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Illinois books

and writers

Below you will find some of my articles about Illinois writers and writing. For links to my reviews of Illinois books, click here.


I made my living, mainly, writing for magazines and newspapers, but books are at the heart of what I do. Most of what I know about Illinois I learned from books. I write and edit books.  I review books for pay. My closest friends wrote or edited or taught about books, so that's what we talked about.

Many of those books, inevitably, were about Illinois. I once attempted to compile an annotated list of books about Illinois I’ve found useful over the years. It proved impossible. (The best bits of that list appear as separate pieces among the links listed below.) Other writers have done better. The 1939 Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide listed “Fifty Books About Illinois,” most of which are still worth reading, although they are no longer the only fifty such books worth reading. Among the several newer lists available, I recommend the selection of Illinois books on Bibliovault, the scholarly online book repository, it being especially good on Chicago books. 

The indefatigable John E. Hallwas was the editor of the nearly 50 excerpts collected in Illinois Literature: The Nineteenth Century (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1986) which is just as useful for its introductions and book lists. More recently, Hallwas has compiled a Bicentennial Reading List for Illinois public libraries for the Illinois State Historical Society. Hallwas is a walking library of Illinois history and literature and has shared what he knows over a long career as teacher and writer. Prominent on Hallwas's list  are novels and poetry that illuminate the Illinois experience, a class of works that are largely a mystery to me. 

A Reader’s Guide to Illinois Literature (Illinois Secretary of State, 1985, edited by Robert Bray), remains a useful though now dated collection of solid essays on nonfiction and fiction and poetry, with a separate look at women writers and annotated bibliographies. Also recommended is Bray’s own Rediscoveries: Literature and Place in Illinois (University of Illinois Press, 1991), and Writing Illinois: The Prairie, Lincoln, and Chicago by James Hurt (University of Illinois Press, 1991)


In Illinois Women Novelists in the Nineteenth Century: An Analysis and Annotated Bibliography, Bernice E. Gallagher (University of Illinois Press, 1994) examines fifty-eight novels 58 novels written by 36 Illinois women, published from 1854 to 1893 that  Illinois Woman's Committee of Literature chose to include in a collection of work exhibited in the American section of the Women's Building during the 1983 world’s fair in Chicago; one reviewer concedes that the committee didn’t “unearthed any forgotten geniuses or neglected masterpieces,” but these works have some historical and social interest.

Illinois writers figure prominently in The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers Project, 1935–43 (Little, Brown, 1972) by Jerre Mangione, the coordinating editor of the FWP in the late 1930s.

In 2020, the folks who run the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute’s Renewing Illinois program at Southern Illinois University asked more than twenty-five prominent Illinoisans to respond to this question: If you were teaching an “Illinois 101” course to highly motivated undergraduates, what five books you would assign them to read? Here are some of the replies.

Notable Illinois publishers 


Without publishers, writers would be carving their works into the bark of trees. Illinois has been home to some interesting publishing houses.

Edward Hegeler was the master of the technical side of the zinc business; the machine he invented to smelt the metal is still used by the industry. His success allowed him to devote himself to public improvements of a very different kind. He founded a publishing house, Open Court Publishing, that produced magazines meant to serve as forums for scholars to debate religion, science, and philosophy—not uncommon preoccupations among late Victorian men of means. Later the firm ventured into book publishing under the direction of German scholar (and son-in-law) Paul Carus, author of a still-popular text, The Gospel of Buddha.

Grandfathers usually make fortunes that the grandchildren waste, but not so the children of the Carus-Hegeler line. In 1915 Edward Carus, grandson of Edward Hegeler, founded Carus Chemical Company in LaSalle, the world's largest manufacturer of one of those mysterious chemicals—in this case potassium permanganate—that is essential to advanced economies. Young Edward first produced the chemical while an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. Edward Carus’s son Blouke has kept his father’s company at the top of its field and reinvigorated the family publishing business; his Open Court Reading Program is described as a favorite among advocates of structured phonics-based instructional approaches and has been adopted by some of the nation’s larger school systems. Blouke‘s wife founded the Cricket group of children’s magazines, still going strong and still winning awards as the best of their kind in the U.S.

Many a cultured youth returns home after college with the burning ambition to write poetry; James Decker came back with a plan to publish it. He was born in Prairie City, in the far northeast of McDonough County. The Decker Press was run out of the back of his grandfather's drug store; Decker set the type and ran the press, with the help of his sister Dorothy. The press won attention when Edgar Lee Masters—then still a notable name, if no longer a notable poet—gave Decker his Illinois Poems (1941) and Along the Illinois (1942) to publish.

More than 50 volumes followed over the next five years (Decker would put out more than 100 in all), most in limited runs. For a time the Decker Press was the largest house in the U.S. devoted exclusively to publishing poetry. Some of the keenest poetic talents of the era sought out Decker, including David Ignatow, Kenneth Patchen, and Kenneth Rexroth. To poets of national stature, Decker Press was, briefly, as familiar a name as that of the far more famous Poetry magazine in Chicago—a rare instance of an Illinois small town making a name for itself as more than a place where artists used to live.

