O'er Thy Prairies Verdant Growing Comes an Echo on the Breeze
The writers of Downstate Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
Say “Illinois writer” and names like Bellow and Algren and Dreiser come to mind. But Downstate Illinois has a rich literary tradition of its own, which is no less rich for its being so much less known. (Of the 35 authors selected to be memorialized on the frieze of the new Illinois State Library building in 1990, only eight were associated with Downstate.) T
here are many more writers of merit than I list here. Perhaps one day we will be fortunate enough to see republished in one volume John Hallwas’s writer profiles, "Forgotten Voices from Illinois History," which have long graced the Illinois State Historical Society's Illinois Heritage magazine.
Illinois patriots will recognize my title as having been adapted from “Illinois," the state’s official song by C. H. Chamberlain and Archibald Johnston.
These sketches are compiled from my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture.
When the town of Byron was founded in 1835, its citizens named it for the poet, Lord Byron. It is hard to imagine even a new subdivision being named for a popular poet of today, much less a town, indeed it is hard to imagine a popular contemporary poet. In any event, northern Illinois’s erstwhile admiration of poets has not inspired many to imitate the example of Byron's founders.
Perhaps someday a shopping mall will be named in honor of J. F. Powers, the accomplished (if little known) writer of stories and such fine novels as Morte d'Urban, which won the National Book Award in 1963, and Wheat That Springeth Green, which was nominated for the NBA and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988. Often ghettoized as a Catholic writer, Powers (who died in 1999) was a subtle satirist whose work drew praise from the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Gore Vidal. Donna Tartt described it as a hybrid of E.B. White, Charles Portis, and the Kingsley Amis of Lucky Jim, “peppered—sparingly, but enough to sting—with the horrors of Nathanael West.” Powers lived in Rockford as a boy, but if the experience made an impression it does not show in his stories.
This part of Illinois has not yet produced its Masters or Sandburg. No novel of note has been set here, although the region figures as a setting in dozens of lesser ones. Elizabeth Corbett, for example, memorialized Sycamore—rendered fictionally as Mount Royal—in seven novels published between 1936 and 1956; “charm” is a word often used in describing these works, which tend toward the nostalgic.
Sinnissippi has been a more fertile ground for writers working in the minor genres. The region’s roster of famous journalists also includes Luella Parsons, the gossip columnist, who grew up in Freeport's oldest house. More substantial in every way was Don Marquis (pronounced MAR-kwis). Born in 1878, he grew up in Walnut, returning after college to teach school there for a time. He took up newspapering, and by 1912 was working as a reporter and editor, and later columnist, in New York City. Marquis’s columns featured recurring characters whose names were familiar to millions in the 1920s and 1930s, including archy the cockroach and mehitabel the cat. Marquis also attempted verse, hortatory essays, and plays. (The hard-to-categorize Marquis described himself as an “epigrammatic philosopher.”) Critics have ranked him as a humorist and as a social critic just a bit below Twain and within sneering distance of H. L. Mencken—two very good people nearly to be.
Perhaps it’s the water, but Sinnissippians have shown a knack for memoir. Black Hawk, for example, is among the Illinois authors remembered in stone on the memorial frieze of the State of Illinois library in Springfield. His status as a literary man is mainly owed to his autobiography which he dictated in 1833 and which was published as Life of Ma-Ka-Tia-Me-She-Kia-Kiak or Black Hawk. Another of the names on the State Library frieze is that of Jane Addams. She told her life story in Twenty Years at Hull House. Published in 1910, the book found a wide readership. Naturally, most of it is devoted to her work in Chicago but the opening chapters recall her girlhood in Cedarville and later at the Rockford Female Seminary.
Perhaps the pre-eminent literary achievement of a Sinnissippian is the memoirs of Galenan Ulysses.S. Grant. Nothing he did on a battlefield matches the heroics of the book’s composition. Written while Grant was burdened by illness and debt and published in 1885, the work offers scarcely a word about Grant’s private life, including his time at Galena. Nonetheless the work has been widely praised as history, even by those with more modern tastes who find that his reticence made it disappointing as autobiography.
Rebecca Burlend arrived in the Military Tract in 1831 from Yorkshire with her husband and children. They set about making a farm on 80 acres worth of Newburg Township of Pike County, where she lies buried. An account of her adventures between arrival and death, which appeared in England in 1848 and again in the 1850s as A True Picture of Emigration, is now recognized as one of two outstanding accounts of frontier life in Illinois. (The other is Elizabeth Farnham’s Life In Prairie Land.) Part travelogue, part how-to, part adventure story, the book apparently was dictated to her son Edward, a teacher and author who saw to its publication in England. He no doubt embellished it—he is listed as co-author—but the story is wonderfully hers.
Quincy has a fine literary tradition. The aforementioned J. F. Powers was born in 1917, in Jacksonville, where he grew up a Catholic in predominately Protestant central Illinois. At age seven [in 1924] Powers left central Illinois when he moved with his family to Rockford, but he returned to the middle of the state in 1931 to enter classes at Saint Peter's Parish School in Quincy, a parish school run by the Franciscan Fathers in that city. Powers stayed long enough in Quincy to graduate from high school, after which he moved to Chicago with his parents. Powers confounded the stereotypes of literary-minded boys by becoming a standout athlete; the hero of his comic novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, is a high school track star.
James B. Stewart—1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Page One editor of the Wall Street Journal, author of three national nonfiction bestsellers—is a Quincy native. Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, set part of her novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, in Quincy.
Writers do not always grow vigorously in soil already planted with ivy, but Galesburg’s campuses nursed several seedling writers of note. Lombard College can claim western Illinois’s best-known litterateur, but Knox College wins honors for having nurtured more wielders of the pen during their larval stages, including a few who, while not Writers, delivered themselves of some very good books; typical of the latter are the co-authors of The Men of Company K, John D. Campbell and Harold P. Leinbaugh, whose book is widely admired as one of the best small-unit histories of World War II.
Humorist and columnist Eugene Field attended Knox for a time. (Sandburg recalled how one of teachers told her students, “England might have Shakespeare and Milton, New England might have Longfellow and Holmes, but Illinois and the Corn Belt had Eugene Field.”) Don Marquis, who was in many ways a latter-day Field, attended the school, as did Edgar Lee Masters.
