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View from the USA: Beyond words

The American Writers Museum doesn’t just celebrate the nation’s literary titans, it reveals how stories help to define us and our place in the world

View from the USA: Beyond words
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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The author C S Lewis once said: “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it.” It’s an intriguing idea. What if, rather than being just the mirror — a reflection of the world around us — stories were also the frame? I know what you’re going to say: I’ve hidden in my wardrobe a thousand times too, Lewis, and never seen so much as a kitty, let alone a lion or a witch. I always used to think that mere words can’t possibly create reality. But I changed my mind in Chicago.

The American Writers Museum, which opened here last year, is the first of its kind — a museum dedicated solely to the country’s literary greats. There’s video game poetry, halls filled with extracts from masterpieces and others with messy first drafts, corrections scribbled in. You can add a line to a story created every day by visitors, peer into the mind of a writer to see how the story-crafting process unfolds; there’s even a ‘word waterfall’, which immerses you in a wraparound screen of tumbling prose. But what really caught my eye was a hallway called A Nation of Writers, which traces the evolution of American writing, from the diaries of the first pioneers to the pens of contemporary greats.

Something remarkable happens as I walk through it. First, there’s the 17th-century writings of English explorer John Smith (of Pocahontas fame), which framed perceptions of the New World as a wild, bountiful place; then William Bradford’s description of the first Thanksgiving; Benjamin Franklin’s account of arriving penniless in Philadelphia; the first pamphlets arguing for the American colonies to break with the British Crown; the Declaration of Independence; and then the Constitution — perhaps the greatest piece of writing in the country’s history, to this day defining how Americans understand themselves as individuals and a nation.

I travel from the Antebellum South of Mark Twain — the first truly American voice, whose fiery vernacular defined the identity of the new country — through the poets of the Civil War, the authors of industrialisation and the prophets of the American Dream. There’s Tennessee Williams, one of the first to articulate that most fervent national creed: that those who work hard enough can achieve whatever they want; F Scott Fitzgerald, who showed the vanity behind it; Steinbeck, who raged against its economic injustice; and Arthur Miller, Hunter S Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut, who smashed it apart.

What emerges is not just the history of the country, but the shape of it too — like a tapestry, each piece of prose a single weave of thread, coming together to create an image of America itself. Stories steer our feelings. When I look across the vast primal barrenness of the far north, I hear Jack London’s Call of the Wild, those ‘yearnings and stirrings for he knew not what’. As I drive the windswept beaches of the Pacific Coast, I feel the freedom of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: ‘a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy’. When I hike the dark woods of Maine, I find the inspiration Thoreau sought while living in a cabin on the banks of a New England pond (chronicled in his seminal book, Walden). Words don’t just reflect reality, they’re its seeds. Our world springs from the tales we tell of it.

Science speaks of stories as a miracle of human consciousness, as unique and important to our evolution as opposable thumbs. We understand ourselves through narrative — through the story of our lives. Personalities are constructed from it, history is told through it, morality is taught by it. Stories are universal in every culture in every country of the world.

As I reach the end of the hall, I think: what of our stories today? In his 1922 poem, The Waste Land, T S Eliot — despairing at the ravages of modern life — wrote: ‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man … I will show you fear in a handful of dust.’

A country is defined by its narrative — a story that we type, tweet, post and pen every day. We can create the world we want, we just have to imagine it. And then put pen to paper. choosechicago.com 

Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)