Sadly, the under-capitalized Decker could barely afford to print books, much less market them, and in any event the audience for poetry was only slightly larger then than now. Financial troubles led to the firm being sold in 1947. It continued to operate until 1950. That was when Dorothy Decker, unhinged by an unrequited love, shot one of the owners, then herself—not, perhaps, an encouraging model for the many Illinois small presses that would follow it.

Mention also should be made of the many Illinois books that would have languished unpublished had it not been for  the yeoman work done by Illinois’s larger university presses in bringing to the public works presumably of durable interest that more commercial houses disdain. The Prairie State Books series published by the University of Illinois Press, for example, includes a wide range of notable titles with helpful introductions. Southern Illinois University Press’s Shawnee Classics series meets the same standard with works of relevance to SIU’s home region. The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with important interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the now-standard one-volume history of the state and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War.  And any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles from the University of Chicago Press about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to Vivian Maier.

Note: Some of the books mentioned in these pages  can be purchased from the nonprofit via the links here provided. Part of the profit from each sale goes into a fund to support independent bookstores, and part goes into my empty pocket. You should know that.

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Ghost Writers

Dead poets are better remembered in books than buildings

“Dyspepsiana” Illinois Times October 1, 2015

No Room for Writers
The writers' memorial in Chicago's newest library

Reader  September 25, 1992

The Great Enunciator

Lincoln as author

"Prejudices" Illinois Times 1992

“Corn-fed Pious Howler”

Springfield's house poet Vachel Lindsay

“Prejudices," Illinois Times  February 13, 1981

Resisting the Influence

Vachel Lindsay pays the price of not selling out

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  November 5, 1987

Sandburg and Steichen

The love letters of Lilian Steichen and Carl Sandburg

Reader  June 10, 1988

Forgotten Canon

Illinois literature re-examined

Illinois Issues  March 2004

The Writer's Life

On Mark Harris on Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay
Reader  June 25, 1993

The Itch to Leave

Robert Fitzgerald, translator, teacher, Springfieldian

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  June 23, 1994

A Book about Books about Illinois

Illinois! Illinois! reviewed

Illinois Times  November 9, 1979

Books Matter. People Care. Change Is Possible.
Richard Bray and “Chicago's most committed bookstore”

Reader  April 14, 1989


Who are our “Illinois writers”? Do we have any?

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  August 11, 1983

Markable Authors
Which Springfield writers deserve commemoration?
"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times December 16, 2010

An lllinoisan Leaves

Independent publishing, and thinking, lose a champion

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  February 23, 1989

Vachel’s House

A house, a poet, a parody in 1,000 words

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  March 22, 1990

A Nest of Singing Birds

Two Springfield English teachers raise a flock

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  September 8, 1978

Vachel Lindsay and Springfield, Illinois, U.S.A.

A first try at understanding Harris understanding Lindsay

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  October 5, 1979

Come Home, Papa, All Is Forgiven

Oak Park tries hard to be proud of Ernest Hemingway

New York Times Book Review  July 8, 1990

Making Springfield a Better Place  

Readers recall Shadid’s Book Mart      

"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  May 27, 2010        

All Is Not Well Forever
Robert Fitzgerald’s youth in Springfield

"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times November 19, 2009

New York, New York
Gotham has always drawn Springfieldians to the bright lights
"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  September 18, 2014

Town Character
The hometown as hero in mid-Illinois books
"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  July 16, 2015

Clio in the Cornfields
Why do so many cities with history not have a history?
"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times November 14, 2013

Singing True

Chicago, Mike Royko, and Henry Mencken

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  March 4, 1982

A Man Worth Knowing

Father John Garvey, late of Springfield, dies at 70

"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  February 19, 2015

Some Books About Illinois the Place

Guidebooks, geographies, gazeteers, and reference books

See Illinois (unpublished)  2016

Some Books About Illinois History

Histories and anthologies about the state since the 1600s

See Illinois (unpublished)  2010

Some Books About Illinois Architecture

History, buildings, architects, and vernacular architecture 

See Illinois (unpublished)  2010

Some Books About Illinoisans
Biographies, autobiographies, letters, and memoirs

See Illinois (unpublished)  2010

From Wau-Bun to Bellow

Chicago-area writers and writing 

See Illinois (unpublished)  2002

Some Books About Lincoln

Writers report on their searches for Illinois's hero

See Illinois (unpublished)  2010

Some Books of Illinois Fiction and Verse

A selective, if not select, list of works

See Illinois (unpublished)  2010

Some Books About Illinois Towns

Good biographies of Illinois towns abound

See Illinois (unpublished)  2020

Some Books About Illinois Business

Capitalist fights labor. Illinois loses.

See Illinois (unpublished) 2004

Some Books About Illinois Farming

Harvesting corn and myth from the prairie 

See Illinois (unpublished)  2009

Some Books About Illinois Government

The people turn silk purses into sow's ears

See Illinois (unpublished)  2008

Lost in Illiniville

Planning the U of I's main campus

"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  May 4, 2017

The World’s Worst Poet

. . . is not an Illinoisan but only just

Illinois Times  May 1, 1981

The Blossomy Haw, Remembered

Natural beauty and politics

“Dyspepsiana” Illinois Times    June 9, 2016


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O'er Thy Prairies Verdant Growing

Comes an Echo on the Breeze

The writers of Downstate Illinois

See Illinois (unpublished)  2004




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago


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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


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 Illinois State Museum


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

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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