Most colleges hope to make their graduates famous; George Fitch was a Knoxian who made his college famous. He was the author of stories about the fictional college he called Old Siwash, based loosely on Knox. Originally aired in the Saturday Evening Post and later put into book form under such titles as At Good Old Siwash and The Big Strike at Siwash, Fitch’s affectionate stories of undergraduate antics gave the world a slang term for what Calkins called “the small western coeducational college at which the salt-water universities are supposed to look down their noses.”
After his Army discharge, Carl Sandburg attended Lombard College (which would later be absorbed by Knox) while he worked part-time with the Galesburg fire department. Sandburg is, with Edgar Lee Masters, the only western Illinoisan thought fit to be inscribed on the frieze of the state library in Springfield as one of the state’s literary immortals. Sandburg made his career in Chicago and much of his reputation as an historian owes to his monumental biography of central Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln, but he was born and nurtured in the prairies of western Illinois, which he evoked in such poems as “The Prairie” and collections such “Cornhuskers.”
Sandburg was born at 331 East Third Street in Galesburg and went to school there until the end of the eighth grade, when he left to take a full-time job delivering milk; he also attended Galesburg's Swedish Lutheran Church and Sunday school. The town’s people exposed him to different races and ethnic types, and its events aroused his social sense. His literary aspirations were encouraged by a professor at Lombard College who hand-published his first poems; this sage also sparked the youth’s interest in Lincoln.
Sandburg’s affection for Galesburg shows in his accounts of it in his memoirs, Always the Young Strangers and Ever the Winds of Chance, and the fact that he wished to be buried in Galesburg. In the back yard of the house on Third Street is Remembrance Rock, where lie the ashes of Sandburg and his wife, Lilian Steichen Sandburg. The town has repaid the compliment, inadequately, by naming after him a shopping mall on the edge of town.
Central Illinoisans have never been perfectly deaf to literature’s song. When the town of Nokomis was incorporated in 1867, its founders named it for the storyteller of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. The New Englanders who founded Waverly in southeast of Jacksonville named their new town in 1836 for the Waverley novels by Sir Walter Scott—although any teacher would give them a grade of only C, for they misspelled the name.
More importantly, central Illinois provided an upbringing, and in many cases subjects, to writers of note in all forms, from verse and novels to speeches, biographies, history, and translation. The region would not, at first glance (or even a third) strike most people as a place to inspire the poet in anyone, save perhaps the tourism marketer. Yet it has done just that.
Critic James Hurt says that the great themes of Illinois literature are the prairie, Chicago, and Lincoln. Each illustrates his point that making something out of nothing—in the case of the prairie to build a civilization out of a barren waste, in Lincoln’s to make a president out of backwoods bumpkin, in Chicago’s to make great city out of swamp–is the exemplary Illinois gesture. Two of these three great themes have been worked out in terms of central Illinois people and places.
William Cullen Bryant’s famous 1833 poem, “The Prairies,” was inspired by the landscape seen by that Massachusettsan in 1832 when he visited brothers who had settled in Jacksonville. Hurt notes that Bryant’s work successively offers readers the prairie as a natural temple, as the historic site of the violent course of empire, as the waiting cradle of a future civilization; Bryant was hardly the last poem who, seeing so much empty space, felt compelled to cram it with meaning.
For a time in the early 20th century, the region was famed across the country as the home of important poets, writers who were inventing new forms of verse that spoke in the voices of a new age. If it is a cause of local pride that central Illinois produced a best-selling poet, it is a cause of astonishment that it produced two: Edgar Lee Masters and Nicholas Vachel Lindsay. Masters’ Spoon River Anthology came out in 1915 and “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” the poem that made Lindsay famous, was published in 1913. These works were talked about not only in the literary journals but in the newspaper columns in an era in which popular poetry was not appended to pop songs or show tunes. For a decade or so, works by Masters and Lindsay occupied much the same place in the parlors of the nation’s middle-class households as do chart-topping CDs or video versions of hit films today.
Masters’s biographer Herbert K. Russell points out the remarkable kinship between the two men.
Both had southern roots and a reverence for the Illinois past embodied in the values of the pioneers and people of their grandparents’ generation. The two also had fathers who were professional men and mothers who were not particularly good for their sons or easy to get along with (although the two women knew and liked each other). In addition, Masters and Lindsay...held similar opinions of the region, namely, that it had been corrupted by greed, industrialism, and urban values (Masters), or that it was thus corrupted but might yet be redeemed (Lindsay). Lindsay and Masters also had common literary and economic sensibilities: neither knew his good writing from his bad, neither spent adequate time in revising, neither could ever hold onto a dollar, and each knew for a certainty that the United States abused its poets. Moreover, each sat to the left in politics, and each had married a woman approximately half his age in the mid-1920s.
Masters’ Spoon River was an important as well as a popular book. John Hallwas argues, in his foreword/preface to new edition from the University of Illinois Press, that the work is more than an exposé of small-town life a la Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street that it usually understood to be. Rather, Masters’ collection is akin to the experimental novels of John Dos Passos, which is some ways Spoon River anticipated. “No volume of poetry since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass,” wrote Hallwas, “had attempted so much or had been so original.”
The imagined village of Spoon River is in fact an amalgam of the two Illinois towns in which Masters grew up: Petersburg, in Menard County, and Lewistown, forty miles to the north in the Spoon River valley in Fulton County. Hallwas notes that during the nineteenth century the two communities were also on opposite sides of an Illinois cultural divide. Petersburg was settled largely by people from the upland South, heirs to Jackson, Indian-fighting, game-hunting, story-telling, and whiskey-drinking frontier people.” Lewistown was a province of the “Yankees,” people more apt to be community organizers, business founders, churchgoers, schoolteachers, and social reformers. Such people were apt to be against slavery for the wrong reasons and against whisky for the right ones, the people who would form the backbone of the new Republican Party.
