Lit­er­ary his­tory on show

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People -

AT Chicago’s newly-opened Amer­i­can Writ­ers Mu­seum, Jack Ker­ouac’s bi­og­ra­pher tells an au­di­ence how the Beat Gen­er­a­tion’s quin­tes­sen­tial book was in­spired by the au­thor’s deep af­fec­tion for his coun­try.

“On The Road is a love let­ter to Amer­ica,” says Den­nis McNally, stand­ing just steps from the 36m scroll on which Ker­ouac typed out his best-known book.

“He loved be­ing an Amer­i­can and he ro­man­ti­cised it,” he says of the novel de­pict­ing a post-World War II gen­er­a­tion look­ing to break out of the so­ci­etal con­straints of the 1950s.

The first-of-its-kind mu­seum is ded­i­cated to writ­ers who helped shape Amer­ica’s his­tory and cul­ture – from Ernest Hem­ing­way and chef Ju­lia Child to rap­per Tu­pac Shakur.

“The theme of the mu­seum is to re­ally look at Amer­i­can writ­ing and Amer­i­can writ­ers, and cel­e­brate them in the way that we cel­e­brate all kinds of peo­ple, like sports heroes and movie stars,” says mu­seum pres­i­dent Carey Cranston.

This mu­seum is, in fact, the brain­child of an Ir­ish im­mi­grant. Mal­colm O’Ha­gan, a re­tired busi­ness­man, was sur­prised to dis­cover that the United States had no in­sti­tu­tion ded­i­cated to its au­thors.

It took seven and a half years to make plans and raise the nec­es­sary funds to get the project off the ground.

The mu­seum’s ex­hibits breeze through hun­dreds of years of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, cul­ture, and his­tory, of­fer­ing quick glimpses into the works of writ­ers in var­i­ous gen­res and me­dia.

A time­line ex­hibit be­gins with Al­var Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, born in 1490, who penned a me­moir de­pict­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can life. It con­cludes 500 years later with Os­car Hi­jue­los, the son of Cuban im­mi­grants, who wrote about as­sim­i­lat­ing into Amer­i­can cul­ture.

“To see the ways in which the words of so many peo­ple have moved pop­u­la­tions through­out time, I think it’s re­ally in­spir­ing,” says Nura Mazmabi, 38, who is vis­it­ing the mu­seum with mem­bers of her writ­ing group.

The mu­seum also in­cludes a “sur­prise book­shelf” – an in­ter­ac­tive wall that re­veals morsels of in­for­ma­tion about au­thors through video, sound, or text.

The late rap­per Shakur (19711996) is fea­tured for the lyrics to his 1995 song Dear Mama, ex­plor­ing, as the ex­hibit puts it, “the re­al­i­ties of ad­dic­tion, vi­o­lence, and poverty”.

One thing con­spic­u­ously un­der rep­re­sented are books them­selves, as the mu­seum or­gan­is­ers wanted to avoid repli­cat­ing a li­brary.

While there are rooms with books and places to read, the space is dom­i­nated by touch screens, mul­ti­me­dia ex­hibits, and in­ter­ac­tive el­e­ments such as man­ual typewrit­ers on which vis­i­tors can ham­mer out a few sen­tences.

Also in­con­spic­u­ous is the mu­seum it­self, which oc­cu­pies the sec­ond floor of a non­de­script down­town Chicago of­fice build­ing, marked by only one sign.

The hum­ble real es­tate is a func­tion of the pri­vate mu­seum’s rel­a­tively small an­nual bud­get of US$1.9mil (RM8mil) and a staff of 10. By con­trast, the world-renowned Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, just a few blocks away, has an ap­prox­i­mately US$250mil (RM1­bil) an­nual bud­get.

“Our ini­tial goal was to raise enough to build this,” says Cranston, adding that plans are for the in­sti­tu­tion to grow over time.


The 36m scroll on which Ker­ouac wrote On The

Road on dis­play at the Amer­i­can Writ­ers Mu­seum.

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