Words That Move America

Chicago, a city that has spawned at least its fair share of writers and attracted many more, has spawned a national museum dedicated to people who propagate the written word. The American Writers Museum (AWM) opened May 16 at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, situated amid a dense ecosystem of museums, parks, and other cultural attractions that make living in Chicago such a stimulating experience. Let me just state the basic premise up front: If you live in Chicago, or you are visiting, and you care about or have any curiosity about literature, this is worth a visit. It is not a huge museum, at least not now, and you need not worry that it will take all day. You can spend all day, but you can get a great deal out of it in two or three hours if you wish.

Literature, in the context of AWM, does not only mean fiction or poetry. One point that was immediately obvious to me during a visit last week was that the museum takes a broad view of both “writers” and what constitutes “writing.” Communication comes in many forms, and the museum seeks to explore how those forms change in response to numerous changing conditions in American society. AWM President Carey Cranston reinforced that point with me during a brief walk-through when I arrived, before turning me loose to make my own assessments of the exhibits. Thus, in the various displays one can encounter Charles M. Schulz, the author of the “Peanuts” comic strip, which made points about life, love, and laughter just as surely as Jane Jacobs, discussing the status of urban planning in the 1960s in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jean Toomer in Cane, an intriguing mix of fiction techniques that shed life on African-American life in the early 20th century. Creativity is not bounded by genre. It helps define genre.

Hold that thought for a minute while I explore with you the big question that drove me to visit in the first place. It is obvious enough how some other museums dedicated to natural history (Field Museum, e.g.) or technology and science (Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) make their subject visual and sometimes even tactile with displays of dinosaur skeletons or space capsules, accompanied by videos that help patrons relive the experience of exploring the moon. How does one take the words of poems, novels, memoirs, and other types of written expression and make them come alive in an institutional setting? After all, any library can create a display of the ten best novelists by simply stacking the books along a display counter to draw attention. As readers, we engage with these works by buying or borrowing the books and, well, reading them. So, what makes an American Writers Museum a vivid encounter with its subject matter?

One answer lies in the timeline that greets you just to the right of the front desk after you enter. Running from 1490 to the present, it is not, as Cranston noted to me, a display of the best writers America has ever seen, but instead provides an emblematic display that allows you to see the relationship of major themes in American history to the writing American authors have produced. The United States of America, an independent nation for only half of that time and a maze of Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian, and British colonies as well as native societies at various times before and since, is rich in historical themes that have inspired literary responses. The vastness of a continent new to Europeans . . . . the interaction of cultures . . . . Civil War and its aftermath . . . . the struggle for civil rights . . . . the fight for dignity and identity for American Indians . . . . immigration and the assimilation of new peoples and cultures . . . . industrialization and its impact on a formerly agrarian nation . . . . America’s emergence on the world stage. One could go on, and one could navigate the endless subthemes and nuances of each topic, which is precisely what American writers, whatever their origins and perspectives, have done for more than five centuries.

Opposite the timeline, and complementing it, is a wall with the names of prominent writers on small boards built in that one can turn for additional information. Many, though not all, feature short videos one can launch with a finger touch that illustrate important points. I played with one for Ray Bradbury, one of my own favorites dating back to high school. The video quotes part of Fahrenheit 451 while showing a pile of books being consumed by fire. Alongside Bradbury’s name is a theme, in his case, Dystopian Literature; this occurs with each writer to help show the range of genre that American literature has produced, how it has responded to both contemporary and larger issues, seeking to excite the visitor’s imagination. Whether intentional or not, it excited mine simply by introducing me to writers previously unfamiliar to me, which is saying a lot. There are American writers of whose work any of us may know little or nothing but who have the potential to stir our thoughts and prod our consciences. That has always been the mission of good writing.

Near all that is a current, periodically changing exhibit, the Meijer Exhibit Gallery, which demonstrates some of the most potent creativity the museum has on display. Its first exhibit displays the work of poet W.S. Merwin, about whom I confess I knew nothing, but who is now a source of fascination for me. The small room one enters for “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” features a haunting 12-minute video with no human presence except for the soft voice-over of narrators reading from Merwin’s work dealing with the complex and problematic relationship of humanity and nature. The video features the view from inside a cabin in the Maui rainforest, redolent with the sounds of birds and insects and the abundance of life beneath the forest canopy. You may stand or sit on a simple bench and contemplate this immersive adventure into the mind of a poet. Merwin, now 89, has produced more than 50 volumes of poetry, according to the brochure that complements the exhibit, which discusses writer Gregory Bateson’s concept of an “ecology of ideas,” the network of impressions and perspectives that form our conscious and subconscious minds. Since the late 1970s, Merwin has lived in Hawaii on an old pineapple plantation he has restored to its natural state.

