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A New Picture of Illinois’s Past

A new and controversial history of Illinois

Illinois Times

August 18, 1978

An extended essay, really, rather than a conventional state history such as, say, Roger Biles’ Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People (Northern Illinois University Press, 2005). Jensen’s premises were unconventional at the time, and more than a few reviewers balked at his conclusions, but I found it stimulating, being biased in favor of books that make me think rather than tell me what their authors think.


Reviewed: Illinois: A History by Richard Jensen J. Jensen. W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978


The American Bicentennial in 1976 left little behind it of any lasting value—a few plaques, a souvenir book or two, the odd elm tree planted to commemorate this man's victory or that man's defeat. An exception is "The States and the Nation," a series of original histories of the fifty states jointly produced by the publishing firm of W. W. Norton & Company and the American Association for State and Local History. One of that series is called Illinois: A History and it was written by a man named Richard J. Jensen, who when he is not busy as professor of history at the University of Illinois' Chicago Circle campus is in charge of Newberry Library's Family and Community History program.


It is important to sort out what Prof. Jensen's book is and isn't. It is not a history in the textbook sense; it is of modest length (barely 200 pages) and it lacks the scope and detail of more encyclopedic works like Robert Howard's 1972 Illinois: A History of the Prairie State. It is a book for the layman rather than the scholar; it is uncluttered by footnotes, for instance, and its editors have helpfully included a list of suggested reading for those who finish this book with their appetites for Illinoisiana unsated. It is (to use the current annoying phrase) a "good read," at least as far as histories go. Finally, it is not just another retelling of an old story but in many ways a brand new story.


Jensen writes from an unaccustomed perspective, that of the cultural historian. Historian Robert Kelley recently explained what that meant to readers of the New York Times. "Ethnic identity, religion, styles of life—these figure prominently in the newer histories," Kelley notes, "and they give us a strikingly new picture of the American past." Jensen himself explains this new trend in American historiography in his preface. "My intention is to get beneath the familiar events and unusual personalities to provide a description of the way ordinary people lived, and an interpretation of what they sought out of life," he says. "I will try to explain historical developments as reflections of general attitudes"—nearly the reverse, by the way, of what used to be the usual method, by which attitudes were depicted as the children, not the parents of events.


As Jensen observes, "History . . . can provide an analytical context for understanding how our present society came to exist, and the process by which one dominant set of values replaces another." In the past, historians have provided several such contexts, such as industrialization, urbanization,   the   Protestant   ethic,   liberalism, conservatism, and the like. Jensen dismisses these as either too fuzzy, too narrow, or too derivative. Instead,   Jensen   breaks   down   these general attitudes—what he calls  'historical patterns of thought about life"—into   three different sets of values which he characterizes as "traditional," "modern" and "postmodern."


The traditionalists first appeared in the form of the pioneer settlers of the early 1800s. They were chary of progress and institutions, loyal to personalities rather than ideologies; this group has few lineal descent but survives in the form of groups sharing their outlook,   including   Catholic   immigrants from Europe and African Americans.


The "modernists" came later, in the 1830s and 1840s. They were Yankees at first, though they now hail from all parts, their numbers one proof of the success they had in shaping the culture of the state. Modernists believe in progress, efficiency, technology, education. They have held sway in Illinois for more than century, even since the Civil War (what Jensen calls "the war for modernity") and the accelerated industrialization of the state economy that the war occasioned. Indeed, so long-standing is the modernists' dominance that, as Jensen admits, "by the 1970s many of the characteristics associated with the 'modern' outlook . . . were beginning to seem downright old-fashioned."


The "postmodernists" are the most recent players in this on-going drama. Disillusioned with the awards—and costs—of the modern world, the postmodernists are likely to be suspicious of government, equalitarian in their politics (as opposed to egalitarian, an important distinction), dubious about continued economic expansion, and cynical about the blessings of technology. The unhappy young of the 1960s helped define the postmodernist outlook, and proselytized unwittingly for it, so that today the most recent phase of what Jensen sees as a recurring struggle for cultural dominance in the state is between the new postmodernists and the by-now dispirited modernists who also are being outnumbered as the bulge in the population curve caused by the post-war baby boom creeps upward.


History is as subject to fads as haute couture. In the 19th century history was often couched in terms of parties. Chronicles of the states tended to be organized according to the terms of their governors. But although politics, especially in the early decades of a developing state, reflected economic, cultural and religious tensions, it did not embody them. Later historians sought a more basic cause. Marxism introduced the concept of economic class as a diagnostic tool. But class is a gross measure of events, and lately historians have stepped up the search for more sharply honed scalpels. Borrowing from the social scientists, historians used competition among interest groups, demographic analysis, even psychoanalysis to explain and illuminate history.


And anthropology. Eight years ago a Temple University sociologist named Daniel Elazar published a bulky analysis of the evolving political cultures of a dozen downstate Illinois cities. The book is titled Cities of the Prairie, and it anticipated Jensen's argument that politics in Illinois has been merely one manifestation of its citizens' broader cultural perspective. Elazar called this an "ethnological" approach, and although he differs from Jensen in his terminology and emphasis —he is a political scientist, not an historian—the two share the belief that, as Elazar phrased it, political differences "could be understood only as reflections of the differences in the cultural backgrounds of the respective settlers."


The value of Jensen's book, then, is in his re-examination of the familiar strains of Illinois history in light of his modernist-traditional-modern-postmodern framework, from internal improvements, women's rights, and public education to slavery, state's rights, unionism, and Prohibition. The personalities of the state—the Jane Addamses, Lincolns, Daleys—are thus merely emblems, cultural forces given human shape, their careers summarizing the key forces that shaped their various era.


There are limits to this kind of analysis, as Jensen himself admits. Some historians worry whether the new picture of Illinois may not be too broadly drawn. Kenan Heise, writing in the Chicago Tribune, says that Jensen's book "should be seen more as a thought-provoking book than a final analysis." Fair enough, but there are no final analyses in history; the writing of history, no less than politics, is a product of the subtle interplay of broader cultural forces. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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