America’s greats honored at AWM


Malcolm O’Hagan acknowledges the applause of the crowd and then Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, center, at the opening of the American Writers Museum on May 16, 2017.

By Malcolm O’Hagan

Living in Sligo until age 17 instilled in me a love of stories and poetry. There, Yeats, spent his summers. Now, the greatest poet of the 20th century, lies at rest in Drumcliffe Cemetery, “beneath Benbulen’s stately head,” as he directed.

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Some of his most beloved poems are set in Sligo. Oft on a summer’s day I ventured up the Garavogue River in a rowboat to Lough Gill, and visited the Isle of Inisfree, where Yeats never built his small cabin. I stood “where the wandering water gushes / from the hills above Glen-car,” where the fairies beckoned – “Come away, O human child / To the waters and the wild/ With a faery hand in hand / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

America’s greats honored at AWM

The work of James Joyce and two institutions in his native Dublin proved inspirations for the founding of the American Writers Museum.

I loved Padraic Colum – “O, to have a little house / to own the heart and stool and all ..”. Behan’s “Borstal Boy” roused the rebel blood that courses through the veins of every Irishman. Synge lured me to the Aran Islands. Shaw’s repartee amused me, and the witticisms of Oscar Wilde delighted. As a student at University College Dublin, I became one of Joyce’s “Dubliners.” I pictured myself as Buck Mulligan in the Martello Tower in Dalkey where my parents lived, and where now four of my siblings and their lucky families live. I immersed myself in “Ulysses” and traveled with Bloom through the streets of dear old dirty Dublin. “Finnegans Wake” remains a challenge. And I am still waiting for Beckett’s Godot.

Then American writers grabbed my attention – Whitman’s great ode to America, “Leaves of Grass,” and Flannery O’Connor’s claim that “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” stirred indelible outrage, as did Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Harper Lee’s “To Catch a Mockingbird.” The lustrous language in Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” left me spellbound. Hemingway’s macho works had appeal of another sort.

America’s greats honored at AWM

F. Scott Fitzgerald in a picture from 1921.

On a trip back to Ireland in 2009, I visited the Dublin Writers Museum, which recounts with manuscripts, letters, photographs and artifacts the development of Irish literature, and honors Irish writers including its four Nobel Laureates. When I returned to Washington, I was surprised to learn that the U.S. did not have a museum honoring its great writers. How could there be such a void in the nation’s cultural fabric? It was a call to arms. With time on my hands, having recently retired as president of a major trade association, I determined to do justice to the men and women who had a profound impact on the history and culture of the United States.

America’s greats honored at AWM

Ernest Hemingway working on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in 1939.

The American Writers Museum opened on May 16, 2017. The development journey was long, arduous, and fun. It started with only an idea, no money, no collection, no knowledge of how to create a museum from thin air. However, the leading literati with whom I floated the idea were excited, and urged me on. Endorsements flooded in. The one received from Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities (2009-2013), most poignantly expressed the rationale for an American writers museum – “There is a void in the American museum world. We collect in central points the artifacts of civilization and honor politicians and soldiers, athletes and artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, but we neglect our writers. In a country established as an idea explicated in written documents and embellished by generations of poets, novelists, and critics, the case for commemorating the written word is self-evident. After all, what is written describes a people and what is celebrated defines their values.”

The challenges were many – where should the museum be located; what should be featured in the museum; who should develop the content, and who design the exhibits; where will funding come from; who will operate the museum once it opens. Along the way many wonderful people joined the planning team and later became trustees of the museum. Chicago, the gritty city that shaped much of American history, and a city with a rich literary tradition, was the natural location. Mayor Daley and following him Mayor Emanuel were eager to have the museum in their city. Amaze Design, the Boston-based company responsible for designing the museum, turned concepts into captivating interactive exhibits. Generous donors who saw the museum as a source of inspiration for generations to come provided the critical financial support.

The museum opened to rave reviews from media and visitors. It is a literary jewel box that rewards all who go there. A typical response from visitors when they first enter the museum is “Wow”. It is so much more wonderful than they had imagined. Within a few months of opening, the American Writers Museum became the #2 rated museum in Chicago, following the world renowned Art Institute.

The first program at the AWM honored acclaimed Irish-born American short story writer and journalist Maeve Brennan, who moved to the U.S. in 1934 when her father was appointed to the Irish Legation in Washington. The program featured a tribute by Alice McDermott, whose novel Charming Billy won the National Book Award. Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall, an enthusiastic champion of Irish literature, and his wife Greta, made a stop at the museum on their first visit to Chicago, and returned on a later visit. Senator Billy Lawless, Ireland’s first senator to represent the diaspora, encourages patrons at The Gage his hugely popular watering hole, to visit the AWM a few blocks north on Michigan Avenue.

One of the AWM’s most important missions is to inspire young people to read and write. Thousands of students are bussed from their schools to the museum each year for planned tours. Having a go on an old manual typewriter is a new experience they love. During the pandemic the AWM developed virtual tours and greatly expanded its online content with educational programs for the benefit and enjoyment of young and old.

America’s greats honored at AWM

AWM’s inaugural program honored Maeve Brennan.

Changing exhibits at the museum have featured Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin, and Frederick Douglass. During a visit to Ireland in 1845 Douglass heard Daniel O’Connell the great Irish Liberator speak at a public meeting in Dublin. He wrote, “It seems to me that the voice of O’Connell is enough to calm the most violent passion, even though it were already manifesting itself in a mob. There is a sweet persuasiveness in it, beyond any voice I ever heard. His power over an audience is perfect.” Douglas and O’Connell became friends and O’Connell invited the American Agitator to speak at one of his rallies. Douglas declared that the first time in his life he felt truly free was when he was in Ireland. Current exhibits feature Ray Bradbury and 29 Immigrant Voices.

America’s greats honored at AWM

Frederick Douglass has been the subject of an exhibit at the AWM.

The Dublin Writers Museum was the inspiration for the AWM, which in turn became the inspiration for the new Museum of Literature Ireland on St. Stephens Green. Among the many bonds that link Ireland and America, is a shared respect for great writers and their works. America continues to be guided by the words of its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. The voice of Ireland continues to echo throughout the world in the stories and poetry crafted by its remarkable writers.

Malcolm O’Hagan is the founder of the American Writers Museum. To find out more about it, visit americanwritersmuseum.org.