In 1880, Masters’ father, Hardin W. Masters, moved the family to Lewistown. The elder Masters’ career suffered for his being a Democrat in a strongly Republican community and a supporter of saloons in a hotbed of temperance activism.[hallwas 4] The town embodied conflicts that the young Masters found hard to face, so he fled, setting up a new actual life in Chicago and an imaginative life in the fondly remembered Petersburg of his youth. The Sangamon—the 1942 book of central Illinois’s major river that was in fact about Petersburg and environs—confirms that Masters spent his adult life feeling dispossessed of the Garden, “an Adamic poet-hero,” in Hallwas’s words, “living in a ruined Eden.”
Masters had been a nobody before Spoon River came out in 1915. He had published four books of very ordinary verse under assumed names, written half a dozen plays, and produced a couple of nonfiction works, none of which attracted attention. After Spoon River, Masters became a has-been almost immediately. He wrote busily, producing many poems, plays, and novels that not only were not as good as his early masterpiece but not really very good at all. His autobiography, Across Spoon River, was self-pitying and dull. he wrote a dismissive biography of Lincoln and a considerate one of Vachel Lindsay. The terse eloquence of Spoon River was replaced by this sort of thing, from The Sangamon, on Lindsay’s tramping tours: “Oh, the long way, oh, the sunburnt men, oh, the endless fields of wheat!”
Spoon River was about western rather than his native central Illinois. The life of the latter region he took up in a series of novels. Petersburg figures as the setting of a trilogy that features heroes Mitch Miller and Skeeters Kirby in stories from a time when life was simpler and, one assumes, readers were too. In Children of the Market Place, (1922) Masters did with Stephen A. Douglas what so many other novelists did with Abraham Lincoln, which is to invent a story set in central Illinois so the author might introduce a real-life character who was more vivid more energetic, more real than any he was capable of inventing.
Masters died in 1950 at the age of 80, his poetic and popular moment long past. He is buried just outside of Petersburg, in Oakland Cemetery. The Petersburg house Masters lived in as a child still stands. The house has been open to tourists since 1966, thanks to funds from the Petersburg town government. But aging houses, like aging people, need a lot of care, and by 2002 the property (including the many Masters family mementos inside it) were deteriorating. Local officials began lobbying the State of Illinois to take over the property, as it has the homes of Masters’ contemporaries Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay.
Ah, Lindsay. In 1952 novelist Mark Harris summarized his views of Lindsay in this introduction of a collection of Lindsay’s poems Harris assembled for publication in 1963.
The life of Vachel Lindsay is so incredible in its details, and so rare an example of the extinct passion to mingle poetry with a programmatic national and religious purpose that we are compelled in the name of our own sane preservation to doubt that he actually lived it.
His friend Edgar Lee Masters wrote, “Lindsay wrote songs for the Illinois country, as Burns had written songs for his village in Scotland. His dreams came out of the Sangamon River country. His classical dictionary was the tales of the prairies and their people.” Lindsay imagined Springfield most eccentrically in 1920s in his The Golden Book of Springfield, which offers the Springfield of 2018 as imagined by the members of the Springfield Prognosticators Club.
Lindsay was a sentimental leftist, and his future capital is governed according to half-cooked progressive ideas from such thinkers from Emanuel Swedenborg and Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ, to Henry George and Karl Marx. This city-state is no Utopia–it suffers from drug use, corruption, and prejudice of the sort all too familiar in the Springfield of 1918–but Lindsay’s Springfield also is a town in which women may vote and artists are valued–traits that were manifestly not true of the Springfield of 1918. The book tells us more about Lindsay than it does about the possibilities of Springfield. Laurence Goldstein astutely notes that the true Golden Book of Springfield “is not the rhapsodic treatise Vachel Lindsay wrote but the life he lived.”
Nicholas Vachel Lindsay was the son of the Springfield doctor and an artistically-inclined mother. Like Masters, he was inspired by Bryan–the simple-minded pieties of the orator found only slightly less bombastic expression in the poems of his admirer. Lindsay studied to be an artist, but ended up painting pictures with words. He tramped across the West, at time trading rhymes for food. He found success with poems that once were staples of the high school anthology—“Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight,” “The Eagle That Is Forgotten,” The Congo.”
Lindsay devised a rhythmic style of poetry designed to be declaimed– what he called, with mixed feelings, the higher vaudeville–and he was its ablest, and (for a while) its most enthusiastic performer. Lindsay was a frequent dinner guest of Louis Stevenson during the mid-teens, whose household included the host’s high-school son Adlai Stevenson Jr. The sister of the young governor-to-be would confess years later that she found the poet’s readings boring after a while, but Adlai found them absorbing.
Hailed as a new bard, Lindsay quickly descended into a show biz curiosity. He toured obsessively, got into debt, performed too often and wrote too little. He was as dismayed as Masters by the turn American life took after World War I. Disillusioned and paranoid, he killed himself in Springfield in year, aged 52.
Artistically, Lindsay is now seen as a transitional figure, a man slightly behind his own time–Lindsay celebrated small-town Midwestern populism at about the time it was dying out–but ahead of ours. Dan Guillory, professor of English at Millikin University in Decatur, argues plausibly that Lindsay’s works serve as a precursor to such American road classics as John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Other critics insist his readings prefigure "Beat" poetry readings of the post-World War II era,although imagining Lindsay—sexually naive and a prude—in the 1950s Greenwich Village requires an imagination at least as vivid as that of the poet himself.
Lindsay’s work forms a curious link between the folk forms of poetry such as Christian gospel songs and vaudeville and modernist forms. Critics have complained that the canon of classic poems as endorsed by the culture guardians of the academy excludes work by poets because of their race, class, and gender. But Donald Wesling has argued that Lindsay has been excluded because of the academy’s deep suspicion of “the bardic voice, the sublime chant, the hortatory tone.” One could argue that the academy excluded Lindsay because of its deep contempt for the simple and the sentimental.
What was then radical seems quaint today. Lindsay’s most popular poems praised the founder of the Salvation Army, Governor John Peter Altgeld, who suffered political martyrdom for his pardon of the Haymarket anarchists in 1893, William Jennings Bryan, anti-slavery radical John Brown, and of course fellow Springfieldian and family acquaintance Lincoln. If the Boy Scouts gave a merit badge for poetry, Lindsay would have earned one many times over.
