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 Bookshop.org 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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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
Springfield's house poet Vachel Lindsay
“Prejudices," Illinois Times February 13, 1981
Vachel Lindsay pays the price of not selling out
“Prejudices” Illinois Times November 5, 1987
The love letters of Lilian Steichen and Carl Sandburg
Reader June 10, 1988
Illinois literature re-examined
Illinois Issues March 2004
On Mark Harris on Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay
Reader June 25, 1993
Robert Fitzgerald, translator, teacher, Springfieldian
“Prejudices” Illinois Times June 23, 1994
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
Which Springfield writers deserve commemoration?
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times December 16, 2010
Independent publishing, and thinking, lose a champion
“Prejudices” Illinois Times February 23, 1989
A house, a poet, a parody in 1,000 words
“Prejudices” Illinois Times March 22, 1990
Two Springfield English teachers raise a flock
“Prejudices” Illinois Times September 8, 1978
A first try at understanding Harris understanding Lindsay
“Prejudices” Illinois Times October 5, 1979
Oak Park tries hard to be proud of Ernest Hemingway
New York Times Book Review July 8, 1990
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
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
Chicago, Mike Royko, and Henry Mencken
“Prejudices” Illinois Times March 4, 1982
Father John Garvey, late of Springfield, dies at 70
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times February 19, 2015
Guidebooks, geographies, gazeteers, and reference books
See Illinois (unpublished) 2016
Histories and anthologies about the state since the 1600s
See Illinois (unpublished) 2010
History, buildings, architects, and vernacular architecture
See Illinois (unpublished) 2010
Some Books About Illinoisans
Biographies, autobiographies, letters, and memoirs
See Illinois (unpublished) 2010
Chicago-area writers and writing
See Illinois (unpublished) 2002
Writers report on their searches for Illinois's hero
See Illinois (unpublished) 2010
A selective, if not select, list of works
See Illinois (unpublished) 2010
Good biographies of Illinois towns abound
See Illinois (unpublished) 2020
Capitalist fights labor. Illinois loses.
See Illinois (unpublished) 2004
Harvesting corn and myth from the prairie
See Illinois (unpublished) 2009
The people turn silk purses into sow's ears
See Illinois (unpublished) 2008
Planning the U of I's main campus
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times May 4, 2017
. . . is not an Illinoisan but only just
Illinois Times May 1, 1981
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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.