The American Writers Museum: Chicago’s Literary Treasure

by Karen LeBlanc

A Must See Museum for the Literary Tourist

While staying in Chicago on a two-day business trip, I had one free morning to sightsee. With so much to see and so little time to do so, I was faced with an anxiety-inducing decision. I wanted an experience off the beaten path of well-trodden tourist attractions so I did some googling to searching for “unusual museums” and “unique attractions.” My search led me to the American Writers Museum located on Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile. Perfect! I can visit the museum and get my writer’s fix then walk to Millenium Park for selfies with the city’s popular attractions.

For this writer and bibliophile, I had planned the ideal morning.  The American Writers Museum opened in 2017 “to celebrate the enduring influence of American writers on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives.” It seemed a bold risk, investing in an attraction that showcases a profession lacking the visual drama of Chicago’s well-known landmarks, architecture and other museums.

Writers toil alone and words aren’t particularly selfie material. I wondered how the founders managed to fill an entire museum with something others want to see and experience sans the social media lure of competing attractions? The museum supersedes the visual limits of words by capturing the behind-the-scenes struggle—  a writer’s daily summoning of the personal muse in hopes of entering that ethereal dimension of creative flow where all sense of time is lost as the words pour forth.

Bob Dylan: Electric Exhibit at American Writers Musem in Chicago

Bob Dylan: Electric Exhibit at American Writers Musem in Chicago

The ever-evolving exhibits feature the works and bios of authors, poets, and songwriters. During my visit, the museum featured a temporary exhibit celebrating Bob Dylan’s Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for literature. Open to the public through April 30, 2019, Bob Dylan: Electric spotlights Dylan’s writing – song, poetry, and prose – between his 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance and 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.

For me, the main attraction is the Jack Kerouac digital scroll of his novel, On the Road. Kerouac wrote his famous novel in a stream of consciousness in just three weeks, on telegraph paper that he taped together and trimmed to fit into his typewriter. The digital scroll is the first draft of the novel published in 1957, a fictionalized account of the author’s cross country road trips.

Jack Kerouac was the son of French-Canadian immigrants and saw himself as a cultural outsider.

Kerouac drew inspiration from Jazz and its musical improvisations in his approach to writing his novel. Jim Irsay, owner and CEO of the Indianapolis Colts football team, purchased Kerouac’s 120-foot long original scroll which is cared for by James Canary, an expert in the preservation of paper from the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana.

James Canary, an expert in the preservation of paper from the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana

James Canary, an expert in the preservation of paper from the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana

The Lilly Library is the main repository for rare books, manuscripts, and special collections of Indiana University

On the Road became a defining work of the Beat Generation, a loose collaborative of artists and writers who rejected the mainstream in favor of the experimental and spiritual. 

My other favorite exhibit was Mind of a Writer. This walls of this inspirational gallery are filled with quotes from famous writers about their creative process and craft.

The gallery offers insights into how a writer thinks as well as the daily discipline and habits necessary to get the work done.

I was intrigued by the raw honesty in many of the quotes that capture a writer’s self-doubt and fear that they will never be published— that lurking dread that they have gambled away their time on a manuscript that no one reads.  

Another highlight of my visit was the First Lines exhibit, a wall of handwritten first sentences of novels written by accomplished authors.

Many of these authors crafted their first lines for stories that have yet to be written.

Whether you consider yourself an author, a journalist, a creative writer or diarist, we all have a shared experience that is made tangible among the museum’s galleries and personified through the literary greats featured.  I highly recommend a visit to the American Writers Museum to experience Chicago’s literary treasure. 

The American Writers Museum located in the International Harvester Building at 180 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago.

The American Writers Museum located in the International Harvester Building at 180 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago.

The museum sits in the historic former International Harvester Building at 180 N. Michigan Ave, just a few blocks from Millennium Park.

The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry in Millennium Park, Chicago.

The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry in Millennium Park, Chicago.

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped by to take my requisite selfies of the iconic attractions in this urban art park including the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry; the digital media Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa; and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture. 

Karen LeBlanc, aka The Design Tourist, taking a selfie in front of Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park, Chicago.

Karen LeBlanc, aka The Design Tourist, taking a selfie in front of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park, Chicago.

Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa in Millennium Park, Chicago

Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa in Millennium Park, Chicago

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