Books about Illinois the place
Guidebooks, geographies, gazeteers,
and reference books
You wouldn’t expect to find Illinoisans mentioned in an introduction to speeches by a Roman statesman, but there are two of them in as many pages in the collection of Cicero’s works by British scholar Michael Grant. One is Abraham Lincoln, because his speeches echo with Cicerian cadences; the other is gangster Al Capone, because he lived in one of the several U.S. towns named for the great statesman and orator.
Old Abe and Scarface occupy opposite ends of the narrow spectrum of the world’s knowledge of Illinois. Educating that world about everything in between has been the burden of guidebook authors for nearly two centuries—longer if one counts the journal that reported on Jolliet and Marquette’s explorations to French colonial officials in Montreal in the 1670s.
A number of volumes have been published to aid the Illinoisan itching to get out of the armchair and see the state for herself. In a 1983 essay, Michael Conzen and Neil Harris, professors of geography and history respectively at the University of Chicago, pointed out that Illinois guidebooks came in three basic forms—the Emigrant’s Guide, the Chamber of Commerce Pitch, and the Conventioneer’s Friend. (To which might be added a postwar variant, the Tourist’s Tipsheet.) The literature is voluminous because so much of it is inflated by hot air. “Puffery was part of the form,” noted Conzen and Harris.
Whatever their audience or era, guidebooks had in common a desire to show to a skeptical world that Illinois was something that it was not—Eden, Heaven, a new France, a better Ohio. In doing so, most books succumbed to the familiar vices of the genre. Guidebook authors, for example, long ago turned Chicago into a world-class city, a feat that several generations of Chicagoans have not been able to pull off.
Wrote James Hurt in 1969, “The literature of Illinois begins with travelers’ accounts of the region, emigrants’ guides, and similar narratives.“ The Southern Illinois University Press has republished one of these—Eight Months in Illinois: With Information for Immigrants by William Oliver (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002, with a new foreword by James E. Davis.) It was first published in 1843 as an up-to-date guide to would-be immigrants about what was still terra incognita in places such as the author’s native England. Oliver was a fine journalist, and his little book remains worth reading as a snapshot of America of the time.
Southern Illinois was settled during a period when curiosity about the new Illinois country created a market in the eastern U.S. and Europe for emigrants guides, traveler’s diaries and such. Several good ones came out of the region before 1850. Vandalia’s ever-industrious James Hall wrote many articles and books about the West and its people, including Letters from the West, Containing Sketches of Scenery, Manners and Customs; and Anecdotes Connected with the First Settlements of the Western Sections of the United States. William Oliver’s Eight Months in Illinois (1843, reprinted with a new introduction by James E. Davis in 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press) finds the author describing for fellow Englishmen a journey from St. Louis toward Indianapolis via Vandalia and the National Road; John Hallwas accurately describes this combination travelogue and emigrant’s guide as lively but reflecting more care for facts that many such books received.
Travelers of a later day had Illinois: Guide and Gazetteer, written mainly by Hal Foust and Percy Wood and edited by Paul M. Angle (Rand McNally, 1969). Like the WPA guides (see below), it offers itineraries (fourteen in all) plus quite good capsule descriptions of more than 600 towns, Chicago requiring more than 50 thematic essays.
Not a travel guide in the usual sense is Baker Brownell’s The Other Illinois (Duell, Sloan and Pearce 1958), a report from “Egypt” that tried to do for that region what Graham Hutton did for the Midwest a few years earlier in Midwest At Noon. Hallwas is correct to praise it as beautifully written book graced by some strikingly poetic prose, but The Other Illinois is not quite a masterpiece. Brownell came to know Egypt while on the staff of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, whose Department of Community Development he organized. Brownell was too insistent on portraying southern Illinois as a fount of true--meaning un-urban--Americanism. (As he put it, “this is folk America, the germinal society from which our democratic customs, industries and arts continuously emerge.”) Nonetheless, The Other Illinois deserves mention with Calkins’ They Broke The Prairie, Angle’s Bloody Williamson, and a few others on the shelf of really good books about Illinois.
The WPA guides
Oliver’s readers would have toured Illinois by steamboat, wagon, and stagecoach. Many a traveler in the automobile age had in the glove compartment a copy of the Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide, one of the American Guide Series compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration. The FWP guides were intended for use as Baedekers which the curious might use to explore what were then still the backwoods of Illinois.
Readers who believe that it is the details that make a story will find much to delight them here. Our guides noted everything save the menus at the roadside cafes—the composition of the roof of the old Scottish Rite Cathedral in Moline (Bangor slate), the illustrious dead in Warren’s Elmwood Cemetery (Abner Dalrymple, who led the National League in Home Runs in 1885), the weight of the Parrott naval cannon that sits on the Ogle County Courthouse grounds in Oregon (9,722 pounds).
