James Krohe Jr. is one of the
great Illinois historians.
Robert P. Howard*
I've been a magazine journalist, essayist, and critic for nearly fifty years now. My work has appeared in more than a dozen national magazines and newspapers, including The Nation, Reader's Digest, New York Times Book Review, and Wall Street Journal. But by far the most of my work, and most of the best, has been done for newspapers and magazines in my native Illinois.
The Corn Latitudes is an archives of writing on Illinois social life, history, politics, and culture, with particular attention having been paid to Chicago and Springfield, the state capital. The collection will be of interest to anyone with abiding connections to Illinois owing to their youth, their schooling, or their family. Journalists eager for backgrounding on public issues might also find it useful, as might historians. Illinois writers, the architects, the politicians who called it home also being of national interest, the out-of-state reader should also find things worth reading, as will anyone curious to know more about Illinois’s crown jewel, the great city of Chicago.
"If you would learn about Illinois today, you must read about yesterday, especially if you are an historian or a journalist needing to do a quick study of an unfamiliar field. Many of the stories
journalists labor on today were
already written 20, 50,
150 years ago."
Linda Davis, La Grange, lllinois, 2015
My longest and in many ways most rewarding association is with the Springfield weekly, Illinois Times, in which I appeared shortly after its founding in 1975. Writing mainly about the capital city, I contributed feature articles, reviews, and opinion columns. The latter appeared under the title "Prejudices," until 1994; I resumed my career as an IT columnist in 2009 with a new weekly column, “Dyspepsiana”—an even thousand columns in all.
The "other Illinois"—Chicago—became a preoccupation in 1978, when I first appeared in The Reader, Chicago's version of Illinois Times. The city and the magazine scene was bustling in those days. During my time there I was made contributing editor of the magazine Chicago Times (from 1989 until 1990, when the magazine closed, undone by its publishers), and served in the same position at Chicago-based Inland Architect from 1992 until it was undone by the demise of its patron and sold, in 1994. I also was a regular contributor to the late, lamented Chicago Enterprise magazine, the do-gooding monthly of the Commercial Club of Chicago.
A very different range of issues were the subjects of my regular contributions to Nature of Illinois, the short-lived but worthy journal of The Nature of Illinois Foundation. In addition to my magazine and newspaper work, I wrote or edited several reports and studies for Illinois public agencies and not-for-profit organizations. Topics include conservation planning, child welfare, school district reorganization, drug education, energy conservation, solid waste policy, and historic preservation.
I found Illinois sufficiently interesting that I jumped at a late-career commission to write a guide to the state's history and culture. Researching and writing it took years and amounted to a post-graduate program in Illinois studies. Sadly for all involved, I ended up with a volume that was informative, readable, and utterly lacking in commercial viability, it containing as many words as Hugo's Les Misérables but with a likely readership that was only about one ten-thousandth as large, at best.
How it piled up. Surprisingly little of it is available, since much of it predated the internet. The Reader maintains an online archive that includes my post-1987 pieces for that publication, and all of my post-2009 work for Illinois Times can be read at that paper's web home, but most of the rest survive only on paper in my closet. Scanned versions of those moldering masterpieces constitute the bulk of this archives.
In 1977 A Springfield Reader, which I designed and edited, was given an Illinois State Historical Society's Award of Merit. I authored one of three parts of a series on pollution and risk published by the American Bar Association's Student Lawyer magazine that won the Chicago Headline Club's 1985 Peter Lisagor Award for reporting and that year's award for editorial excellence from the American Society of Business Publications Editors. In 1994 I won the Illinois Press Association's "Best Column" award. In 2018 my book Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves was recognized as a scholarly publication worthy of a Superior Achievement Award.
Readers will ask—as I have asked—why should anyone bother to read stories that for the most part are old news? I offer several reasons.
One is nostalgia; readers can revisit old events, causes, and controversies with which they were once involved. For another, faithful readers whose memories are as creaky as mine can enjoy old favorites as if they were new. Many of the Illinois books I reviewed on publication remain worth reading, and thus worth reading about.
The school teacher in me insists that background reading of this sort contributes to one's education about Illinois and deepens one’s understanding of the place. (That certainly was my motive for writing many of these pieces.) Newcomers to the state might be curious to learn how Illinois became Illinois; old-timers might be curious to learn how the Illinois of our youth un-became itself.
Finally, many of yesterday’s controversies remain today’s controversies, even after 40 years. (Typical example from the headline of a 1991 story about higher education: “Tuition’s terrible toll: Are all but the wealthy getting priced out of college?”) When I began, Illinois faced new problems. How to protect Illinoisans and Illinois natural systems against pollution. How to wean ourselves of unreliable sources of energy, dependence on which threatened the national security. How to open a society long closed to women in all their aspects. How to counter the ugly new politics of the Nixonian right based on racial division and class resentment. How to adapt our education system, our social safety net, and our tax system to a new economy that was cheating too many people of prosperity.
Illinois hasn’t fixed one of those problems. So if you would learn about Illinois today, you must read about yesterday, especially if you are an historian or a journalist needing to do a quick study of an unfamiliar field. Many of the stories journalists labor on today were already written 20, 50, 150 years ago.
From the site menu above, click The site for more detailed information about the contents of the archives and tips on how to navigate the site.
* Letter to the editor, Illinois Times. The late Bob Howard was for many years the statehouse correspondent for the Chicago Tribune when both the paper and the post meant something in Illinois. In his retirement he, like so many former newspapermen, took up history. For decades his Illinois; A History of the Prairie State, was the standard one-volume history, and his compendium of profiles of Illinois governors, Mostly Good and Competent Men, remains valuable. For an interesting oral history interview about his life and career, see http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/uis/id/2506/