A New Picture of Illinois’s Past
A new and controversial history of Illinois
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. ●