Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Statues crowd the statehouse grounds
I was forever going on about statues, probably because statues don't write complaining letters to editors. This column complained specifically about the public art works that decorate the central bits of Springfield and Chicago. These statues are not merely decorative, they embodying most of what the statehouse teaches tourists about Illinois history. Were the statues better art, more visitors might be excited to pick up a history book or two to learn about their subjects.
If you want, you can read similar pieces about statues and statue-making here and here.
The state's big labor unions, I read, want to put up a statue on the statehouse lawn in Springfield. The proposed Illinois Workers' Memorial would stand eight and a half feet tall and consist of three human figures representing what the approving resolution described as "workers affected by workplace deaths and injuries." I would have thought that Illinois workers killed or injured on the job deserved a memorial too, and not just the survivors stung by their loss, but the workers will have to wait in line.
There has been a spate of proposals for new statuary on the capitol complex grounds recently. A statue commemorating Illinois police officers killed in the line of duty was announced in January. The state AFL-CIO and the Chicago Federation of Labor want their new statue to be installed on the north lawn of the statehouse, where future governors would be shamed by it every day as they limo into work.
The problem is that there are already so many pieces of public art littering the grounds that officials of the Secretary of State's office who are responsible for maintenance are resisting. The proposed $136 million capitol complex rehabilitation plan calls for the creation of what is being called a "statue row" along what used to be Spring Street between the statehouse and the Stratton Building.
The idea makes sense. The capitol's interior already is as crammed with bric-a-brac as a Victorian parlor, and it would be impossible to install more lieutenant governors and failed Presidential candidates on the lawns outside it without the place looking like Oak Ridge cemetery.
It is not a new idea. In turn-of-the-century Chicago, sculptor Lorado Taft proposed a really mammoth statue row—100 statues that would line the mile-long Midway plaisance in the Hyde Park neighborhood, an open air Hall of Fame commemorating the world's great leaders. Taft's roster included the likes of Aristophanes and Spinoza, which may be why it never was built; one critic complained that Taft had spent too much time hanging around the University of Chicago.
A few weeks ago I read a wonderful story out of Eastern Europe. City officials in Hungary or Lithuania or someplace were faced with a glut of Lenin statues. Rather than be destroyed, this official proposed, they should be reinstalled at one site. Imagine the scene—a park with hundreds of Lenins, row after row of Lenins, that together would reveal the vainglory, indeed the absurdity of the Communists' cult. Nothing so grand or so instructive is likely to result on Springfield's statue row. We have a politics based on personality in Illinois, but not a politics of personality. And while we have had a hero or two, we never build statues to them.
This newest generation of commemorative works is interesting in fact because it is so determinedly anti-heroic. Until 30 years ago, the subjects of statehouse statues were individuals who, if not real heroes, were at least dominant personalities. Their memorialization reflects not only their status but the 19th century notion that history gets made by (and can be understood in terms of) individuals. The newest proposals in contrast recall unnamed Illinoisans, the anonymous and unsung among us who labor without media consultants or even expense accounts. Such group memorials used to be reserved for soldiers and other victims of mass violence such as theater or school fires.
Actually, these new statues may be seen as war memorials of a sort. John Szaton's coal miner may look the picture of health but in fact he was meant to represent the more than 9,000 Illinois miners who died in the 82 years previous to the statue's dedication in 1964. The planned monuments to police and workers similarly commemorate Illinoisans hurt or killed while trying to make a living.
Public art is a form of rhetoric of course, and it is easy to envision a statehouse statue row becoming our equivalent of Hyde Park corner, a place where any faction with a grievance and a couple of hundred grand can mount a permanent argument on its behalf. (It is only a matter of time, for instance, before AFSCME commissions a memorial to the valiant carpal tunnel syndrome sufferers in the Revenue Department.) If one agrees that the State of Illinois has certain responsibilities to protect its citizens by regulation and other means, these statues may be taken collectively as a monument to its failure, which is something everything government headquarters ought to have. Perhaps their message will prod the General Assembly into passing tougher worker protection laws; nothing else has.
To be persuasive as rhetoric, however, populist art needs to be persuasive as art. The Pierre Menard statue—the rich white man condescendingly offering his hand to an Indian seated at his feet—is offensive as policy but as a specimen of modeling and casting it is gorgeous.
Taft grumbled that sculptors of his day produced nothing more than bronze clothing dummies, but in his day sculptors could at least render a pair of trousers in bronze. The Manard's detailed rendering of costume makes the proposed police memorial look crude, even cartoonish. Indeed, all our newest statues (going back to Carl Tolpo's Dirksen from 1976) are clumsy in execution, stilted in composition, and sentimental in conception.
The loss is not that these new statues are not great art. The loss is that, being bad art, they can't do justice to their subjects. They lack the power to move, to excite, to involve the way the best of the older capitol art can. St. Gaudens is considered to have done the finest Lincolns, but Andrew O'Connor's version on the east lawn is nearly as good. I have seen it draped with the banners of a dozen causes during rallies over the years, and never once was its dignity impaired by such shenanigans. There's the ultimate test of public art in the capitol complex—whether it can stand in those surroundings and not be reduced to the ridiculous.
Doubtless young sculptors are no longer taught to render the world representationally, or the technical know-how to do good bronze casting. (A recent cleaning reportedly revealed that the 14-year old Dirksen had aged more than the 104-year-old Menard.) The bigger problem may be that today's commemorative works are so often bought on the cheap. The worker's memorial is expected to cost $200,000, and even at those prices you can't get better than a college art professor to sculpt it—people who are art professors because they aren't good enough to make a living at sculpture. Worse, such designs must please a large and undiscriminating collection of donors; public subscription usually buys lowest-common-denominator taste. ●
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