Literary history on show
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.