Hektor at the Supermarket
The author ponders the problem of home
July 23, 1987
I recently reread this piece two or three times and I still can't decide whether I think it is any good. Trying to think deeply on a deadline poses its risks, as David Brooks knows well. It might make more sense when I explain that in the summer of 1987 I was considering leaving Springfield at the age of 39, having never lived anywhere else, and was of several minds about it.
I once met a man who liked Springfield. I think he was from Chicago, but I don’t recall; I was much too startled to hear his name clearly. I could not have been more surprised if, when he opened his mouth, a pigeon had flown out, banked a couple of turns around the room, and made a belly landing in the dip.
I have lived in Springfield my whole life, and know others who must say the same, and while each of us had his reasons, liking it is hardly ever among them. I have amassed a catalog of complaints about life in the capital city, and some of the juiciest came from natives. (I have considered publishing that catalog, by the way, for the edification of state agency directors, minor league baseball managers, and others washed by Fate upon these barren shores. What the Gideon Bible is to the faithful traveler, this book would be to the sophisticated one.)
I have whiled away many an hour explaining to people why the buses stop running at 5:45, why you can’t buy fresh bagels, why there is no repertory movie house, why the local TV news reminds them of Romper Room. The nicest thing anybody says about Springfield is that it’s a nice place to bring up kids, which unfortunately makes it a lousy place for those of us who are old enough to cross the street alone. The polite compliments of acquaintances eager not to offend my local patriotism are the most damning of all. “It’s so convenient to Chicago,” they say, or, “You must enjoy the quiet”—the fat girl with personality.
My extended residence puzzles some people. (The fact that we spend so much time talking about what a backward place Springfield is is instead of just leaving it is perhaps the best proof of what a backward place Springfield is.) At times I feel like Quasimodo after he’s been asked, “Doesn’t that hump complicate your golf swing?” My reasons for staying are not the usual ones. I was not made the gift of a sinecure in the family business. I do not wish to be near the bedside of an ailing rich relative. I am not recovering from a love affair, or lamming from the IRS. I am not tired of life and I am not afraid of subways. I do not have a career in state government, and my kid is not going to be in the class play this spring.
I am here, in Springfield, simply because I am not somewhere else. This is a reversal of the usual progression. Springfield is a fine place to be from. Had Bernard Shaw been born in Springfield instead of Dublin, he would have said, “As long as the Midwest produces men with sense enough to leave her, she does not exist in vain.” Alas, my lack of sense is comprehensive.
Consider these lines from the efficacious Calvin Trillin which appeared in the April 6 New Yorker: “A Midwesterner in New York may know of ghosts of adolescence that lurk, unchanged, in his home town; he may be unsettled by the thought of himself finding himself in the supermarket line with both of the people who remember precisely how he behaved on graduation night.”
Adolescence in America being especially traumatic, it is no surprise that most people wish to flee the scene. Staying in the city of one’s youth thus presents certain perils. Trillin has summed them up in the Midwestern Adjustment to the Psychoanalytic Theory, which is, “Everybody’s who he was in high school.” Staring at the same city for thirty years isn’t half as daunting as staring at oneself for thirty years. For me to venture onto the streets to buy a six-pack of beer without passing the scene of some humiliation would require demolition on a scale that would make even Memorial Medical Center envious. To most of my fellow sticks-in-the-mud, this reality poses no painful truths, because what they were in high school is all they ever wanted to be. (Thus we have a clue to understanding Springfield: It is owned and run by people who liked high school.)
Over the years I have argued the virtues of staying in one place nevertheless, not for the sake of the place, but for the sake of the staying. Any birdwatcher knows that if one moves about in the woods, one will never be able to see the birds; one has to stand in one place so the birds’ movements are revealed against the still trees. If one stays in the same city, staring at the same trees as it were, human motion is revealed as well. To watch the progress of the class wimp who grows up to be a caring physician, or the prom queen who turns into a harridan, is to be instructed in the possibilities of the race, however much it shakes one’s faith in democracy and Darwin.
Not only do I remember how I behaved on graduation night, 1 remember where. The progress of the city itself thus offers similar lessons. After thirty years, I experience several Springfields at once, the present one plus theone that used to be. The newcomer sees only what a city is, and comes to certain conclusions; the native sees what it was and has become, and comes to different ones. Essayist Guy Davenport professes puzzlement that the writer Ford Madox Ford could have spent so many of his final days happily in Ohio, after living in Sussex and Paris. The answer is simply that the Ohio which Ford lived in not only wasn’t the Ohio that his coal merchant or mailman lived in, but probably was a better one. What we don’t know about a place we imagine, like we do with people, and we usually flatter both in the process.
A good thing too, given what’s happened to small U.S. cities since World War II. Downtown offers a hundred examples. The newcomer looks at a crowded parking lot and sees the open parking spaces which aren’t there; I look at it and see the movie house or the coffee shop that once were. The glade that is now the shopping center parking lot, the turn-of-the-century house drifting into decay, the infrastructure of the neighborhoods eroded by the chain stores, the perversion of urban scale and character by the automobile— this is what I see when I venture forth. When I was younger I rejected the notion that all change was progress, because it was naive; I am finding it harder to reject the idea that no change is progress. Davenport summed it up when he observed, “The terror of Hektor’s death was that, moments before his heart tasted Achilles’ blade, he had to run past places where he had played as a boy.”
Such sadness verges dangerously close to nostalgia. There is a crucial distinction, however, between lamenting the loss of a city because it is where one lived a full life and lamenting the loss of a city where full life can be lived. I am unhappy because Springfield is no longer Springfield; much of the rest of the city seems unhappy because it isn’t St. Louis. Local improvers, from the mayor’s economic development staff to the symphony guild, face the same dilemma faced by a pimp saddled with a homely whore. It is true that newsstands that sell Details magazine and cable TV have made it possible to live in Springfield without living in Springfield; they have also made it necessary. Question most newcomers closely, and you will find that what they like about Springfield is what has been imported, and thus is least representative of it. What is lost is not charm, or innocence, or any other Keilloresque quality, but coherence.
Elizabeth Hardwick once observed that places “have almost a genetic fatality.” I take her to mean that one can live too long in one place. The problem is that like most genetically fatal ailments, home towns take years to kill you. By the time the disease is manifest, it’s too late for a cure. ●
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.