A Book about Books about Illinois
Illinois! Illinois! reviewed
November 9, 1979
For obvious reasons, I am touched by the situation of the forgotten author. I wrote about it here and in this review of a remarkable annotated bibliography of Illinois fiction. Rereading it, I was struck by how generous I was, but some readers of a curious sort will find Kilpatrick's guide an essential work.
Reviewed: Illinois! Illinois!: An Annotated Bibliography of Fiction by Thomas L. Kilpatrick (New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1979)
Among readers, books written by librarians tend to be little appreciated. The exception is reference works. Librarians write good reference books for the same reasons that ex-bank robbers make good security consultants: they know the business from the other side, and so know exactly what works and what doesn’t.
A new reference book that works wonderfully well has just been published by the Scarecrow Press, Inc., the pride of Metuchen. New Jersey. It is called, Illinois! Illinois! and it is billed as “an annotated bibliography of fiction.” It is that, to be sure: 1,554 entries, admirably organized, each introduced by annotations that seldom run more than 150 words—or need to. But what Illinois! Illinois! really is is a map to a little-traveled fictive landscape in which a century and a half of Illinois literature dwelled and whose crowded expanse until now was accessible only to the more adventuresome literary scholar.
Our industrious cartographers are Thomas L. Kilpatrick and Patsy-Rose Hoshiko. He is interlibrary loan librarian for ILLINET at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; she is Interlibrary Cooperation project director for the Shawnee Library System at Carterville. The book was begun in 1971 when students in an SIU-C lit course compiled the names of some 395 works of Illinois fiction. Since then. Kilpatrick-Hoshiko have added hundreds more titles to the list, tracking their quarry through existing bibliographies and review collections, making notes about locale and character, reading each.
The result, is a fascinating grab bag, what Its publishers without a blush call “the most comprehensive work of this nature yet published.” I will not contradict them. The entries listed range from historical novels (including biographies) to short stories, and minor fiction of the- sort that used to be called women’s books. The compilers were equally catholic about period; the book is organized into five section corresponding to five major eras in Illinois history, from ‘Pre-Statehood Years” ending ‘in 1818 to “Modern Illinois,” which is here defined presciently as beginning in 1945 and ending in 1976. Entries within each section are arranged alphabetically by author. Each includes pertinent publication data (here one wishes for a little less librarian literalness, as some publication dates are given in Roman numerals after the pretentious fashion of some publishers), a summary of the plot where one was discernible (no mean feat in some cases, incidentally), observations on style and significance, and a reference to published reviews.
Through these means we are acquainted with such works as Lawrence Lynch’s 1894 Against Odds, in which two Secret Service agents find themselves tracking Greenback Bob and his ring of counterfeiters around the World’s Columbian Exposition (which K and H recommend for its “glowing account” of the Chicago fair). Also here is Horseshoe Bottoms. Tom Tippett’s 1935 account of coal mine organizing near Kickapoo Creek and the Illinois River in the 1870s.
Entry No. 1,490 is Rites of Passage, a 1966 novel by Jean Rikhoff. The book is one-third of a trilogy chronicling the Timble family of Springfield. The entry illustrates the strengths and occasional weaknesses of Illinois! Illinois! Its characterization of the book as “glaringly reminiscent of the daily soap operas” is accurate according to people who’ve read the book. (Sampler “‘Jules, lover, where is the gin?’ She threw her long lacquered hands up in excitement. ‘Oh, lover, I’m just dying for a little of the nectar of the gods.’) However, the compilers also congratulate Rikhoff for her “credible view of life in Illinois’s capitol city at mid-century,” even though her books have little local detail’ that is uniquely Springfieldian.
Entry No. 347 hints not at a weakness but an unacknowledged strength. The entry describes another novel, Mary Hartwell Catherwood’s The Dogberry Bunch, an 1879 effort that Kilpatrick and Hoshiko dismiss as “too sweet, too pat and too prosaic to be read today,” but which nonetheless “is representative of the type of periodical literature read by millions of Americans during the nineteenth century.” There is a hint here of the reasons this bibliography is of use to more than literary scholars and may serve historians, sociologists, political scientists, and others equally well. How? In an essay on the work of critic Lionel Trilling that appeared recently in The New Yorker, Richard Sennett observed that Trilling believed, “Writing . . . provides insights into moral problems in politics, psychology, and manners which can be gained in no other way.” “This view,” Sennett notes, “made literature more than a text.” This link between fiction and the world makes 1llinois! Illinois! more than a Baedeker to bad novels. It is an index to the accumulated experience of 150 years of state-building as recorded by artists who sought, with wildly varying success, to reorder and express that experience in story. ●