Who are our “Illinois writers”? Do we have any?
August 11, 1983
Over the years, guidebooks and scholars and conference-organizers have agonized over what, exactly, makes on an “Illinois writer.” The question of what is Illinois writing is even more fraught. I never attempted to answer either question, but the questions were, and remain interesting.
The subject, I recall, was the new Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. People who read cherish the Oxford series, which comprise a set of Baedeckers for the armchair tourist. In this newest one, the reviewer pointed out, "Springfield is the city most frequently mentioned."
I nearly choked. Like certain parents, I assumed that the Springfield that was being talked about was mine. Now, Springfield was the home of poet Vachel Lindsay, who is our only major literary celebrity. (Poet-and-translator Robert Fitzgerald spent part of his boyhood here but escaped.) Springfield has also been home to such lesser lights as Virginia Eifert (the nature writer, a discredited genre) and a succession of itinerant Lincoln biographers. And of course State Journal-Register political columnist Ken Watson; if I were as skilled with sauces as Watson is with Cubs metaphors I'd quit writing tomorrow and make my living catering condo-warmings.
But surely (I thought) even this company would not warrant so much attention from the reference writers. It turned out, of course, that our reviewer was counting "the many different Springfields." Jerk. My irritation gave way quickly to curiosity, however. Because of my profession I have had the pleasure consorting with persons of literary bent. I number among my present and former associates in Springfield a national columnist, a biographer, a would-be novelist and textbook writer, poets in assorted denominations, and a stage adapter, not to mention the columnists, reporters, editors, and similar apprentices to the P.R. trade.
While it is clear that Illinois (at least the part of it lived in by people like me) clearly has writers the way mayors have grants, I was less certain that downstate Illinois has a literature. Literary life, now and in the past, seemed too diffuse, the practice of the art necessarily too isolated to acquire that shared purpose, or style which might give the private musings some public dimension.
In literature as in so many other things, it is necessary to draw distinctions between Chicago and the rest of Illinois. An exploration of Chicago's literary life, such as the "Write on, Chicago" festival planned for October by the Chicago Public Library, takes on certain aspects of an ecumenical council. Our IT colleague Rich Shereikis has served, somewhat grandly, as a "professional in the humanities" on the planning committee of a conference scheduled as part of Write On, Chicago; he reports reliably that disposing of the topic "Chicago as a Literary Place" will require five days, a dozen panel discussions or readings, and more than forty papers.
What (I wondered) might a "Write On, Downstate" conference encompass? I've lived my whole life in Illinois, and consider myself reasonably literate. Yet on the subject of Illinois literature, (by which I mean non-Chicago literature) I am a digitalized, color-coded, freeze-dried hick. It was in the hope of enlightenment that I unrolled my copy of "Illinois Authors," a poster-sized map published by the Illinois Association of Teachers of English.
The map lists roughly 200 "authors." The selections show more concern for comprehensiveness than quality. Only people accustomed to working in schools where an "A" in driver's ed counts as much toward college entrance as an "A" in geometry would put Burl Ives on the same list with say, Lincoln's William Maxwell. Or rank Dakin Williams, southern Illinois's political poseur and cafe critic, with the likes of James Jones.
Most of the names, however, were new to me. What kind of cookbook did Blanche B. King from Tamms write to earn her place in such company? Should I know the name Darwin Teilhet, who apparently is to Wyanet what Dickens was to London? Did I read the name Nixon Waterman on a bookshelf or did I hear it in a Bob and Ray radio sketch? Should I be unhappy that I have never heard of two of the five authors listed from my home town? And while I'm on the subject of Springfield authors, why is my name not listed? Not only did I sell a story about pigs to Reader's Digest once, they spelled my name right in the byline which is more than ol' Darwin ever got, I'll bet.
Clearly some more discriminating guide is needed. The state publishes tourist guides which enable the explorer to find out how a few of Illinois' more famous writers lived, but nothing which might help them understand how the writers thought. Likewise, we have maps aplenty of the state's physical landscape, but none that I know of that depict its imagined landscape. Most of the standard reference works on Illinois give short shrift to this side of our lives. The Illinois Fact Book and Historical Almanac written by John Clayton and published in 1968 is typical. It includes the name of every single legislator who ever eluded a grand jury since 1818, but except for the few writers who achieved fame (and who thus are included as much in the "Famous Illinoisans" chapter for their celebrity as their art) literary Illinois is not mentioned. The author devotes eighteen pages to libraries in Illinois (compared to the 126 he lavished on the General Assembly) but nothing about the writers who helped fill them.
Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide, the revised WPA handbook edited in its newer edition by Harry Hansen, is altogether more useful. The essay "Of the Making of Books" suffers mainly from its brevity, although about its scholarly virtues I am unqualified to judge. Wau-Bun, I found out, is not the name of a new fast food franchise but a reminiscence of pioneer Chicago and the first real book published in Illinois.
Hansen (I assume Hansen wrote it) is more discriminating than our English teachers. The latter proudly list Hemingway among Chicago writers even though, as Hansen notes, he "passed little more than his adolescence in Illinois." Like Dos Passos and many others, Hemingway made his name outside Illinois. He is an Illinois writer in the same way that Ronald Reagan is an Illinois politician.
I also applaud its catholicity. Defining what constitutes an "Illinois writer" is tricky, as the case of Mr. Hemingway shows. Is membership in the club a matter of nativity? Residence? Subject matter? Locale? And what about format? People who make novels, poems, and plays are pretty obviously writers. But what about those writers who labor in odd corners of the vineyard? (Hansen, for example, lists encyclopedists and newspapermen among Illinois writers.) U. S. Grant's stature as a memoirist is as secure as his reputation as a President is shaky. Lincoln's speeches (think not just of Gettysburg but of House divided, the farewell to Springfield, and the two inaugurals) still are moving today. Carl Sandburg was a poet who is most read for his biography of Lincoln. And even Hansen omitted mention of Nauvoo's Joseph Smith, whose Book of Mormon I've always regarded as one of the great works of fiction of the nineteenth century.
How pleasant it would be to be able to buy a first-class Illinois literary guide which might do for readers what the Rosetta Stone did for linguists, and render accessible that which was mysterious. Given the economics of commercial publishing these days, such a project would have to be undertaken almost as an act of patriotism. Not that there isn't money in Illinois for the work. There are the foundations, and the $200,000 which Springfield spent on LincolnFest could have been used to give the state something more enduring than a hangover.
No, what is missing most is an audience. In the past, of course, readers compiled their own, personal literary guides, which they kept in their hands. But as scholar E. D. Hirsch observed not long ago, acculturation—what Hirsch calls "the knowledge of cultural realities signified by words, and to whole domains of experience to which words refer"—is not something which schools do well. Just as a national or an Illinois culture can't exist without a common literature, so a national or Illinois literature can't exist without those cultures. The generation now reaching adulthood grew up without having to read even David Copperfield or Shakespeare. They are hardly likely to delve into regional writing, and less likely to understand what may make it distinctly Illinoisan. We should all remember that one doesn't need a guide unless one is lost. ●
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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.