Nonetheless, Lindsay has undergone a renaissance of sorts. It started in the 1970s, an era in which the poet’s optimism, his romanticizing of rebellion found a generation eager for confirmation. Lindsay’s life was indisputably Romantic—all that tramping, and the tilting at windmills, and the suicide—and it is no wonder that his examples appeals to the cultural heirs of the hippies.
Vachel Lindsay’s house has proved more durable than the poet’s reputation. It stands on the corner of Edwards and Fifth streets in Springfield, next to the governor's mansion. (Lindsay looked out of his bedroom window onto the mansion lawns while writing poetry.) The poet was born there in 1879, and it was the only real home he knew in a peripatetic life. Lindsay brought his wife and two children back here in 1929, and it was here that he ended his life in 1931.
In the late 1950s the local Vachel Lindsay Association bought the home for $30,000 and later opened it to the public. Donations, as always, proved insufficient to maintain such a property, and in 1990 the state agreed to buy the house. One fears that the state valued the house not because it was central to Lindsay’s life but because it was peripheral to Lincoln’s. The house was first owned by the sister of Lincoln's wife Mary, and was built by the same man who built hers, and the president-elect stayed in the house the night before leaving for Washington. The State of Illinois Historic Preservation Agency reopened it in 2001 after six years and more than $800,000 worth of restoration and rehabilitation work that returned the structure to its 1917 appearance.
Lindsay holds an uncertain place in the old home town’s esteem. Some of the attention now paid him no doubt is meant to atone for Springfield’s former indifference, but his new status probably owes more to the gratitude that small-town Illinoisans show toward any native who, by becoming famous, casts reflected light on their corner of the world. Whatever their motives, Springfieldians have honored the poet by naming after him a grade school and a residential street, and a graceful bridge across Lake Springfield. A bust of Lindsay by sculptor Adrien Voisin was placed on a limestone pedestal at the east side of the bridge; thieves over the years made sport of removing it, and the last one was installed instead on a table inside the Lindsay Home.
Alas, for Masters and Lindsay, the audience that read poetry dwindled after the 1920s. Education turned practical, and ordinary readers found transcendence in new media like the movies. Poetry became the province of the hyper-educated, something to be contemplated rather than read aloud for entertainment. (It was the time when people quit playing the piano and singing at home as well.) The public ignored them and the critics disdained them in favor of poets now considered “major,” such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. As Lindsay scholar Laurence Goldstein puts it, Masters and Lindsay suffered death by Modernism.
To those who observed it from places like Springfield, the life of poet and translator Robert Stuart Fitzgerald was a storybook romance. Dead at 74 in 1985, this accomplished poet, translator, and teacher had been an intimate of the best of his generation's writers. His reworking into English verse of The Aeneid, The Odyssey, and The Iliad are not only admired but loved. Fitzgerald made a distinguished teaching career, mainly at Princeton and Harvard. Writers tend to be difficult people to befriend, but Fitzgerald seemed to have the gift. His intimates included The New Yorker's Joe Mitchell, poets John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Randall Jarrell, and James Agee; Fitzgerald’s introduction to Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge—still praised as one of the best guides to that storyteller's work—was one of the least of his encouragements to her. Fitzgerald also came to know William Maxwell, his contemporary (Fitzgerald was born in 1911, Maxwell in 1908) and fellow central Illinoisan.
Fitzgerald grew up three blocks from the house of poet Vachel Lindsay. Though born not quite a generation apart, the two had in common more than a neighborhood. Each was the son of a professional man, and both attended Springfield High School in an era when bright boys who confessed a love of Literature were doted upon.
But while Lindsay was the archetypal Sensitive Boy, doomed to be a poet at an early age, there was little of the budding classicist in Fitzgerald. Yes, he took Latin at SHS but every bright kid did in those days; somewhat unexpectedly in a future poet, he was a quarterback on the football team. While Lindsay got all of his formal education at Springfield High, Fitzgerald only began his there, continuing it in earnest at Choate, Trinity College, Cambridge, and at Harvard. Lindsay, characteristically, went to Chicago and the West after high school, where life was more raw; Fitzgerald headed east where it was more refined; if Lindsay left because Springfield could not contain him, Fitzgerald left, one suspects, because it did not interest him.
Another difference between the two is the extent of their posthumous recognition by their hometown. Both eventually earned their way into the SHS Hall of fame. But Lindsay has a street, a lovely lake bridge, and a school named after him, and his house has been preserved by the State of Illinois as an historic site. Fitzgerald’s boyhood house is long gone, but no school or street recalls his name or the example he offers for other young Springfieldians.
Fitzgerald is better known as a translator of the classics but also is an accomplished poet, as evidenced by such work as the 1971 collection, Spring Shade: Poems. The future belle lettrist was the son of a genteel, if not wealthy family of attorneys who lived in the capital in the 1910s and '20s, years he has recalled those years in some graceful reminiscences. The Fitzgerald house stood on Jackson Street in Springfield, in the shadow of the statehouse and but three blocks from that of Lindsay’s. Unlike Lindsay, Fitzgerald did not often take up central Illinois as a theme. A nice exception is “Before the Harvest,” from 1956:
Deep and soft and far off over country
A train whistle is explaining something strange
To the cool night, so long, sweet, far away.
In your dark rooms under the elm branches,
Stir, O sleepers in the country towns,
Auburn, Divernon, Chatham, Jacksonville
This is the ebb and weary hour of night.
Only a child benumbed with dreaming
Wakes and listens to the visiting rain
Lick its tongues in the leaves and pass away.
John Knoepfle cannot be said to have been produced by Springfield, but he lived here many years and wrote about it and the rest of central Illinois. Knoepfle (“rhymes with ‘woeful’” he liked to explain) was poet in residence at SSU (predecessor institution of today’s UIS) from 1972 until his retirement in 1991. He authored three books of poems and one book of stories that recall the landscape, history, language and people of central Illinois. In Poems from the Sangamon, published in 1985, Knoepfle traced the Sangamon River from its source in a culvert near LeRoy to its confluence with the Illinois River. The trek inspired artful musings on topics from the vanished Kickapoo to a nuclear power plant.