As a Lutheran, I found one other thing haunting. Merwin is a practicing Buddhist, and the brochure contains a typewritten, hand-edited draft of a poem called “Place.” It begins:

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

Curiously, for years, I have known that Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is upon us, and I know these two men came from very different places to express the same thought. But if a 16th-century religious reformer and a 20tt-century Buddhist poet can reach the same conclusion about the resilience of our commitment to the earth and the stubbornness of faith, perhaps there is hope for us all, after all.

AWM will be sponsoring events in a modest meeting room that features another challenging exhibit, “The Mind of a Writer,” which explores the connections between writer and audience. Professional writers clearly cannot earn a living without an audience, and the practical questions are both how to define and shape that audience and how to reach that audience. The “reach” forces us to explore the role of technology and institutions in facilitating those connections, which clearly have evolved over time. Displays make us think about the evolution of the book shop, starting with the Moravian Book Shop, launched in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1745, largely to import religious publications, but continuing into such modern innovations as Oprah’s Book Club, using the medium of television to connect viewers with writers; bookstore chains such as the now defunct Borders; and Amazon, allowing people to order books through the Internet. Of course, writers have also used periodicals, which in their heyday relied very much on the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service, as well as other media. Playwrights do not expect people to read their writing, but to hear it on stage. Screenwriters reach people through televised performances of their scripts, and so on. All of that got me wondering whether AWM missed a beat by not discussing the Internet not only as a mechanism for selling printed works but as a medium in itself for digital publishing. After all, the very premise of my visit was to review the museum not in print but online, by blogging. Maybe I missed it, but where was the discussion of blogging as one of the most modern innovations in audience creation? Anyone out there? Judging from the list of subscribers on my admin site, it would seem there are thousands. In the aggregate, probably hundreds of millions. It’s a brave new world. But I suspect it may not be long before AWM addresses this phenomenon.

Just beyond this area is a section where you can sit at an old-fashioned typewriter and play. The staff each day places sheets of paper in a tray with the opening lines or fragments of famous quotes. Your job: start pecking away to fill in the blanks with your own thoughts about how the quote should end. For writers like me who are almost preternaturally oriented to the computer screen, it is slightly disconcerting to hit keys that sometimes skip, but the experience is indisputably tactile, though arguably less so than perhaps using a quill pen. In any event, there is a wall with clips. You are invited to hang up your work when you are done. I did not get around to asking what the staff does with these at the end of each day. Maybe you should ask when you visit.

I hope you are more dexterously agile than I appear to be with one other exhibit that allows you to move any of a number of drifting images across a screen for a surprise exploration of an individual writer’s work. One of several lines of inquiry allows you to hear a short oral reading, but I had trouble triggering that feature because my index finger seemed not to hit the precise part of that line that activated the recording, at least not on the first try. I found myself a little frustrated, but a generation that has become adept at using its thumbs to tap out smartphone messages may be more adept in this respect. I was never very skilled with video games, either. We all have our limitations.

There are other features, including one on Jack Kerouac that includes the “scroll manuscript” he pasted together for On the Road, and a room on Chicago writers, since the museum lives here. I am sure there will be more in the future. The museum leaders appear to have built out their infrastructure of sponsors and board members, and if you’d like to know more, you can visit the website. That is not my mission here. As an active American writer, I hope I’m offering you reasons to visit the museum itself.


Jim Schwab

A Universe of Imagination

Literary daring comes in many forms. Some authors attempt to redraw the boundaries of traditional genre. Others try daring new themes that have previously been verboten in the society of their time, and though some gain lasting fame in this way, others find that, over time, what was once daring becomes banal. The discussion or destruction of sexual taboos, for instance, often goes this route unless the work that pushed those boundaries is noteworthy for some more fundamental achievement. A few, like Ernest Hemingway, change the stylistic preferences of a generation, showing in his case how a few words in a very short sentence can speak volumes.

One year ago, a legend of modern American fiction died. I grew up with that legend, still in his prime as I was barely learning my craft in high school and beyond. Ray Bradbury was 91, and his work had spanned most of a century, though the bulk of it emerged from his fertile imagination in the space of a quarter-century after World War II. He reshaped American fiction in his own way, not through stylistic finesse, though his style was among the best, and not by reinventing literary forms, though he used them very well, but by demonstrating the power of the human imagination to expand and alter our perceptions of reality. He took us to distant worlds to hold a powerful mirror to the one in which we already live. Despite the tendency in many quarters over many years to pigeonhole him as a science fiction writer, one can say of him in that regard something like what was said (by the  New York Times) of Walter Van Tilburg Clark with regard to The Ox-Bow Incident: “[It] bears about the same relation to an ordinary Western that The Maltese Falcon does to a hack detective story.”

