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.
My essay "Portrait of a Pink Lady: Booth Tarkington and the Changing Face of America" examines writer Booth Tarkington's 1918 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, through the author's personal collection of portrait paintings, some of which are now on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's exhibition "A Gentleman Collector: Portraits from the Collection of Booth Tarkington." Using the enigma of a particular painting, Portia in a Pink Blouse, as a jumping-off point, I reflect on the novel's provocative facial imagery: How do the paintings in Tarkington's collection elucidate the themes in his writing but also paint a beguiling portrait of the author himself, "struggling to make sense of the changing face of America?" Read more of my thoughts on The Mookse and the Gripes.
While a writer is often admired for the worlds he or she creates, few consider the world which created the writer. That is to say, before ever setting pen to paper, the writer is immersed in an environment, a culture, a social milieu that seeps into the work and continues to impact the authorial consciousness, running like a stream through the lifelong landscape of that oeuvre.
Publication announcements, bookish items of note and the occasional literary musing.