Langston Hughes, the African American writer known today mainly for his poetry, was born in Missouri and largely grew up in Kansas, but lived for a time as a boy in central Illinois. His mother and step-father moved in 1915 to Lincoln, then a town of about 12,000 with a small black community. (That community figures significantly in a famous William Maxwell story, “Billy Draper.”) Hughes spent his eighth-grade year at Central School on 8th Street (one of the two African Americans in his class) before the family moved on to Ohio.
The adult Hughes would not draw on his central Illinois experience as did Masters and Lindsay or his townmate William Maxwell—it was very limited–but the town, or rather the town’s excellent public school, gave him a nudge in the right direction. As class poet, Hughes was asked to write the graduation poem, and delivered eight verses that honored each of the school's eight instructors–the poet’s first poem. Hughes was later dismissive of the experience. “My classmates,” he wrote, “knowing that a poem had to have rhythm, elected me unanimously—thinking, no doubt, that I had some, being a Negro.”
Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay and Robert Fitzgerald are atypical of central Illinois poets in more than their success. The region produces poets who sprout amongst its masters like giant foxtail in a corn field. When Gwendolyn Brooks succeeded Carl Sandburg as Illinois’s official poet laureate in 1968, she was widely described as the second person to fill that honorary post. But Brooks and Sandburg were preceded as Illinois’s official bard by Springfield’s Howard B. Austin. Raised on a farm near Blue Mound, Austin was a largely self-taught accountant who liked to rhyme for a reason. One of those reasons was the dinner for Sangamon County Democratic Party women in 1936, which Austin memorialized in verse concocted on the spot.
The ladies fair have organized,
Have made their power felt;
They stumped the state, in love, not hate
For Franklin Roosevelt.
Among the guests was Gov. Henry Horner, who was so impressed that he bestowed the honorific title on Austin, who thus became as a sort of jester to Horner’s court. Austin remained the poet laureate for 36 years, until he died in 1962. That he is not remembered in spite of those 36 years suggests something of the quality of his verse.
William Maxwell was born and mostly raised in Lincoln–the family moved to Chicago in the 1920s, when he was fourteen–and earned a B.A. from the University of Illinois, where he later briefly taught in the early 1930s. He made the rest of his career outside Illinois, mostly as a stalwart of the editorial staff of the New Yorker until 1976. Among the writers he nurtured were John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, Frank O’Connor; Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mavis Gallant, and John O’Hara.
Maxwell also wrote. By the time he died in 2000, Maxwell had completed five novels, a family history, and a volume of collected stories. Many of these works are set in Lincoln or Draperville, Maxwell’s only slightly fictionalized Lincoln. In them he recalls the events of his childhood, most of all the death of his mother in the flu epidemic of 1918-19, a traumatic loss he also recalled movingly in his second novel, They Came Like Swallows. By returning again and again to his childhood for stories, Maxwell in one sense at least never left central Illinois.
Maxwell has been called by perfectly sane people a “truly great writer.” James Hurt has described him as “perhaps the most accomplished Illinois fiction writer since the First World War.” But his work (especially the stories) are curious creatures. The Lincoln stories read more like anecdotes than tales, their events more reported than imagined, the author’s technique scarcely literary at all in the popular sense, the kind of story grandfather might tell were he an unusually reflective fellow. Published in book form in 1980, So Long, See You Tomorrow recalls a murder that occurred in Lincoln in the 1920s when a tenant farmer shot a neighbor who had been having an affair with his wife. Apart from the names, Maxwell changed little in the story he found in old newspaper stories. The result was a strange book in which the author told what was known, then imagined what was not. This is standard for a novelist; what was unusual about Maxwell’s book was that he did not hide the process.
Like any region, central Illinois produced more novelists who are good than were great. Richard Peck, an Illinois Writer of the Year among many other awards, has written many novels, mainly for young adults. Peck was awarded the 2000 John Newberry medal, the nation's highest award for children's literature, for his novel A Year Down Yonder. Both that book and A Long Way from Chicago, of which it is a sequel, set in a small town he calls Bluff City, modeled on Cerro Gordo, near Decatur, where his own grandparents lived. Indeed, several of Peck’s books, including Don't Look and It Won't Hurt (1972) and Dreamland Lake (1973), are set in fictionalized central Illinois towns such as Dunthorp, which is assumed by local historians and residents to be Illiopolis). Fair Weather (2001), also is set in central Illinois, and describes the adventures of farm kids from Christian County, near Taylorville, who attend the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.
And like any region, central Illinois also has produced more novels that were interesting than were great (and many more that are neither.) Some of them were written by Marshall Kirkman, who was born in 1842 on a farm in Morgan County. He went to work for the Chicago & North Western Railroad Company in 1856 as a messenger boy; by the time he retired in 1910 he had worked his way up to vice-president. He was a prolific author on the subject of the railroad business, and railroad buffs know him as the author of, among many other works, "The Track Accounts of Railroads," the 12-volume The Science of Railways, and Classical Portfolio of Primitive Carriers.
Having exhausted railroads as a topic by 1900, Kirkman took up historical novel writing, devoting to the life and times of Alexander the Great the same attention he had given railroads. (He wrote five novels on Alexander.) He also produced a book about a less exalted character, one Gilbert Holmes. The Romance of Gilbert Holmes (1901) recounts the adventure of a young boy on the run from villainy and danger in central Illinois during the 1830s. Its hero managed to cross paths with all of the important men of the Illinois of the 1830s and 1840s, and emerges unscathed from enough wrecks, attacks, murders, and explosions to exhaust a comic book hero.
Critic Robert Bray found especially vivid Kirkman’s variation on the familiar theme of nostalgia for the lost Eden that was frontier Illinois, a nostalgia which he conveyed via his evocation of the land along Mauvaise Terre Creek, west of Jacksonville, the part of Morgan County where Kirkman grew up. “If the scene ever looked this idyllic,” wrote Bray, “we can only lament that it doesn’t look so now.”
