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February 3, 2011

The Need for an American Writers Museum

by

“Why don’t we have a museum that honors the great writing and the great writers in America?” That’s the question posed by Malcolm O’Hagan, a retired president and chief executive officer of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, who has formed the American Writers Museum Foundation to fill that void.

In his regular online column at Fine Books & Collections, “Gently Mad,” popular bibliophile Nicholas Basbanes, author of the bestselling compendium of bibliomania, A Gentle Madness, reports that O’Hagan, who claims “the Irish gene for love of literature,”was inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum of his native Ireland.

“O’Hagan’s vision begins with the realization that no such museum exists anywhere in the United States,” Basbanes writes.

‘Look at the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been contributed to museums, and not a penny has gone to literature,” [O’Hagan] said. “Who has had a greater influence on our culture? The words of Jefferson and Lincoln? The words of Martin Luther King, Jr.? These are the words that resonate with people, and yet we don’t have an institution that recognizes that, and elevates it.'”

A skeptic might argue that this is precisely the role played by our public libraries, and that the world’s largest collection of books, the Library of Congress — where the retired O’Hagan volunteered as a docent — is our monument. The “guiding principles” of the museum, however, explicitly reject the archivist’s role, one “amply fulfilled by the Library of Congress, the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Huntington Center in California, the New York Public Library, and many others.” (John Y. Cole, Director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress is listed as a member of the museum’s executive planning team.)

Basbanes, who has joined an advisory council that includes David Kipen, the former Literature Director of the National Endowment of the Arts and author of The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History (published by Melville House), acknowledges the “remarkable libraries and research collections … many of which mount magnificent exhibitions of books, manuscripts, and archives that include selections from their own vast holdings,” but concurs with O’Hagan that the country requires a museum to “educate the general public on the history, culture, and influence of the great literary canon that is our shared inheritance.”

“We will exhibit the standard manuscripts and letters,” O’Hagan says, “but we don’t want to duplicate what is already being done by the great research libraries.”

“People obviously want to see artifacts … whether they’re original manuscripts or whether they’re the typewriters that people did their works on. Things like that: pens, chairs, desks — people are always interested in that — divorce decrees, maybe, who knows…. They want performance, they want readings, whether it’s by poets or authors — incredibly popular.”

O’Hagan says he is”putting in my own money initially to try to get the ball rolling” but ultimately hopes to raise $200 million, most of it from “a philanthropist or two.”  “The money will come,” O’Hagan says, “if the idea is right … I’m absolutely confident that there are people that will want to fund this.” According to Basbanes, “enthusiastic support for the project has already come from Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and his staff, with the result that a temporary location for the museum will likely be in that city, probably for five years.”

A museum dedicated to the American writer may not be redundant (a museum devoted to that curio, the reader, may be soon be needed to explain what she was) but during this national emergency, in which funding for public libraries has been cut to zero all across the country, we can only hope that there are more than one or two philanthropists to go around and that when the next Ruth Lilly decides to part with $100 million, she will consider the health of free and public institutions.

The American Writers Museum Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization (Federal Tax ID Number 27-1822749). All donations made to the Foundation are 100% tax deductible.

Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.

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