Illinois literature, re-examined
Another of my essay-reviews for Peggy Boyer Long at Illinois Issues. It probably ought to be updated, but the fundamental questions I raised still need to be asked. The situation is of course worse that it was when this was written.
Twenty-two years ago, critic and teacher Robert Bray asked an interesting question in his book, Rediscoveries: Literature and Place in Illinois. "The creation of a culture at any time and for any society requires its re-creation from the materials of the past," wrote Bray, now the Colwell Professor of American Literature at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. "And that act of re-creation, the search for a 'usable past' . . . ought to be as ongoing and as serious as anything we do."
Indeed it ought; often the best way to see one's way forward is to look backward. The materials from which to fashion a usable past reside in old buildings, in native landscapes, in the recollections of elders and—perhaps the richest trove of all—in the books in which Illinois places and people figure. But, asked Bray, "Can the ethos of a state or region or nation be adequately understood if a considerable segment of its literature, though no more than a century removed in time, goes almost entirely unread?"
Are the great works of Illinois literature really moldering away unread? An answer must be inferred. Libraries, for example, do not release data about the circulation of individual titles. Certainly, the Illinois classics aren't much talked about. Floyd Dell, the bohemian book review editor and central figure in the Chicago Renaissance, probably comes up at parties less often than the Icelandic sagas. Robert Herrick is reckoned by some to have been the first novelist to explain Chicago to a disbelieving world; yet he has been mentioned but three or four times in nearly 20 years by the Chicago Tribune. His contemporary Elia Peattie was not Chicago's first female novelist, but she was the first good one, and she usually is recalled in the popular press only to mention how forgotten she is.
Illinois classics used to appear often on high school reading lists. The horrors of life in Packingtown as depicted in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle left such an impression of Chicago on tens of thousands of downstate students that tourism traffic to that city was depressed for decades. Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology is another favorite; the collection's poetic elegies to the dead are short (which recommended them to students) and simple (which recommended them to schoolteachers).
The presence of such works on school reading lists would seem to suggest their continued relevance. But students are an unwilling readership, and, in any event, school reading lists serve several agendas beyond nourishing the ethos of Illinois. What is true in the high schools is even truer in the colleges. Eliza Farnham's true-life account of pioneering in the wilds of central Illinois, Life in Prairie Land, enjoys a vogue among teachers of college women's studies courses because of the author's gender.
Illinoisans over 18 are free to choose their own reading matter. A book that remains in bookstores is still being read, or at least being purchased. By that measure, a surprising amount of Illinois' 19th and early 20th century literature still has an audience. Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems (you know, "big shoulders") and Masters' Spoon River have never gone out of print, and one can still find Studs Lonigan in the bookshops in various editions of the works of his creator, James T. Farrell, perhaps because this account of the life among the first urban underclass still resonates. The Jungle is still in print, as is the work of Finley Peter Dunne in various forms.
Here again, it would be a mistake to assume that classic Illinois books that are being read are being read for the light they shine on Illinois. Henry Blake Fuller's Bertram Cope's Year, a novel about a student that was set on the Evanston campus of Northwestern University, has found a new audience after more than 80 years. Its implicit homosexual theme caused publishers to reject it in 1919, but it is newly pertinent today. Jane Addams' account of pioneering in the wilds of the West Side of Chicago, Twenty Years at Hull-House, also owes much of its appeal to an author who, as a social reformer, social work pioneer, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and woman attracts readers from several constituencies.
The commercial press is geared, naturally, toward titles that sell, and in addition to those required by school courses, titles that sell include those in demand by library acquisitions committees. 13th District, a Story of a Candidate by Brand Whitlock has been reissued by Classic Textbooks. Reporter-reformer-writer Whitlock spent time in Springfield, and drew upon it and the General Assembly for material for two influential novels and several short stories around the turn of the 20th century. "The ever-present theme of politics in Whitlock's stories almost always had the smell of decay and corruption about it," wrote one biographer, "and many stories were specifically about that smell in Springfield." Folks are used to that smell in Springfield, but it apparently repels non-Springfieldians; the capital's public library is one of only three in the state that own a copy of the book.
