It’s not every day you’re able to read Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot scroll manuscript of his On the Road. But there it was (or rather, a copy of it) protected under glass at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. “We had the original on display here,” a woman to my right said, “and before we sent it back to its permanent home, we made a copy so we could keep it here outside the Writer’s Room.”
I’d heard the woman speak knowledgeably to her companions about historic pieces as I’d made my way through rooms in the museum. She’d urged them to lift headphones in the Bob Dylan exhibit for recordings of him singing in the 1970s and reading his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2017. She encouraged one of the teens with her to write something on the manual typewriters on display in another room. And now, before entering the Writer’s Room new display about Frederick Douglass, she shared what struck me as museum insider’s information.
“Are you involved with the museum?” I asked. She smiled and pointed to the sign above the doorway – The Roberta Rubin Writer’s Room.
“Is that you?” She smiled again, and nodded, explaining she’s been on the museum’s board (in fact, she’s the co-chair) since 2014.
She asked if I’d been to the museum before. “Yes,” I said, “and I’m an American writer!” We embraced, and I felt tears prickle my eyelids. “I’m so grateful you all created this museum,” I said. Ever the advocate for AWM, Roberta asked, “Are you a member?” (I am).
It’s not as though Chicago needed another museum. The city is well known for its Museum of Science and Industry, Field Museum of Natural History, Art Institute of Chicago, Adler Planetarium, Chicago History Museum, Museum of Contemporary Photography, and Children’s Museum. It also hosts museums devoted to African American, Swedish American, Chinese American, Polish, and Ukrainian history. Perhaps lesser known are Chicago’s museums dedicated to sports, veterans, broadcast communications, and pizza. But AWM’s visionary founder, Malcolm O’Hagan, was convinced that American writers deserved a home of their own and incorporated the tax-exempt AWM Foundation for that purpose in 2009.
Located in Chicago’s downtown heart on Michigan Avenue, AWM opened its doors to the public in May 2017. I made my first visit two months later. That day, I spent much of my time in the museum’s entry, studying long banners of portraits and bios recognizing “Chicago Writers: Visionaries and Troublemakers.”
Many of the names were familiar to me: Saul Bellow, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather. The museum claims them as among “the poets, novelists, journalists, and other writers [who found] inspiration in everyday people, telling their stories and transforming the way they talk into art. Chicago writers are also troublemakers…with a humanist bent,” the display explains. “They have shone the light on injustice, questioned authority, and articulated bold new visions for a better world. Chicago writers are agents of change.” These words make me proud of my Chicago roots.
Although today’s Americans speak more than 350 languages, another section of the museum focuses on 100 authors who “represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing… Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.”
One of the most creative (and mesmerizing) rooms in the museum tackles the question of what it means to be an American.
A “word waterfall” offers quotes from American writers about what they love abut America and how the country has failed or succeeded at ensuring equality for all.
The museum’s mission “to celebrate the enduring influence of American writers on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives,” is clearly exemplified in the current temporary exhibit about American writer, Frederick Douglass. That’s where I spent most of my time during my latest visit to AWM.
In the small space of the Writer’s Room, images of this former slave, and excerpts from his writings, convey his wisdom and revolutionary and prophetic writing.
I’m delighted I eavesdropped on Roberta Rubin’s conversations that day; turns out she was sharing her insider information with family visiting for the first time. It was no surprise to learn she joined the AWM board soon after retiring as the owner of The Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, IL. “As a bookstore owner, I had a lot of books, of course,” she explained, and many from her collection are now shelved in the museum’s Reading Room, complete with comfy chairs to encourage visitors to settle in with a good book. When I told Roberta I’m from Washington, she mentioned some of the “fantastic bookstores you have there.” Among them was Village Books in Bellingham (and now Lynden, too). “Chuck and Dee Robinson [Village Books founders] have visited the museum,” she explained. Small world, eh?
Before we parted, Roberta dug in her purse to give me her business card. I hope to get to know her better—and to thank her again for her efforts to give visitors an inside look at American writers.