The last few days I was in Chicago to see “Hamilton” at the PrivateBank Theater (more later, obviously), and yesterday, at the recommendation of a family friend, and before the CTA slog to the airport (and it was a slog), I visited the American Writers Museum on Michigan Avenue. Haven't heard of it? It's relatively new. “One month and one day old,” the woman at the reception desk told me, as she was taking my money and checking my bag.
How was it? A bit small but very interactive and very, very diverse. I'd probably say it's diverse to a fault. In the first room you go into, there's a long line of writers, including statesmen from the founding of the republic such as Franklin and Jefferson (but not the man who wrote “like he was running out of time”), and up to the present day. But my wheelhouse is post-WWII Jewish-American writers, and while there were individual posts for Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, there was nothing in that room for Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth or E.L. Doctorow. Was Salinger there? He must‘ve been. But I don’t recall seeing him.
The exhibit is constructed on a circle, and halfway through there's a room where, among other interactive options, you can choose your five favorite works. It's a way for the museum to gather information: not only what people like but who they are and where they live. (If you want a bookmark decorated with your favorites, you include your email address.) For my top 5, I went with books that amazed and that I kept returning to. The five I came up with are to the right: “The Great Gatsby,” “My Antonia,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The World According to Garp” and The Ghost Writer.“ No, I don't know why they don't have a book cover yet for ”My Antonia,“ other than the fact that the museum is, you know, just one month and one day old.
The bigger problem was when I tried to include one of E.L. Doctorow's novels on my list. You do this by typing the name of the author into the computer terminal and then go from there.
This is what it looked like:
I think I stared at that final screen for a while, wondering what I was doing wrong. Do I include, ”E.L.“ at the end? I tried that. Nothing. I backed up, tried it again. I kept thinking, ”It's not getting me to...“
Then it hit me. They didn't have E.L. Doctorow in their database. They had Cory, who, I'm sure is a fine upstanding citizen of the world, and poet Maureen Doallas, as well as Muriel Dobbin and all of those Doanes. And you certainly can't open a museum to American writers without Margo Dockendorf. But the author of ”Book of Daniel,“ ”Ragtime“ or ”World's Fair“? The National Book Award winner, PEN/Faulkner award winner, three-time National Book Critics Circle Award winner, as well as Library of Congress prize winner? Bupkis.
At this point, some part of me assumed that maybe the Doctorow estate didn't want to be included. You know how you couldn't get his books for the longest time on Kindle? Like that. But when I brought up the glitch with the receptionist, she said, no, that's probably not it. They‘re just missing some. But they are making a list of writers they need to add, so she took down his name.
”Doctorow,“ I said, ”E.L. He’s kind of a big deal."