The New York Times reviewer at the book’s release ranked The Romance of Gilbert Holmes with the best of American literature. Bray concedes that in spite of the book’s charms–he calls it “a genuine curiosity, full of Dickensian sentiment and local color”–it is does not deserve a place in the first rank of the state’s literature. This is fair, but many readers may agree with the critic who kindly wrote, “His fiction was in no sense excellent, but it was better done than might have been expected in view of his temperament and background.”
In an introduction to a new edition, Millikin University professor Dan Guillory tells the amazing story of the publication of Madeline Babcock Smith’s The Lemon Jelly Cake —a story much less believable than anything in that 1952 novel, in spite of its being true. Smith was then 65 years old, a grandmother and antique shop proprietor whose principal claim to literary distinction was as the author of a weekly poetry column in the Decatur daily newspaper. The book, her first novel, was published by a major Boston house, was named Book of the Week by the Associated Press and serialized in Woman’s Day magazine and was reviewed by every important literary journal. Sales were so brisk that the book was rushed through five printings—scant comfort to the author, who died only four months after its debut.
Smith had dabbled with ink and paper before—short stories poems, a mystery novel–and hosted literary soirees for the Millikin crowd. Like Lindsay her near-contemporary, she attended Springfield High School; in later years, when she lived in Decatur, they became friends, as Smith became part of what Guillory calls the literary set in Springfield. As did Masters and Lindsay and Maxwell, her central Illinois brothers in art, Smith used the town of her childhood as the setting for her work. She was born and lived until her ninth year in Rochester, then a farm town, now a suburb of Springfield, and it was Rochester that was the model for her Tory, Illinois.
Her book recounts the adventures of the Bradford family as told by 11-year-old Helene. Her tales of cake contests, a decorous love affair, trips to the big city are affectionate and charmingly told, and it plainly struck a chord among reviewers, who were then struggling (like most Americans) to come to terms with a world in which small towns like Tory were being uprooted by the suburb. Guillory, a fan of the book, notes fairly that no one will argue that The Lemon Jelly Cake is a masterpiece or even a major work of fiction But it is nonetheless “a moving and highly readable minor work.”
For writers of the autobiography, the biography, or the city history, central Illinois has proven rich ground. Of course, most of the more conventional biographies that honor central Illinois subjects have been about Lincoln but the places and people in the region have inspired many other quality works in these kindred forms, even if one doesn’t count William Maxwell’s short stories, which are memoirs in all but name, or Francis Grierson’s Valley of Shadows, which is a memoir that seems to have been borrowed from other writer’s recollections, or Mark Harris’s City of Discontent, in which the author confused his subject’s life with his own.
The first best-seller to originate in central Illinois was the Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, in 1856. The book is less a modern autobiography than a collection of frontier tales (tall and regular height) in which the famous circuit-riding preacher celebrated his triumphs over sin on the Illinois frontier. Insights into Cartwright are scant, but as a vivid account of frontier life few books are its equal, and it is easy to see why it was a best-seller.
Before Mark Harris earned his reputation with such novels as Bang the Drum Slowly, he wrote the novel-cum-biography titled City of Discontent about Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay. The book idea came to Harris while he worked in Springfield as a reporter for the International News Service just after World War II. Lindsay had been dead only fifteen years, and the town was filled with people with vivid memories of him. Harris began to assemble notes on Lindsay’s life (he took as his title a phrase from the opening lines of Lindsay’s poem, “Springfield Magical”) and in 1949 began to write a book that, he would later say, would tell the world what the life of a poet is like.
A quarter-century later, in the autobiographical Best Father Ever Invented, a more mature Harris explained the method behind this madness. He’d decided not to essay another conventional biography of the poet; instead Harris would write Lindsay’s life as a novel. A more accurate phrase was used as his subtitle, an “Interpretive Biography,” but in either event the poet would be the Hero, and “other ‘real’ characters would appear under their own names while between one ‘real’ moment and the next I would provide fictional Connections.”
When City appeared in 1952, Harris remembered, it “[fell] silently upon the public, like snow upon the forest.” The book is omitted from many lists of Harris’s works; it was out of print for years until it was reissued in 1992 by the University of Illinois Press, as part of the latter’s Prairie State Books series. But while City caused no great stir among book buyers at the time, it won generally complimentary reviews from respectable critics at the Christian Science Monitor, Nation and dailies in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.
“City of Discontent” proved an apt title to the extent it anticipated many Springfieldians’ reaction to Harris’s portrait of them. As Edgar Lee Masters had done in Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America, which came out in 1935, Harris saw turn-of-the-century Springfield as a nest of slavering Babbits, complacent and corrupt provincials who knew neither themselves nor art and who had squandered the town’s richest legacy, which was the example of Lincoln.
That his portrait of both the town and the man was naive, Harris himself would later admit. In spite of its acknowledged failures, in 1970, British scholar Ann Massa called City of Discontent “the most satisfactory work on Lindsay,” even as she allows that “only a specialized knowledge of Lindsay allows one to distinguish between fact and fiction.” A specialized knowledge of the poet’s life makes the reading of biographies redundant, of course, but if one cannot claim to know about. Lindsay after reading only City of Discontent, neither can one claim to know quite all about Lindsay without reading it.
East central Illinois
Writers for decades have tried to liven up Grand Prairie farms and towns by inventing interesting people to live in them. As well as works by the aforementioned Kirkland, Taylor, and Emerson, the catalog includes the novel that Bloomingtonian Harold Sinclair wrote in the late 1930s, which impressed the book club selectors if not the critics.
The popular turn-of-the-century novelist Rachel Catherwood lived for many years in Hoopeston, in Vermilion County. Catherwood drew on Illinois history for settings, from French Kaskaskia to New Salem. The latter figures in a typical Catherwood tale, Spanish Peggy, in which the adopted daughter of Shickshack, a Sac Indian, is menaced by a villain in the form of a New Orleans gambler until she is rescued by her guardian, one Abraham Lincoln. Critics today use words such as “inadequate” to describe such literary fancies. Robert Bray adds generously, “She deserves credit—and a readership—for being the rarity she was at the time: a professional woman writer who sustained a career based largely on Illinois materials.”