Many of the state's classic books qualify as arcane, which happily makes them a fit subject for a university press. Many are in the public domain (dead authors come cheap) and, apart from new forewords, there are few editing costs. They may sell only a few copies per year, but they usually keep on selling for years. Southern Illinois University Press in Carbondale, for instance, publishes reprints of books on local lore, the Civil War, reminiscences and other topics that touch on life in deep southern Illinois, which it markets as the Shawnee Classics. Typical of the series are two recent titles: Before Mark Twain: A Sampler of Old, Old Times on the Mississippi, a 1968 compilation of reprints from diaries, newspapers and journals, and Tales and Songs of Southern Illinois, a folk history classic by SIU professor Charles Neely that was originally published in 1938.
At the other end of the state, Northern Illinois University Press in DeKalb has given us new editions of recent works that, while dating only from the 1940s, are already "classics," to the extent that term may be applied to works of merit that have been forgotten. One of them is Midwest at Noon by Graham Hutton, the other Herbert Asbury's history of the Chicago underworld, Gem of the Prairie. NIU Press still has in print the important addition it made in 1970 to the library of the curious student of Illinois—Clyde Walton's anthology of recorded history, An Illinois Reader.
The University of Illinois Press in Urbana-Champaign has come closest to producing what could be called a pleiade series of Illinois classics. Its Prairie State Books consists of quality paperback editions of some 30 titles, in decent bindings and augmented with scholarly introductions (which, it must be said, often are more interesting than the books they introduce).
The U of I Press has cast its net wider than the Shawnee Classics, and includes works about Chicago and all parts of downstate. Windy McPherson's Son, Sherwood Anderson's first novel (one of many country-boy-comes-to-Chicago stories) is thus reborn, as are such varied works as Paul Angle's history of gang war in a southern Illinois county, Bloody Williamson, Black Hawk's autobiography, Farrell's Chicago Stories and Peattie's The Precipice, which recounts how a University of Chicago coed finds feminism in a settlement house. The U of I Press also occasionally brings out as part of its regular line of trade paperbacks new editions of such classic works as Milo Milton Quaife's Chicago and the Old Northwest, 1673-1835: A Study of the Evolution of the Northwestern Frontier, Together With a History of Fort Dearborn.
Much of what is in print from our more arcane authors, and lesser works on the known ones, survives thanks to the small presses. Vachel Lindsay has received special attention from the small press, perhaps because in Lindsay—a literary man who knew nothing about business—they see a kindred soul. Tramping Across America: Travel Writings of Vachel Lindsay was brought out by Springfield's Rosehill Press in 1999, following the example set in the 1980s by Peoria's Spoon River Poetry Press, which put out a comprehensive collection of his verse, The Poetry of Vachel Lindsay, in three volumes. Lindsay's reformist fantasy, The Golden Book of Springfield, was returned to the shelf after 70 years by Chicago's Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co. ("Subversive literature for the whole family since 1886.")
Illinois' famous authors, in fact, are pretty well served by the various arms of the publishing industry. Most of the editions described above came out since Bray published his lament in the early 1980s. Back then, he found, many of these titles were out of print and could be obtained only through a library. Now we have the Internet, which makes it much easier for curious Illinoisans to track down used out-of-print books and copies of books in print that general-interest booksellers cannot find room for on their shelves.
Alas, many other Illinois writers of note have not fared well at the hands of the commercial press. Don Marquis was a novelist, playwright, poet and columnist whose characters were familiar to millions in the 1920s and 1930s, including archy the cockroach and mehitabel the cat. Critics of the day likened him to Twain and Mencken as a humorist and social critic. While archy and mehitabel stories remain in print (thanks, one assumes, to the eagerness of cat owners to buy anything that features felines), Marquis' novel Sons of the Puritans, in which the humorist recalled his hometown of Walnut in Bureau County as it was in the late 1800s, is all but impossible to find in Illinois libraries.
Marquis is not alone in his neglect. Robert Herrick's novels are out of print or hard to find. Donald Peattie's natural history of trees is still in print, but buying his two nature books based in Illinois—Prairie Grove and Almanac for Moderns—requires a search of the used book shops. The works of Hamlin Garland are out of print save for expensive library editions. One can find the name Ben Hecht on scattered titles in the bookstores, mainly his writing for and about Hollywood, but not Gaily Gaily, his rip-roaring memoir of newspapering in Chicago.
The curious Illinoisan whose appetites go beyond—we will not say above—the famous, the officially sanctioned or the controversial will have to repair to a local library. But they often are as bare of Illinois classics as the bookstores. A check of the Online Computer Library Center's massive WorldCat database (which catalogs the holdings of more than 700 Illinois libraries, including all of its larger public and academic collections) finds that John Hallwas' fine anthology, Illinois Literature: The Nineteenth Century, is available in only one in four WorldCat libraries. Robert Coover's novel, Origin of the Brunists, is listed by only 43, including only one public library in West Frankfort in the deep southern part of the state where the story was set. Only six public libraries in Illinois own a copy of Marquis' Sons of the Puritans. Whitlock's 13th District, as mentioned, is on the shelves of exactly three.
The paucity of Illinois literature in Illinois public libraries is proof of neither indifference nor illiteracy among our librarians. Most of the state's public libraries are small. Of the 624 public libraries in Illinois in 2001–02, 414 served towns of under 10,000 people; most school libraries serve even smaller populations. Taxpayer-supported institutions are obliged to spend most of their tax money on what most of the taxpayers want; they have limited space and scant budgets for what must be considered coterie books. The public library as presently conceived is a service agency whose job it is to circulate books, not a museum where literature is preserved and curated.
Sustaining the literary canon is, however, one of the jobs of the university library. Thanks to the interlibrary loan, the diligent reader can augment the skimpy collections of public libraries, one book at a time, by tapping into collections of colleges and universities. These tend to be both broader and deeper than all but the biggest public libraries can afford. Of the 109 libraries in Illinois that own at least one edition of Francis Grierson's fanciful memoir of Illinois in the Lincoln era, Valley of Shadows, 61 are part of a college or university. Of the 15 Illinois libraries of all types that own a copy of Marquis' Sons of the Puritans, nine are academic. Of the 21 Illinois libraries that keep Whitlock's 13th District on the shelves, 17 are attached to a college or university.
People won't ask for a book unless they have heard of it. The state's cultural institutions have done good work in seeing to that. Illinois! Illinois! is a 2,233-item annotated bibliography of fiction about Illinois compiled by Thomas L. Kilpatrick and Patsy-Rose Hoshiko. They began their labors in 1971, and the first edition was published by Scarecrow Press in 1979. An updated and expanded online version is now posted on the Web, courtesy of Southern Illinois University Carbondale. In 1985, the state librarian's office published A Reader's Guide to Illinois Literature and distributed it free to all public and school libraries in Illinois. Contributors included such stewards of the canon as the University of Illinois' James Hurt, Western Illinois Univer-sity's John Hallwas, Bray, Chicago State's Babette Inglehart, and John Knoepfle of what is now the University of Illinois at Springfield. The guide is an invaluable tool for any teacher or librarian who wants to develop a course or a reading group using Illinois literature—as well as a CliffsNotes for journalists wishing to impress readers with having read more widely than they have.
The state's curriculum mavens have been busy, too. Illinois State University contrived "The Connections Project" funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. Aimed at high-schoolers, the project proceeded from a Bray-ish premise: "As residents of Illinois, it is important to understand the history, settlement, and culture of the state." The planners chose as texts works by Ernest Hemingway and Sandburg (Chicago), as well as the life of Abraham Lincoln, "to give the students a good idea of the dense history and culture of Illinois."
Might the schools do more? There are many reasons to wish they will not. If few Illinoisans read for pleasure, it is partly because verse and fiction were forced on them as school texts. Schools that no longer ask kids to read Charles Dickens are not likely to introduce them to the likes of Joseph Kirkland in any event; schools that cannot teach kids to read are not likely to do a good job teaching them Edna Ferber.
Much Illinois literature is sneaked past unwitting students in the guise of social history. A case can be made—and several experts made it in 2000 in Illinois History Teacher—for such works as Black Hawk's autobiography, Grierson's The Valley of Shadows, Addams' Twenty Years at Hull-House, Masters' Spoon River Anthology and Gwendolyn Brooks' A Street in Bronzeville as local history texts. But is it wise to surrender our literature to the sociologists, as one might give an old coat to the Salvation Army? Lorraine Hansberry's famous 1959 play, Raisin in the Sun, may be read as a treatise on the housing problem in the Depression-era Black Belt—but to urge people to read it as only that is a disservice to Hansberry—and, for that matter, the reader.