The Illinois guide is generally reckoned to be one of the best of the series because of the talent that went into it. The Illinois writers assembled for the task included Nelson Algren, Jack Conroy, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, and Richard Wright, among many others their equal in skill if not reputation.
The Illinois installment came out late in the series, in 1939, and was published by the State of Illinois. (This edition was reprinted with a new introduction in 1983 by Pantheon Books under the title, The WPA Guide To Illinois. All three editions are badly dated by now; the last is to be preferred for the quality of its introduction by Neil Harris and Michael Conzen.
The authors of the FWP state guides saw them as (borrowing from Harris and Conzen) “no simple tour books but introductions to whole societies.“
Earlier FWP guides had been chided for their authors’ fascination with slums and strikes and for otherwise contradicting the boosterism that people expected from a proper guidebook. The Illinois book was hardly a rabble-rouser but it did speak in a frank (but still friendly) tone about civic foible. That it roused no furor may be attributed to Illinoisans’ confidence in the face of criticism, or to the fact that Illinois’ more vocal patriots never got around to reading them, or to the fact that by then it was clear that the books had no impact on readers.
Even without controversy, the Illinois book sold well enough that its publisher, the Chicago commercial house of A. C. McClurg, felt emboldened to put out a revised edition in 1947. Under editor Harold L. Hutchins, the original articles on general themes were amended, population figures updated, and new articles added on religion and on Illinois’ contributions to the war effort. The last were considerable, as one would expect from a state of Illinois’s size and productive capacity; to borrow an old joke, the Wermacht never got past Terre Haute.
The 1947 Guide was not merely newer than its parent. It was different. The Depression may have imposed a chastening modesty on the tendency to brag and bluster in the original Guide, but the nation’s success in beating the Depression and the Axis left Illinoisans (to borrow a phrase from a later day) feeling good about themselves again. The change can be heard in the tone of the 1947 book’s additions; in place of the wry asides of the original we find a tone of self-congratulation, even smugness.
The first version of the Guide had scanted religion, which caused legitimate complaint. The history of religion’s role in Illinois history would be a real page-turner, as ecclesiastical histories go. Religion had been an ordering force in the state’s development, certainly. But Illinois’s wide open space offered rooms for dozens of separatist sects, with predictable results. Illinois’s own civil war—the expulsion of the Mormons from Nauvoo—happened in the 1840s rather than the 1860s, and was sparked by religion, not race. Doctrinal disputes among the country churches busted up more friendships than politics or sex, and the effects of churchly conformism and Puritanism on small town life set in motion the plots of a hundred novels and memoirs. Yet the new chapter on religion in the 1947 edition opened with trumpets describing Illinois’s robust church membership and number of churches. After providing capsule histories of the politer sects, the account concluded:
Fostered by the American belief in religious freedom millions of Illinois citizens dwell in harmony and understanding. In a region where worshipers meet in cities, villages and crossroads churches, religious tolerance is at its best and such is the aim of the present-day leaders of the state.
A ringing sentiment—ringing because, in a state in which Jews and even Roman Catholics were still barred from many offices and clubs, it was so hollow.
In 1974, a second revised edition of the 1939 FWP guide was put out by Hastings House, a commercial publisher in New York, under the editorship of Harry Hansen. The new version unfortunately fell well short of its predecessors in both frankness and style. Readers in 1939 learned that Galena “perches on the terraces cut by the old Fever River, a novel sight to eyes accustomed to the prairie flatness;” in 1974 it was explained that Galena “is built on terraces eroded by the river and streets are on different levels.”] Of Elgin, the first two editions of the FWP’s Illinois reported that it possessed an excellent art museum, zoo, and park system, and passed on the remark of a Boston reporter who wrote, “‘A midwest factory town is not the place where one would ordinarily look for such things.’” By the 1970s no one, least of all Midwest factory towns, wanted to be called a Midwest factory town, even in the course of being complimented for being something more than that.
These and a hundred similar telling asides disappeared from Hastings’ new version. They were replaced by Chamber of Commerce pap—statistics on library circulation and other proof of uplift. Also took into account latest fashion in euphemism; in the 1930s, the Lincoln State School was described as a home for the feeble-minded; by the 1970s, it was more circumspectly referred to as ”an institution for the mentally handicapped.”
Rivers of America
In the 1930s, Americans did as all people tend to do when facing an uninviting future, and looked to the past for reassurance. They did so in sufficient numbers to constitute a market that the publishing house of Farrar & Rinehart and its corporate successors sought to exploit with its Rivers of America Series. Debuted in 1937, these volumes would (as John Hallwas describes them) re-tell the story of our nation as a folk saga and thus “kindle the imagination of average Americans and bring them into contact with their predecessors and their countrymen.” The authors were not historians but poets and novelists, who were assumed to be able to communicate truths that were beyond mere historians.
