Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Joining the freelance club
December 24, 1981
I've made my living as a free-lance one-thing-or-another my whole adult life. Some people envy me that; I try to explain that while it can be a fine life, it is makes for a rotten living. (I would amend Dr. Johnson's famous remark on the subject to read, "No man but a blockhead wrote for money.") In 1981 I sat down and wrote about it. Here's is a shortened and updated version of the original.
And yes, I really did sell pieces to Gimbel's and the Alabama office of State Farm Insurance.
Some people will confess to murders they didn't commit. Others will claim to adore hand-painted neckties at Christmas, and others will swear on a stack of Newsweeks that they vote for politicians according to their stands on the issues. David Stockman even professed a belief in supply-side economics. But why, I asked myself a few weeks ago, would anyone want to pretend to be a freelance writer?
The question had occurred to me as I read Melissa Ludtke Lincoln's nice piece in the September-October Columbia Journalism Review called "The free-lance life." Lincoln cited one Warren Bouvee, dean of journalism at Marquette University, who once said that while some 25,000 people consider themselves free-lance writers, only about 300 actually make a living at it.
I have no reason to doubt Mr. Bouvee's figures. Anyone can call himself a free-lancer. It requires no degree, no license, not even a clean suit. I know, because I have none of those things, and I am one of those 300. I have sold work to such august publishing houses as Gimbel's and the Alabama office of State Farm Insurance, and in the process I earn a living which compares favorably to that of most Third World bank managers. [Third World bank managers are doing rather better today. JKJr]
However, 1 am sophisticated enough to know that relatively few Americans want to live like Third World bank managers, which brings me back again to the question of why anyone would want to call himself a free-lancer. Ms. Lincoln writes of the "romantic lure" of free-lancing. 1 suppose there are people who find excitement in racing their landlords to their paychecks every month. Readers, take my word, freelancing is anything but romantic. It has its rewards—for which you pay, in my case at a cost in foregone earnings that I estimate to be anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 a year.
But money is why most writers quit free-lancing, it is not why they begin it. They begin it because they hate every other job more. When you're an underpaid statehouse radio reporter, a sacked staff reporter for a small weekly, a disaffected editor (to name three people I know who've tried free-lancing in recent years), when in short you are bummed out, burned out, or just plumb out of choices, even free-lancing looks attractive. This is understandable; much the same sort of impulse elected Ronald Reagan. But, as many voters are learning now, the consequences of their choice quickly impress themselves. As soon as their savings run out, or a better job comes along, they trade romance for a better return on labor.
No wonder. Free-lance rates on average not only have not kept pace with inflation but have actually declined even in nominal dollars. The explosion of part-timers—housewives, graduate students, moonlighting beat reporters, and the like—have glutted the market. What happened to pocket calculators has happened to writing: Demand created a market for cheap substitutes, which drove down the price. One paper I will not name paid me $100 a piece in 1978; in 2017 I was getting $175; had rates simply kept with inflation that would have been $400. I do not blame; the gross profits of most worthy publications haven't kept up with inflation either.
I gave a talk once in which I explained that money is to the freelancer what syphilis is to the libertine: Each turns a pleasant pastime into a risky business which, if it goes untreated long enough, will drive you mad. The magazine ecosystem has long since exceeded its carrying capacity. I'd go to work for the state tomorrow, except that 1 don't know anybody in Jim Edgar's office. I once considered dealing cocaine, but I don't know enough lawyers. So 1 write. And write.
Any business has its headaches, of course, and I would exaggerate if I said that the free-lancer's hurt more than those of, say, the small-town convention center manager. Still, free-lancing ranks respectably high among life's more aggravating pastimes. Rejection, for example. No one who cannot handle rejection should be a freelancer. There was a novel published in 1963 called The Hack, written by Wilfred Sheed, who isn't one. It contains this passage:
He began sending some of his best things . . . which meant mostly padding down the drafty stairs on frosty mornings to haul the manuscripts out of the mailbox and pat them back into shape . . . . A women's magazine said that he had an unpretentious charm; Sport for Men said he showed promise. He gobbled at the crumbs and kept running.
But it's not rejection per se but the manner of it that grates, as Lyndon Johnson learned. Typical is the magazine that waits three months to read your piece, only to tell that they can't use it because it's out of date. Once I submitted a piece to one magazine, only to have it rejected by another; the subeditor to whom I'd addressed it took it with her when she changed jobs.
Hostesses make both legislators and free-lancers enter by the back door, since they figure that if they aren't poor they must be dishonest. Really. The financial price one pays for being a free-lancer is steep enough. But there's a social price too. It's no wonder the profession's gotten a bad name, what with so many poseurs running around. You'd think we were lieutenant governor candidates or something.
Eventually, however, I realized that there was a saving lesson in Bouvee's arithmetic. I was one of only 300 real free-lancers! Its membership may consist of thieves and liars, but a club is a club, and as clubs go, this one is pretty exclusive. There's the 700 Club, Tennyson's 600, Fortune's 500, Mrs. Astor's 400, Warren Bouvee's 300. There are fewer genuine, self-sustaining free-lancers than there are U.S. Congressmen, major league baseball players, TV talk show hosts, and paid-up members of Illini Country Club. I'm gonna start going in through front doors, head held high, like a Republican. ●
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.
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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.
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