If the great Illinois books are not read because they are hard to find, it is equally true that they are hard to find because so few people wish to read them. There are a dozen reasons why this is so. Carl Smith, professor of English and American Studies at Northwestern University and author of Chicago and the Literary Imagination 1880–1920, says of his students, "It's out of fashion to read for the ethos of a place—students are suspicious of literature as a bearer of ideas because they've been taught that every author has an agenda."
Authors with agendas probably bother readers less than authors without skill. More than a couple of the books in the Illinois canon are there because they are by Illinoisans or about Illinois, not because they are great books. (Frank Norris' The Pit is a good, or rather a mediocre, example.) Bray argued in 1985 that A Prairie Winter, a diary of a woman living on a farm near Mokena in Will County that was published in 1903, has a similarity to a genre of cozy country books that includes such best-sellers as Yorkshire veterinarian James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small. "If we are going to read such stuff—and we are—why not read our own?" he asked. One reason may be that while the farmers of the Illinois frontier era dwelt in a place as exotic to us now as the faraway Dales of Yorkshire, they aren't, quite exotic enough to be entertaining.
An even bigger deterrent to taking up Illinois literature than the lack of skill among its authors is the lack of skill among our readers. Too many readers are like the young person who found the vocabulary of Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull-House "a little difficult." "This is a great autobiography," reported the reader in a review posted on the Web, "but not for beginners." The reviewer was almost 20 years old.
Bray has argued eloquently, if not quite persuasively, on behalf of Grierson's The Valley of Shadows. "I can think of no better book for teaching students the high emotional drama that the Illinois folk lived through in those crucial years of the rise of Abraham Lincoln just before the Civil War," he wrote in the aforementioned Reader's Guide. "I firmly believe that The Valley of Shadows should be read in history and literature classes all across the state, both high school and college."
Unfortunately, much of the dialect in which much of Grierson's book was written makes demands on even readers comfortable with printed English; to the high schooler to whom even printed standard English looks like Sanskrit, it will be all but unintelligible.
If the prospect of learning about the ethos of Illinois does not drive people to the library, it may be because "Illinois" is mostly a political construct, not a social or cultural one. There is not much that is distinctive about Illinois these days, save its lack of distinctiveness. About the only people who think in statewide terms are politicians, intellectuals and cosmopolites.
To the extent that most other Illinoisans, including most of its writers, are aware of an ethos at all, it is a local one. Virtually none of the classic Illinois books are about "Illinois." Rather they are about places in Illinois. One can make a fair case that Chicago literature is distinct from Illinois literature—to the extent that Chicago is distinct from the rest of Illinois.
Marquis had something to say about life in every Illinois small town, yet they are but distinct cousins of the Chicago neighborhood. Lindsay brought Springfield alive, to the extent that was possible, and no one will think Galesburg is just another burg who has read Earnest Elmo Calkins' history of it, They Broke the Prairie.
In no part of Illinois is regional identification stronger than in southern Illinois, and only in Chicago does so much of that identity owe to writing. The citizens of "Little Egypt" love to read about themselves, perhaps because no one else will, the rest of the state being unaware that there is any Illinois south of Collinsville. If literature sustains, indeed creates a regional ethos anywhere in Illinois, it is here.
The SIU Press' Shawnee Classics series began about 10 years ago, following the example of Gordon Pruett, who had reissued such regional titles through his Crossfire Press before he joined SIU's staff. Since then, one new/old book usually comes out each fall. Twenty-two Shawnee Classics titles are still in print. They have sold well, by the standards of a university press, with several titles going through multiple printings. Jonathan Haupt, the marketing manager, explains why. "There is a fiercely loyal sense of heritage in southern Illinois, making an excellent audience for reprints of classic regional histories, especially tales of our heroes and antiheroes."
Of course, many a classic book with a local focus is being read as local history in the narrow sense. This frustrates Bray's larger hope to develop a usable past. If history tells about the past to explain something of the present, or even the future, antiquarianism extols the past because it tells about the past.
But is Bray's past even possible? Increasingly, the Illinois classic seems local in terms of time as well as place. The Illinois described in the classic books doesn't exist—not just in the sense that anything “past” doesn't exist, but in the sense that there is little of the old Illinois that informs life in the present one. Even if Illinois books could inspire a love of Illinois, it might be unwise to try. If literature is poisoned by being turned into a history lesson, it is so much more so if it is turned into a civic lesson. ●