Why am I writing about Bradbury now? Admittedly, the daily news media wrote what it needed to write about Bradbury within 48 hours of his death and moved on. Personally, when Bradbury died, I was at the front end of a busy six-day stay in Hawaii, at the invitation of the University of Hawaii’s National Disaster Preparedness Training Center to speak at a conference and guest lecture. More importantly, I see no need for this blog to hurry anything into print. The world is not waiting breathlessly to hear what I have to say. That said, I would rather say something important in due time than to say something trivial quickly.

I did not absorb the story fully until I returned and had the chance to read the Chicago Tribune. Bradbury, after all, was a local boy made good, born in Waukegan, Illinois, who moved to Los Angeles with his family in his teens. The Depression had sent his father, a utility worker, to the West Coast in search of work. Almost 80 years later, Bradbury’s death was the top headline, and his story filled an entire inside page. Waukegan Main Street is planning a Bradbury museum in part of the now-shuttered Carnegie library that Bradbury had deemed a second home in his youth. If Salinas, California, can have its Steinbeck Center, a wonderful facility I visited in late April, then Waukegan shall have its Bradbury museum.

And there is no better home than the old Carnegie library. Books were the center of Bradbury’s life and fueled his imagination; they expanded his world far beyond Waukegan, but his literary imagination ultimately brought him back in such classic works as Dandelion Wine. For Bradbury, as for many great writers, childhood was a nearly inexhaustible mine of material from which he sculpted his themes and refined his fiction.

I have had the honor of judging two books detailing Bradbury’s life from two varying perspectives. For several years, since stepping down as the past president of the Society of Midland Authors, I have been tapped for service as one of three judges on the biography panel for the annual SMA book awards. The awards are for authors anywhere in 12 Midwestern states who excel in any of six categories.  In 2006, we awarded the biography prize to Sam Weller, a professor who teaches creative writing at Columbia College in downtown Chicago. Earlier this year, one entry among the 2011 books was Becoming Ray Bradbury, by Jonathan R. Eller, an English professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, and the cofounder there of the Center for Bradbury Studies. This latter book, which did not win a prize, is nonetheless well worth reading for Bradbury fans because its tack is to examine the evolution of Bradbury’s style and thematic focus as a writer, at least up to the time of his emergence as a major author with Fahrenheit 451 and a subsequent offer from film maker John Huston to write the screenplay for Moby-Dick. That last act more than established Bradbury’s versatility. It is apparent that Eller is planning to continue the story of Bradbury’s evolution in future volumes moving through the remainder of his career.

But by far the better book is The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury. Weller spent considerable time with the author, who entrusted him with producing an authorized but honest biography that displays Bradbury with both warts and halos. The warts in Bradbury’s case are largely ordinary peccadilloes and some bad choices that have relatively little to do with his literary productivity. Far more interesting are the ideas that he induced millions of the rest of us to ponder. Big ideas in many cases, but even the smaller ideas had this way of nestling into your brain and making you see something differently. And that was Bradbury’s obsession in life—to change the lens through which the rest of us viewed the universe around us.

One of his earliest big ideas surfaced in The Martian Chronicles. In this book, Bradbury envisions humans crossing space to settle on the very foreign world of Mars, where they encounter an ancient and alien but intelligent race whose ways they cannot understand. The inevitable result is a clash of cultures in which only the intruders can survive. The Martians are extinguished, but back on Earth so are the humans, where thermonuclear war finally takes its toll as the last interplanetary nomads make their trek to a new home, unable to return.

Lest readers think this big idea too pedestrian, too predictable, think about when The Martian Chronicles was published—in 1950, at the height of American paranoia and self-congratulation, the two going hand in hand with World War II still close in the rear-view mirror, a horde of totalitarian Communists invading South Korea, and the Cold War producing fears of nuclear annihilation. The idea that dominant human cultures often despoil others with which they come in contact was not exactly what most wanted to hear, yet the book found an audience and made an impact that continues to be felt to this day because its message cuts close to the bone.

On one hand, there are vivid reminders from the past. For Americans, most of whom would prefer to be left in ignorance on this point, there is the history of our fiftieth state, Hawaii. Essentially disconnected from the rest of the world until 1776, it was encountered (let’s not say “discovered”) by Captain James Cook in the same year that Americans were launching a revolution against the British Empire. Cook died at the hands of the Hawaiians as the result of serious cultural misunderstandings, to put it mildly, some of which continue to be disputed. Did Hawaiians actually think Cook was Lono, the moon god? You can read the disputation in How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, for Example, in which Marshal Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, takes issue with Sri Lankan Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, which argues that the Hawaiians were too rational to have thought any such thing. Sahlins’s counterargument, which strikes me as valid, is that the Hawaiians were rational within the context of their own vision of the world.

