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. ●