Ernest Hemingway’s personal life was as interesting and adventurous as his fiction. So, while I was in Chicago recently I took a side trip to the lovely suburb of Oak Park, where I visited the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. For Hemingway fans or if you enjoy books about Hemingway such as The Paris Wife, you’ll find a stroll in the author’s old neighborhood is delightful.
In previous posts, such a the one about A Skeptic’s Guide to Writer’s Houses, I’ve discussed the fact that authors’ homes aren’t as interesting as the places where their books are set. Still, it’s fun to see how an author lived and maybe hear a few stories about family life that may have shaped his world view. For example, when you take the guided tour in the home, you’ll see the little dining room where Hemingway’s grandfather sat with the children for breakfast and encouraged all of them to tell stories. He didn’t long enough to see what sprang from such encouragement.
So, if you’re in Chicago, make a trip to Oak Park to visit the Hemingway family home. Start at the museum at 200 Oak Park Avenue 708-524-5383, www.ehfop.org The home where Hemingway was born is one block north.
My book, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways comes out May 1. So, between now and then, I’m offering a glimpse of the 15 U.S. cities featured in the book. Here’s a preview of the Chicago chapter, entitled “The Tales of Two Architects:”
Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger says, “Architecture is one area in which we in New York truly do have a second city complex toward Chicago–not the other way around, as it is in so many other realms. And for all that has happened over the years, little has changed in the sense that those of us in New York, as well as the rest of the country, still have of Chicago as being the essential city of American architecture.”
But you don’t have to be a connoisseur of skyscrapers to understand Chicago’s pivotal place in architectural history and the innovative, risk-taking outlook that continues to make Chicago “America’s City.” Two books have generated sky-high interest in Chicago by combining the stories of the city’s architectural lions with juicy plots. The first, Erik Larson’s The Devil in The White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. The other book, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, a novel of historical fiction, tells the tale of architectural genius Frank Lloyd Wright’s scandalous relationship with his client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney.
Each chapter in Off the Beaten Page includes an essay about a couple of books that create a theme or focus for your visit to that city, extensive reading lists, and three-day itineraries that offer ways to experience in person the books you’ve read and have fun in other ways, too. For example, the White City is long gone, but you can get a taste of what is was like by taking a tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Wander Jackson Park, the site of the World’s Fair in The Devil in the White City, then tour Millennium Park, a modern-day bookend to the architectural innovation that began with that fair. Wherever you go, keep looking up.
There’s been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about the decline of reading, diminishing book sales, and the “death of print,” but there’s no doubt that books clubs are thriving. It’s hard to know precisely how many book clubs there are because they are often informal groups. However, according to Publishers Weekly there are an estimated seven million such groups in the U.S. and that number is rising.
Some organizations, art museums in particular, recognize the power of book clubs and the potential of readers in general as a huge target for their marketing efforts. From the Delaware Art Museum to the Art Institute of Chicago (I love the name of their group, “Reading Between the Lions”) to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, museums are conducting book-based tours and book clubs that capitalize on the notion that reading can make other aspects of life come alive. Debbi Hegstrom, associate educator for the docent program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) says, “There are unlimited connections between art and literature. This is another way to promote the vision of the MIA, ‘Inspiring wonder through the power of art,’ to a specific but potentially very large audience. With the current popularity of book clubs, it seems like a logical way to tap into the existing interest and bring more people to the museum.”
Formats vary. Some art museum reading groups revolve around special exhibits or a featured work; others focus on art-related reading in general, be it fiction or non-fiction. Some require museum membership; others, such as the MIA, are open to anyone. All provide great reading ideas and opportunities for book club field trips. At the MIA, museum tour guides have been presenting book-related tours for four years, as requested by organized book clubs, but a newer program, which is open to anyone on a drop-in basis, has been running for three months. Men, women, young adults to seniors participate. Says Hegstrom, “The titles usually have something art-related but not necessarily. Guides can use artworks in the museum to explore themes presented in a book. Our goal is to include one fiction and one non-fiction title each quarter, with at least one of the books relating specifically to art or artists.” This summer they’re tackling The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, and Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl, a fantastic Minnesota writer.
What’s the common thread between books and art? Hegstrom says, “Literature and the visual arts are both creative expressions of the human spirit. To experience both media based on related topics and to share the experience with others brings depth to both. Books become the reason to get into the galleries and talk about a shared experience—in this case, the literature. I think it’s a way to reach some people who might not otherwise visit, but also to strengthen existing relationships. On tours, we are very interested in how people make personal connections to works of art. This is another avenue to help people build those connections.”