Both books came long after Bradbury’s portrayal of life on Mars, but they deal with the same disturbing question: the clash of cultures that leads to the end of one way of life and the triumph of another. One wonders at times whether this is the only way in which we can get to know each other on this planet or any other. Some might argue that a certain amount of creative destruction, like that which many economists advocate, is necessary for progress. Certainly, in this case, Hawaiians rapidly progressed in adapting to new circumstances before being overwhelmed with the power and influence of the United States. It is also hard to argue that life was paradise for the natives before Westerners arrived. In fact, Hawaiians fought each other fiercely and frequently, and only stopped when one of them—Kamehameha—knocked enough heads together, aided by the acquisition of modern weaponry, to put an end to the divisiveness forever. One can get much of the flavor of Hawaii’s violent transition to modernity by reading The Warrior King: Hawaii’s Kamehameha the Great, the often gory biography by Richard Tregaskis of this physically powerful man who ultimately united the Hawaiian islands. (Tregaskis, for the record, has that element of redundancy in his descriptions that betrays a hack writer, but on the other hand, there are few other biographies of Kamehameha.)

That we seem not to learn from all this is evident from the rash of cultural and political missteps that clearly accompanied the U.S. invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush. The dismissive arrogance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld toward critics as the conflict progressed would be almost comically clichéd if it had not produced such tragic consequences. Just when you think the human race is starting to mature just a little, we are pulled back to the theme of The Martian Chronicles, which doesn’t look so trite after all. Quite the contrary. Bradbury shaped the outlook of a new generation of artists, most notably James Cameron in the film Avatar, which features human military and economic exploitation of a remote planet rich in exotic resources prized on commodities markets. In Avatar, the “indigenous” become expendable until they rise up in revolt. One has to be rather obtuse to miss the artistic connection between Bradbury and Cameron. The plot may differ, but the underlying theme is fundamental. Humans with advanced technology but limited cultural understanding, or more importantly with a cramped understanding of their own motives in life, are like bulls in a china shop. Nothing is safe that lies in their path.

Paranoia—a consuming fear of the alien or unknown—often pairs easily with hatred. Each one fuels the other. Bradbury throughout his life, but particularly early in his life, displayed a profound and progressive concern for racial injustice. It is not hard to connect the themes in The Martian Chronicles with Bradbury’s observation in Weller’s book that “even if we are not aware of them, we all have our hidden prejudices.” No one presented these quite so eloquently as Bradbury in his short story, “The Big Black and White Game,” featuring two baseball teams of opposite race playing each other. The story arrived on the literary scene just a couple of years before Jackie Robinson was to make his entrance into the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bradbury was 25 when the story was published, a young author with a very fresh new viewpoint who nonetheless had to labor very hard in the vineyards before he found himself under the bright lights with a best seller. On a positive note, Bradbury must have been cheered with much of the racial progress of the last half-century, despite its occasional roller-coaster features. And he certainly became a bigger fan of the national space program than The Martian Chronicles alone might have suggested. Of course, there is no intelligent life on Mars to worry about. Those alien cultures, in reality, are all on our own planet and always have been. We must learn to live with ourselves.

It did not take too many years for the bright lights to find Bradbury, for his imagination was prolific and his work ethic rock solid. By 1953, just 33 years old, he launched what surely is his most enduring literary legacy, born of the book-burning, blacklisting, paranoid legacy of the McCarthy era—Fahrenheit 451. When I was in college, back in the turbulent era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, discovering this book about a future society in which books were burned as contraband was a delicious experience that opened insights in ways that still resonate for me today. I regard this as Bradbury’s masterpiece, in large part because of the way in which he slowly but surely reveals Montag’s evolution from a naïve fireman, in a world where homes are fireproof but books are deemed dangerously subversive, to a man with growing doubts about his mission in life and about the intellectually anesthetized society around him. There is nothing wrong with an inquiring mind, Bradbury seemed to be telling me, even if everyone around you wants you to accept the status quo. I link that in my own mind with my favorite quote from Studs Terkel, who always insisted that his epitaph would be, “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”

But it has killed many people in many places. We need look no farther in recent times than North Korea, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and China, or even much of Latin America before the wave of democratization replaced most military juntas. If we wish to make ourselves uncomfortable, we can even look inside the U.S., at the South before integration, at much of the racist reaction to the tragedy of 9/11, and other efforts to stifle intellectual, cultural, and religious diversity, to know that the repressive instinct remains strong within us. We are our own worst enemies in resisting the liberation of the mind, or to quote Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

When we insist on seeing the world the way we want to see it, we tend to construct a hall of mirrors that eventually betrays us.

But let us not concentrate on cursing the darkness. There remains Montag, stumbling through the darkness, almost accidentally finding the light through that spark of humanity that will not be suppressed, asking questions, eventually the right questions, and finding his way to the Book People. Welcome to the light. And thanks, Ray. We owe you a lot.

Jim Schwab