The newly opened American Writers Museum takes a broad view of US literature, from Louisa May Alcott to Tupac Shakur. (Illustration courtesy American Writers Museum)

Writ large

Five alumni helped launch the first museum celebrating American literature.

When it comes to celebrating our writers, Americans tend to think local. From the Emily Dickinson Museum in Massachusetts to California’s National Steinbeck Center, sites dedicated to individual authors are generously sprinkled across the US map. But the landscape didn’t include a museum honoring the nation’s overarching literary legacy until this month, when the American Writers Museum opened in Chicago.

Germany, China, Ireland, and other countries have had such museums for years. Even to some of those most involved in launching the AWM, the absence of a US writers museum came as a surprise. “There were a number of people who were like me, who were just astonished” to realize it, says Hill Hammock, MBA’70, who cochairs the museum’s board of directors. Four other UChicago alumni sit on the board: Jay Hammer, AB’76, the AWM’s treasurer; Ronne Hartfield, AB’55, AM’82, its vice chair; Ivan Kane, AB’78, JD’81; and James Donnelley, MBA’62.

The idea for the museum came to its founder, the manufacturer Malcolm E. O’Hagan, around 2009 and gained traction as he worked a personal and professional network rife with philanthropists and book lovers. A native of Ireland who has lived in Washington, DC, for years, O’Hagan told Irish America magazine in 2012 that he became a passionate reader only after emigrating.

The museum’s founding core didn’t decide on Chicago as the location right away. The nation’s capital was an early candidate and “we thought for a nanosecond about being in New York,” Hammer says. But with its central location, abundant tourism, and dynamic cultural scene with strong community support, Chicago “was really one of the few cities that checked all the boxes,” he explains. Its own rich literary heritage was another advantage—and is celebrated in one of the museum’s permanent exhibits, Chicago Writers: Visionaries and Troublemakers.

While deliberating over a location, the founders and their advisers also had to figure out how best to represent and honor American writing in a museum setting. “We really started from a tabula rasa,” says Hammer. During early planning he got hold of the six-volume study the Smithsonian Institution undertook in preparation for opening its innovative National Museum of African American History and Culture, and pored over it for months.

“You had to really rethink the notion of what a museum could be,” Hartfield adds. A former executive director for museum education at the Art Institute of Chicago, she began advising the museum’s founders in 2011 and later joined the board. Nobody, she says, wanted the AWM to amount to a library. Instead of collecting and displaying objects like a traditional museum, this one encourages visitors to be hands-on.

Touch screens are the technology that makes the museum go. In the American Voices exhibit they unfold the lives and influences of 100 essential US authors selected by a content committee of literary experts. Across the way, scores more writers and works are featured in the interactive Surprise Bookshelf, which reveals unexpected literary facts—about more than just fiction and poetry. The AWM embraces “a broad idea of literature,” says Kane. “It’s journalists, it’s poetry, it might be songwriters.” And it is—Irving Berlin, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, and Tupac Shakur are among those celebrated.

In other technology-powered exhibits museumgoers can tour interactive literary maps of the United States and Chicago, compare their top 10 books to other visitors’, and shuffle the paragraphs of famous works to get a feel for the revision process.

The digital technology and design were concocted by Boston-based Amaze Design. The firm gets a lot of potential clients with ideas for new museums, said Amaze’s Andrew Anway at a winter press conference. “We’re kind of jaded about it, to be honest, because most of those do not come to fruition.” But with the AWM, “for the first time of any project we ever worked on, there was no opposition. Everyone who heard about this project got excited about it.”

Amid all the high-tech exhibits, the museum makes space for old-fashioned reading too. A children’s literature gallery sits off the entryway, with books and comfy spots to nestle with them. Squirrels holding beloved children’s classics smile down from the gallery’s mural, created by the Caldecott Medal–winning illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky.

The spacious Readers Hall can seat a few patrons lost in a book or hold 100 for events. For Hartfield, the AWM’s best promise is in its public programs that will reach out to a broad population of Chicagoans and visitors. She once worked for Chicago’s now-closed Neighborhood Writing Alliance, dedicated to “teaching neighborhood people who were just beginning to think of themselves as writers to really take that seriously.” She thinks the museum can do that too, especially by working with public school teachers.

Donnelley also sees potential for the museum to bolster literacy and help children at risk in Chicago.

Though not the focus, literary artifacts have a place in the AWM. One corner gallery is dedicated to displaying objects lent from the 60-plus writers’ homes and centers affiliated with the AWM. On view through October 27 is the draft of On the Road (1957) that Jack Kerouac famously typed on a continuous 120-foot scroll.

As the May 16 opening approached, the UChicagoans involved with the AWM sounded almost giddy with anticipation. Hammer, a businessman who studied for a doctorate in English and American literature, enthused about every aspect of the AWM but particularly the wide net it casts. The writers represented are “black and white, they’re women and men, they’re songwriters and speechmakers, all of whom are considered great American writers.”

Kane concurs. “It’s hard to do a museum that does justice to the breadth of American writing.” A retired real estate lawyer but still an English major at heart, he collects Mark Twain books and ephemera and is one of the board’s newest members. “I’ll have a lot of fun watching its reception and cheering it on, and if things need adjusting, I’ll have fun being a part of that as well.”

Hammock, who is chair of the board of Cook County Health and Hospitals System, traces aspects of both his involvement with the AWM and his UChicago attendance to a 1967 Robert Maynard Hutchins appearance at Georgia Tech, where he was an undergraduate math major. The talk influenced Hammock’s decision to come to Chicago for business school and imparted a piece of aphoristic wisdom he’s carried through life.

Hutchins, he remembers, told the Georgia Tech students he was proud that the University of Chicago had made “more mistakes first than any other university.” “That stuck with me as a challenge,” Hammock says. “We have to do new things. We have to dive in, we have to see where this goes.” For him and the other board members, the American Writers Museum is a thrilling new thing. Soon they’ll find out where it goes.

You can find out too: beginning May 16, visit the American Writers Museum at 180 North Michigan Avenue, on the second floor, and at