Judged by commercial standards, Rachel Crothers was the nation's leading woman playwright in the first third of the past century. Born in 1878 the youngest of eight children, she grew up in Bloomington, attending University High School and the then-Illinois State Normal University. Of her 37 plays, 24 were produced on Broadway. (She directed all but the first herself.) Crothers was a particular success at those dubious idioms, the “problem play” and the “social comedy” whose recurring theme was modern woman's search for freedom in a man's world. Her plays emphasized ideas and realistic characters, dialogue, and settings, making works that, if not profound, still nudged American commercial theater a step or two forward.
Except perhaps for a few years at its coal mining beginnings, Streator was never anyone’s idea of the Wild West. But it was the birthplace and childhood home of Clarence Mulford, the Western pulp novelist who created Hopalong Cassidy—hero of more than two dozen novels, sixty-six motion pictures starring William Boyd, and a hit early TV series. Mulford learned what he knew about the West—which wasn’t much, according to his many critics—from index cards, but his readers were more interested in the mythic frontier anyway. He died in 1956, made wealthy by his writing.
Professional eccentric Elbert Hubbard was born in 1856 in Bloomington and grew up in nearby Hudson. (“I was born at Bloomington, Illinois, through no choosing of my own,” he would write. “When a year old I persuaded my parents to move seven miles north to the village of Hudson, that then had five houses, a church, a store and a blacksmith-shop.”) A natural salesman, he made a career selling his own persona as a bohemia. Hubbard ran a publishing house, an artists’ colony and found a wide audience for work that critic James Hurt found “platitudinously ‘arty.’” His best-known work is the inspirational A Message to Garcia (1899), which won him admirers among the nation’s pork-packers and ketchup kings. Flamboyant to the end, Hubbard went down with the Lusitania.
Many novels have been set in the towns and cities of the Grand Prairie. In only one does the town itself get to star. The town is Bloomington, and the book is The American Years by Harold Sinclair, published in 1938. Sinclair set out to the write an historical novel in which a town was the chief character rather than merely the backdrop.
The novel is admirably researched but marred by dialogue that at its worst sounds cribbed from a bad movie (“Powerful lot o’ talk about Black Hawk and them pesky Injuns o’ his.”) Nor did Bloomington burn down dramatically, as Chicago did, or collapse in anarchy, as did Nauvoo, to mention two other Illinois towns that have excited novelists. Critic James Hurt praises it faintly as “a good item for any library shelf of Illinois fiction.” Bray, another generous critic, concluded, “At its best, The American Years sounded like history talking.” True enough, but many readers and not a few critics plainly prefer that an artist do the talking.
Sinclair’s own story might make a livelier novel. He was born in Chicago but raised in Bloomington, where he’d been exiled as a boy after a family breakup. After a bohemian interlude in his native city as a young man, Sinclair returned to Bloomington, where he found both a home and a subject. A high school dropout, for a time he worked in the hardware department of a local Sears store and wrote at night. In what his son calls a “productive rush” Sinclair finished five books—four novels and a history of New Orleans, the city he loved, not least because of Dixieland jazz.
Sinclair was the quintessential Artiste, every hick’s idea of how an artist behaved. Sinclair’s son recalls how in postwar years, they lived cheap on the edge of town. Dad rode a bike to and from the library and wore sandals, which in the Grand Prairie of that decade were widely considered evidence of several social perversions. His son recalled that Sinclair’s idea of appropriate creative atmosphere was “liberal doses of spirits and jazz recordings, played always at night and always at top volume.” In an affectionate account of what must have been for his family a trying and embarrassing ritual, the son adds, “Those hi-jinks brought complaints from neighbors and occasional visits from a gentle and tolerant Bloomington gendarmerie.”
Remarkably, the publication of The American Years was all but ignored by his townspeople. As Bray says, its publication was “unquestionably the biggest literary event in the town’s history.” the local paper reported on its release but a solicited review was never published. The reviewer had found it wanting, complaining of its disrespect toward local worthies and of the “profanity,” worse than which could be heard on any TV sitcom in the 1990s.
Sinclair’s career never achieved the success, either literary or financial, that The American Years promised. Later years found him despondent and often drunk, as rejected novels stacked up in his studio. He died in Bloomington of lung cancer in 1966. Sinclair’s sole success in this period was “The Horse Soldiers,” which was bought by Hollywood for a modest fee and made in 1959 into one of director John Ford’s lesser Westerns.
In recent years the Grand Prairie has been less popular as a setting for writing, but it has become a setting for nationally known writers. More specifically, its campuses have; university neighborhoods provide the milieu that Downstate creatives used to have to move to Chicago to find. But a university job offers Bohemia with a steady paycheck, in other words, making them the best of both worlds. Poets, novelists, and proprietors of small presses subsidize their craft out of their teaching pay, the way farmers keep farm going with what they make at the Mitsubishi plant.
David Foster Wallace was born in 1960, and to date has won four major story awards, a MacArthur Fellowship, and extravagant praise from critics. A typical gush called his novel Infinite Jest “perhaps the most innovative novel in the English language since James Joyce's Ulysses.” Wallace grew up the son of a University of Illinois professor in Philo, what he once described as a "tiny collection of corn silos and war-era Levittown homes" in rural Urbana. It is not unusual for writers of talent to be born and raised in the Grand Prairie. It is unusual for them to return to it as adults, which is what Wallace did, to a post on the English faculty at Illinois State University in Normal, just up the road from his childhood haunts.
Several parts of Illinois can claim novelist Richard Powers (National Book Award, MacArthur Fellowship) who lived in Evanston and Lincolnwood, graduated from high school in DeKalb, and earned degrees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The U of I was the home base of the adult Powers. He, like Wallace, is often compared to such modern fiction masters as Thomas Pynchon and Saul Bellow. Powers’ novels examine the allure and danger of technology, topics with which the author became familiar as an undergrad at the U of I, whose large precursor computer network system (known as PLATO) was then used to teach undergraduates chemistry, calculus, and physics. Such themes would seem to be worlds away from the old breaking-the-sod novels but they are not, really, if one accepts the thesis that technology is to the culture of today’s Grand Prairie what the land frontier was to it in the mid-1800s.
