We find ourselves in a time when questions surrounding American identity — What is “Americanness” and who has the right to call him- or herself an American? — seem to lurk under the daily headlines, taking up a refrain that has been repeated throughout this nation’s history. In some ways, then, this is the moment when a museum celebrating the writer’s role to define American identity is most necessary. Yet it is also the moment when such a project becomes most challenging and fraught.
Before visiting the new American Writers Museum in Chicago (opened May 2017), I wondered how a museum with the stated mission “to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives” could deliver on this goal. Even putting aside this contested territory of Americanness, our fractured sense of what constitutes a cohesive “history” or “culture,” how, on a practical level, does one even go about creating a museum to the written word? As a writer, I’d like to believe that words and books are alive and inherently resist being pinned down inside a glass case like so many specimens of rare butterflies.
Publication announcements, bookish items of note and the occasional literary musing.