So, if you’re a local or a book lover on vacation, you’ll feel welcome at the MIA’s book tours which take place on first Tuesdays of every month at 11:30 a.m. and first Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. Also, for a list of what museums are reading and more information on the connection between art and literature, check out the Hol Art Books site.
Says Hegstrom, “We hope to expand titles, age groups, and partnerships in the coming year. Sometimes the subject matter and discussions can be serious, but in the end what we love to hear is, ‘Wow, that was really fun.’ “
Last weekend I spent a really cold but delightful couple of hours wandering around Jackson Park in Chicago. I’ve wanted to go there ever since I read Erik Larson’s bestseller The Devil in the White City. Jackson Park is where the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 took place and that’s the subject of Larson’s non-fiction book. In The Devil in the White City, he weaves together the stories of Daniel H. Burnham, the legendary architect responsible for the fair’s construction (and later the Plan of Chicago) and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. He crafts the story so dramatically that readers often wonder if the book is a true story or a gripping work of fiction.
I’m not the only one who has wanted to see where the story takes place. “When I finished The Devil in the White City I got in my car and drove to Jackson Park,” says Mary Jo Hoag, who is now tour director for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Devil in the White City tours. “I just wanted to see where it all took place.” So many readers have come in search of the White City that a host of tours have sprung up (given by CAF, the Chicago History Center, the Art Institute and other organizations) catering to readers who want to see first-hand where the plot thickened. Word has it that a movie version of The Devil in the White City is finally in the works, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as H.H. Holmes. That will create even more interest in seeing the real place where it all happened.
Almost nothing remains of the famed White City, though it was the greatest tourist attraction in American history, hosting 27 million visitors. Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed Central Park) began to lay out the fairgrounds in 1890. It took three years and 40,000 workers to construct the fabulous Beaux-Arts style fair buildings and monuments…out of plaster. The historic fair opened to visitors on May 1, 1893. It closed six months later and within a year almost every structure from the fair was destroyed by fire, demolished or moved elsewhere. Only the Palace of Fine Arts, on the north end of Jackson Park, remains. The building is now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It’s sad that such beauty was so ephemeral; I’d love to have seen it. Hoag says that, at the time, the fair’s huge white buildings– illuminated by the amazing new technology, electric lighting–were so dazzling that people who arrived at night got off the
train and simply fell on their knees they were so astonished at the sight. One fairgoer described it as “a sudden vision of heaven.”
It’s good that at least the Museum of Science and Industry survives (as the Palace of Fine Arts it held some of the world’s most valuable art and was built extra strong and fireproof) because it gives a frame of reference for what the other buildings at the fair looked like. That, along with Hoag’s collection of photographs and her great descriptions, helped kick start my imagination as we strolled through Jackson Park. Over here the Agriculture Building…over there the gigantic Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building…a replica of the iconic statue of the fair, The Republic…. the Wooded Island where architect Frank Lloyd Wright took inspiration from the Japanese pavilion… Modern life creeps back in, though. Over there is the basketball court where Barack Obama used to shoot hoops with Michelle’s brother.
Looking north down the lakefront from the Museum of Science and Industry, one has the sense that though the White City is gone, one of the best legacies of the fair endures: the idea that cities can be well planned and beautiful places. Jackson Park and Chicago’s long string of parks and open lakefront (part of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago) that make this city so special are examples of that great idea. Still, I look forward to seeing The Devil in the White City movie and how its special effects bring the White City back to life.
I was in Chicago last weekend for a writers conference and ventured out into the sweltering heat for a trip to the Chicago History Museum www.chicagohistory.org/
For anyone who has read just about any story that takes place there (Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and on and on), this museum reinforces that reading experience with relics, tours, special exhibits and more—everything from the Great Fire to meatpacking, the World’s Fair to a great collection of historic wedding dresses. My favorite quote on the wall there is from Mayor Richard Daly in 1968: “This is Chicago, this is America.”
Also, this is the city of the first skyscraper, and buildings so high that, in the words of Carl Sandburg, “They had to put hinges on the top two stories to let the moon go by.” The history museum and the Chicago Architecture Foundation offer boats tours on the Chicago River that blend architecture, history and a chance to be out on the water. http://caf.architecture.org/
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.