Morris Birkbeck was an English stockman, dreamer, and anti-slavery agitatoruthern Illinois, in the United States. With George Flower, he founded the English Settlement in Edwards County including the nearby town of Albion. A deeply a cultivated man, he was as unlikely a creature in those parts as a kangaroo in the cornfields.
The first book, Notes on a Journey in America, from the Coast of Virginia to the Territory of Illinois, was published in 1817, and Letters from Illinois in 1818. In his second, Letters from Illinois (1818), Birkbeck praised the quality of the discussions on politics, history, or religion he heard in Shawneetown among citizens of all social ranks. “Nature has done much for them and they leave much to Nature,” he explained, “but they have made themselves free; this may account for their indifference to science, and their zeal in politics.”
In his essay in A Reader’s Guide to Illinois Literature, critic John Hallwas describes Birkbeck as “the first Illinois author of any significance” whose works are still under-appreciated as literary art. Hallwas goes on to say, “His writing reminds us that Illinois has been a particularly fertile soil for nurturing the American Dream. The persistence of that dream amid discouraging realities is a central theme in the nonfiction of the Prairie State.”
Of the 35 distinguished Illinois authors memorialized on the frieze of the state library in Springfield, only one is from Egypt. James Jones drew on his own stories. He was born in 1921 and grew up in Robinson, near the Indiana border. His father was a dentist who drank and a mother did not do much of anything. They lost money in the Depression, and the slide from middle class respectability meant that Jones grew up in what he called “an atmosphere of hot emotions and boiling recriminations covered with a thin but resilient skin of gentility.” He was well-read as a youth—as have so many bright kids in small towns in Illinois, Jones traveled the world at the local Carnegie library—but an indifferent student. College was unaffordable in any event and he enlisted in the Army to get out of Robinson.
After being wounded Guadalcanal in 1942, he was sent back to the states, returning to Robinson in 1943 where he lived before leaving for good in 1958 for Paris. Jones Drink and depression—the maladies that killed his father—began to dog him. A concerned aunt introduced him to a remarkable woman named Lowney Turner Handy, the wife of a local oil man, Harry Handy, who collected down-and-outers as a hobby. Mrs. Handy took over his life, helping him obtain a psychological discharge, put him up at their house, and oversaw years of steady work on his novel.
The result was his 1951 novel From Here to Eternity, the sort of book every young writer dreams about publishing and most veteran writers fear—a book that is better than they are. Jones was not in fact much of a writer, rather a storyteller, and the best—some say only—story he had to tell was about the war. Critics and readers loved it (it has sold more than four million copies,) the Book of the Month Club picked it, it won the National Book Award for fiction, and was made into a smash film that took the Best Picture Oscar for 1953.
The Handy Writer's Colony was founded in 1949 (some sources say 1950) by the Handys on a farm in the southwest part of Marshall near what is now Cork Medical Center. The colony institutionalized the kind of mentoring she had lavished on Jones. Jones returned the support, lavishing money he made from movie rights to his book to build barracks and other facilities.
The Handy Colony was run as a sort of literary boot camp. Lowney Handy was a diet crank and a homophobe who also inveighed against the wiles of women, among other eccentricities. The routine was early-to-bed-early-to- rise, no ventures into towns save under supervision, writing in mornings, chores around the colony in the afternoons, no booze, no chit-chat about writing. Come winter, promising pupils would be whisked off to warmer climes to work.
Jones lived at but was never part of the colony, which dissolved with the death of Lowney Handy in 1964. Jones himself died in 1977, only 55. The town embraced both of them only reluctantly. Still, Jones was, or is, famous, and while it took more than 40 years, the town in 2000 finally installed signs at the city limits on State Route 1A telling the world he was a native son—recognition that the town’s mayor said was "long overdue."
The real literature of southern Illinois is written by the people themselves. Of course, southern Illinois is not the only region of the state with its own folklore. John Hallwas has collected tales and lore from western Illinois, and much of Mike Royko’s columns recounted fables from that city. (Indeed, only Chicago has evolved a folklore as elaborate, or as self-conscious as southern Illinois, perhaps because it, like Egypt, feels it has something to explain to the world.) But folklore runs as thick as coal seams through the hills of southern Illinois, a fact that owes to the peculiarly stable social geology of the region: Its folklore persists because, compared to rest of Illinois, its folk have persisted.
Not even Chicago, however, outdoes Egypt in the enthusiasm with which the region’s oral traditions are collected and recounted. Locals collect lore out of family duty or patriotism—the oral equivalent of the knick-knacks that crowd house museums in the rest of the state. (A popular Gallatin County Web site advertises itself as a source of information on “folklore, genealogy, and history” in that order.) Nostalgists are joined by academics; recent trends in scholarship such as feminist and ethnic studies has made relevant large classes of people whose stories nobody had bothered to record before. As the region begins to lose its distinctive demographic, the urge to hold on to its social manifestations becomes more urgently felt. If natives collect tales as mementos of a world that is fading, outsiders have found in the region a world they thought was already lost.
Folklore is a tree with deep roots in southern Illinois. Pennsylvanian James Hall moved first to Shawneetown (in 1820) and then to Vandalia, where he became editor of the Illinois Intelligencer and state treasurer. Hall, in The Western Souvenir (published in Cincinnati in 1828) dressed up popular legend in local detail in a series of tales about frontier characters of the sort that in Walt Disney’s sanitized versions confused whole generations of young Americans about the nature of life on the edge of civilization. Hall was only one of many scribes who fed the public back East stories in which the tall tale and local color figure more than plot or character.
The tales are less tall these days. (A remarkable number of reminiscences seem to involve molasses, which figures as prominently here as sausages figure in the reminiscences of nostalgic Chicagoans.) Many of them are folk tales only to the extent that the writers regard themselves as just folks; most authors are backward-looking natives who were exiled by education or experience to a more cosmopolitan world. As a result, many tales have a polish that usually eludes the unschooled; the worst of them seem contrived for the tourist trade, as Indians of the American West contrive the designs of blankets and totems. ●