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Gently Mad

Temple of the Muses

Though he, personally, lives in Washington—and while the nation’s capital certainly has an extraordinary variety of great museums already—O’Hagan said the location of the American Writers Museum will likely be somewhere else. 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. Where the permanent facility goes, however—and the dream is that it be up and running in ten years—will depend on economics.

“We’d love for it to be in Chicago, that’s our hope, but it will ultimately be where the money comes from.” The model in this regard is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which is in Cleveland as a consequence of the financial backing that came from interests in that city. The idea to produce a traveling exhibition before there is a permanent home makes sense, O’Hagan said, “because it allows us to introduce the concept around the country.”

Especially encouraging is the support the project has generated among so many different people, as attested by the great variety of endorsements posted on the web page (including mine, I should note.) Let the record show, too, that I have agreed to serve on the advisory council with sixteen other people representing a formidable cross-section of professionals from various reaches of the book world; their individual particulars are detailed on the website as well.

“Museums are totally changing the way they interpret things,” O’Hagan said. “In the old days, you were judged by the number of artifacts you had. Now, what matters is how you present material, and how you engage people. We will exhibit the standard manuscripts and letters, of course, but we don’t want to duplicate what is already being done by the great research libraries. We will draw from the great libraries, and provide them with an opportunity to put some of their treasures on display. And we don’t want to give awards either, there are enough of them out there already, and we don’t want to put up a whole lot on our website in terms of literary content and literary criticism.”

The principal goal is to celebrate and share the heritage of American literature, “and invite visitors of all ages to discover and renew their love of reading” through modern, professionally designed exhibitions and displays. “It will showcase writers, their work, and their role in defining American society,” O’Hagan said.

A native of Ireland who grew up in Yeats country “in County Sligo, in the shadow of Ben Bulben,” O’Hagan retired in 2006 as president and chief executive officer of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. With free time suddenly available, he began to audit some literature courses at George Washington University where he had earned his doctorate in engineering many years earlier. “I got a much deeper appreciation for the differences between surface reading and close reading, and I wound up rediscovering a good deal of American literature,” he said.

“That first day in class, I felt so out of place with these young people, old enough to be their grandfather. But I was so impressed with their engagement, and their intelligence.” He took ten courses over the next two years and then became a docent at the Library of Congress. “What I loved most of all doing that was seeing people’s eyes just open wide at what they saw. The great tragedy there is that they have so much treasure, but no place to display very much of it.”

But it was a nostalgic visit to his native country and a trip to the Dublin Writers Museum that gave him the idea for what has now become his driving purpose in life. “The Dublin museum is small and very traditional, but it celebrates Irish literature in a very powerful way. I came back and wondered, where is the American equivalent?” What has happened since then has taken on something of a life of its own. “I’m working harder now than I ever did for a living. It’s hard for me to disengage, because I am so committed to this. I don’t want to waste a minute.”

That means, too, that he wastes no time worrying about whether he will be able to raise enough money to realize his dream, and takes heart in the example of Ruth Lilly, the heiress to an Indiana pharmaceutical fortune who in 2002 gave more than $100 million to Poetry magazine. “If there is somebody out there who is so impassioned about poetry, then there has to be someone who is willing to underwrite a national writers museum,” he said. “Let me just say that nobody has called me Don Quixote yet. I feel this is a natural, and that its time has come. I’m only amazed it hasn’t happened yet.”

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.