Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
A Fate Worse Than Death
Springfield’s provincialism in a connected age
October 14, 1982
In which a native—me—spends a fair amount of time explaining Springfield both to visitors who’ve never encountered places like it before and to natives who have never encountered the need to think about it.
It was kind of spooky, really. I had retired to an upper-floor lounge at Springfield's thirty-story Hilton hotel for a quick beer after a day spent covering a conference being held in the building. I was gazing out over the city, thinking how very much smaller it looks from a height of 300 feet, when a planner from Michigan introduced himself. Why is it, he asked, that Springfield seemed so much larger than his home town of Ann Arbor even though both towns boast roughly 100,000 residents. I explained that Springfield's sprawl is deceptive, that Springfield is simply less dense than Ann Arbor, which is something that probably can't be said for its developers, who have fled Springfield's building codes and library taxes into the countryside like their ancestors once fled the plague.
The next morning, another conferee, this one a writer from Brooklyn, asked why it was that Springfield seemed so much smaller than other state capitals of his acquaintance. I tried to explain that the city is better understood not as a state capital but as a small town with a statehouse in it, and that any town which has passed up so many convenient opportunities to lynch lawmakers over the years clearly lacks ambition.
Those two encounters, it happened, mirrored my own preoccupations. It was almost as if these two visitors were opposing poles of my brain made manifest. For months I have been trying to decide whether Springfield has become smaller or larger in the last few years. As my visitors had reminded me, one's perceptions of a city are shaped by experience and expectation, with the result that it is possible for it to be both at the same time.
For example, to the extent that one's sense of place is physical, Springfield is much smaller today than the Springfield I grew up in. It covers more ground, I know. But the landmarks and neighborhoods of the city I remember are gradually being destroyed, and the associations which used to give such density to my daily experience of it have been diminished proportionately.
In a social sense, Springfield has always been a small town. Recent arrivals will recognize the accuracy of the complaint by a New York City club owner recorded in a recent interview by Whitney Balliett: "In a small town," the owner lamented, "if they don't like you they'll figure a way to keep you out." The problem is, in order to keep other people out one usually ends up locking oneself in. Old Springfield has been overwhelmed by the influx of outlanders since the 1960s, and although they retain a certain amount of local political power, they have largely surrendered their economic and cultural influence. The old Springfield survives but one must seek it out. Indeed, Springfield's old liners have been reduced to the status of ethnic curiosity, treasured by the newcomers for their quaintness and tolerated because of their irrelevance, rather like the Navajo in the Southwest. It is only a matter of time before the Illini Country Club and the Springfield Art Association sign up for booths at the Labor Day ethnic festival.
Perhaps the world view of old Springfield just seems more cramped because the view of the rest of the city has expanded so dramatically in the last five years or so. Like the rest of the country, central Illinois has been tied to the rest of the world by electronic umbilicals. My own experience is probably not unusual. In the last two weeks I have watched a German and a Swedish film at first-run movie houses. I did my winter clothes shopping at a store in Maine. I restocked my kitchen from a shop in San Francisco. I bought posters for my living room wall from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and shopped the remainder sales at Barnes and Nobel in the same city. I watched the evening TV news from Chicago, St. Louis, and Atlanta, and kept informed about the European badminton results and the condition of Presbyterianism in the Hebrides via the BBC. And I did all these things without leaving the city, often without leaving my house.
In fact, I sometimes feel as if I don't live in Springfield at all anymore, except in the most immediate physical sense. We now can use the new communications technologies to plug into the cities, to shop the world, to choose from the global bazaar everything from ideas to French spatulas, to partake of the diversity of the city while enjoying the congeniality of the small town. Much of this wondrous diversity is illusory, of course. If one gets trashy TV on twenty-five channels instead of three, one still has only twenty-five channels full of trash. And I am not yet insensitive to the irony that it is possible for me to enjoy in my living room, via video cassette, a "breakthrough fetish film" which promises to mesmerize me as I watch "insatiable raven-haired beauties from Mexico perform the unspeakable with Wangito the Wonder Donkey" while I have to buy underwear that is seven inches too big because no manufacturer seems willing to bother cutting clothes to fit anymore.
The new connectedness is not welcome everywhere. State Journal-Register columnist Steve Slack wrote recently of a "plot" to turn us all into New Yorkers. Noting that the New York Times—fed by satellite to a Chicago printer, whence to Springfield—is as thick on the streets of Springfield as tourists, Slack decried the feigned interest in news about "third-world nations holding a summit in Tuvalu to discuss a possible cartel of llama milk producers." He points out that the Times never gave him a clear understanding of why there is "a big, unnavigable hole in the middle of Edwards Street."
The SJR, of course, seldom gives us a clear understanding of anything beyond Edwards Street. But Springfield has its share of people who know the name of the mayor of Paris but not that of Springfield's head man. One can no more pretend to be a citizen of Springfield and not read the local paper than one can pretend to be a citizen of the nation and the world without reading a paper like the New York Times. It is a small world which doesn't have room for Springfield in it.
Speaking of the New York Times, I was reminded of just that fact the other day. Ed Koch, mayor of New York City, had just been unexpectedly defeated in his bid for the nomination as governor of New York. Some weeks before he'd decided to make the race, he'd said in an interview that having to live in Albany would be "a fate worse than death."
Well, Koch lost, in part because he was kicked royally in the Apple by upstate voters. The quality of life in Illinois's capital has not yet become an issue between Messrs. Thompson and Stevenson, although it has been one in the past. (Dakin Williams once campaigned on the pledge to move the capital to Chicago because there weren't any good restaurants in Springfield.) There are those who believe that four years in Springfield is the sternest test an Illinois public servant faces. But helicopters have done for the fun-loving Thompson what the Postal Service and cable TV does for the rest of us, namely take some of the tedium out of living in a town where the buses stop running at six o'clock. I suspect that the inward-turning Stevenson is insensitive to place; just as a lover looks everywhere and sees the face of his beloved, so the senator looks everywhere and sees his own navel.
His own father once described Springfield as a "hell hole" but that was in the days before the taxpayers developed their present tolerant attitude toward official travel.
Back to the subject: It remains true, I suppose, that there are no such things as small towns, only small people. Sophistication comes hard to us out here, but it is coming nonetheless. As I explained to my writer friend from Brooklyn, it was still possible a year or two ago for one of Springfield's leading businessmen to announce a soccer player at a college game as having come from "Ay-thens, Greece"—like the Sangamon County town with the same name—rather than Athens. The difference was that, unlike even ten years ago, most of the people in the stands recognized it as an error. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture