other for a long time, and I’ve missed you. So how do you feel about me after all these years? The love of technology alone pulled me away from you. Always remember you were my first love.”

* Despite that throwback to an old composing tool, the museum is decidedly modern — digital and visual. Touch screens allow visitors to click for more information and even play word games. The one such presentation I most enjoyed was a screen of images that each represent a written work — for instance, a horse for Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and a top hat for Lincoln’s second inaugural address. You click on the image for more information.

• Trying to identify the sources of quotations in the American Masterpieces section is an antidote to hubris. They aren’t all giveaways like “Call me Ishmael.” Some are not only tough but obscure, and I probably failed.

* In the section about the origin of words, “skyscraper” is attributed to Chicago Tribune writer William Augustus Croffut, who in 1883 told people concerned about the “sky-scrapers” rising in New York City to get with progress. Hmm. The word must have preceded the real thing. Chicagoans know that the skyscraper was invented here in 1885, two years after Croffut’s article appeared, when William LeBaron Jenney erected the first steel-frame building.

* The Mind of a Writer section lists seven categories of “fuel,” from cigarettes and scotch to brownies, that kept famous writers going. I was surprised that no caffeinated beverage was included. Maybe caffeine is too universally used to be noted.

* Facts that I wouldn’t have guessed: There are as many newspapers today (13,000) as in the 1890s. Only one of the Oprah’s Book Club picks became a bestseller: Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, which sold more than 1 million copies.



The American Writers Museum is on the second floor of 180 North Michigan Avenue. It is open from 10 to 8 Thursday and 10 to 5 every other day but Monday.

I wrote down a few titles for my reading list and then figured the museum’s website would have the names of authors mentioned in its exhibits. Wrong. There isn’t such a list online, and that’s probably wise marketing on the museum’s part. People will have to go to there to find out who’s featured.

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