The Rivers of America may have been, as Hallwas says, “probably the most grandiose literary venture ever concocted in America”—eventually 65 titles were put out—but it was also, as far as Illinois is concerned, one of the more disappointing. Illinois got several books out of Skinner’s epic series—James Gray’s The Illinois (Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1940), Edgar Lee Masters’ The Sangamon (1942, republished in 1988 by the University of Illinois Press), Harry Hansen’s The Chicago (Rinehart, 1942), and William E. Wilson’s The Wabash (J. J. Little and Ives Company, 1940). They will strike many readers today as a little too self-consciously colorful, even quaint; then as now, average Americans preferred to have their imaginations about our national folklore kindled by Hollywood, and writers strove futilely to fit the big screen onto the small page.
James Gray’s The Illinois and Edgar Lee Masters’ The Sangamon are reviewed by me here.
Graham Hutton was a British economist assigned to the Chicago office of Great Britain’s Foreign Office during World War II. His experience inspired Midwest At Noon (University of Chicago Press, 1946), a treatise in which Hutton sought to explain the history and culture of the place that the author believed was ”widely misinterpreted and greatly misunderstood.”
No less a critic than Bernard De Voto thought it one of the best books ever written about the Midwest. To the extent that what Hutton had to say about the Midwest was true of Illinois—and most of it was—Midwest At Noon qualifies as an Illinois book. Parts of it are out of date of course, but Hutton’s affectionate but unblinking account remains worth reading on religion, schooling, race, and other delicate topics that Illinoisans avoid in polite conversation even today. Happily for readers, Midwest at Noon was reprinted in 1990 by the Northern Illinois University Press.
Millions of travelers each year still want to visit Illinois. They come looking for history or a new home or a factory site or the quickest route to Wisconsin. Strangers to the state do not make up the whole of this market; a less obvious but larger readership exists in the form of weekending locals. Chicagoans and Downstaters each remain remarkably ignorant of the others’ world, and to that extent are aliens in their own state, and like the emigrating Brit or German or Swede of the 1830s must rely on printed guides to tell them the where and what, the how and how much of life there.
Today’s audiences are amply catered to by the commercial press; query the Web site of any sizable bookstore for “Illinois guide” and you will get more than 200 hits. Even a middling public library will have dozens of guides to Illinois and Chicago on offer—guides to Chicago dining and shopping, guides to hiking, fishing, birding, geology, cycling, antiquing, architecture, “family fun” trips, haunted places. But while most of these guides meet a high standard of usefulness, few aspire to probe more deeply than a Sunday paper travel feature.
Few of the products of the bigger commercial houses—Fodors, Rough Guide, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and the rest—offer much in the way of historical insight, but they are more useful in finding local historic sites than in explaining why they are considered historic. Locally published guide books tend toward the boosterish, and the more specialized ones—offering information on attractions from antiques to bike trails to haunted houses—are usually no better than they need to be.
The classic work detailing the peopling of Illinois by Euro-Americans was written by Arthur Clinton Boggess, whose The Settlement of Illinois, 1778-1830 was published in 1908 and reprinted by University Microfilms in 1968. Scarcely less useful is William V. Pooley’s The Settlement of Illinois from 1830 to 1850, which also dates from 1908, and also was reprinted in 1968 by University Microfilms. James E. Davis's Frontier Illinois (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) is a major work that updates and extends its predecessors.
Illinois figures importantly in John H. Garland’s textbook, The North American Midwest: A Regional Geography (Wiley, 1955). A more recent treatment is Ronald E. Nelson’s Illinois: A Geographical Survey (Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1996). Some readers might find that Douglas K. Meyer’s Making the Heartland Quilt: A Geographical History of Settlement and Migration in Early-Nineteenth-Century Illinois (Southern Illinois University Press, 2000) needs translation from Academic-ese. (Referring to immigrants’ preferences for certain settlements, he writes of their “destination proclivities.”)
The geography of Downstate Illinois has never gotten the book the topic deserves. Chicago has three. The classic account for forty years was Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press,1969 and 1973). Its interpretations might be superseded but it is hard to imagine another book matching its lavish use of maps and photos. Long the standard, the book went through 13 printings until a new edition was released in 2005.
Chicago, Metropolis of the Mid-continent by Irving Cutler (fourth edition with a foreword by James F. Marran, Southern Illinois University Press, 2006) offers a comprehensive portrayal of the growth and development of Chicago from a mudhole to today's city. John C. Hudson, director of the geography program and environmental sciences program at Northwestern University, is the author of Chicago: A Geography of the City and Its Region (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), the first original the first geography of the Windy City to appear in more than thirty years. Full of facts.
Also recommended is Chicago in Maps: 1612 to the Present by Robert Holland by Holland, Robert. New York Rizzoli 2005 collection of historical maps, complete with commentary by enthusiast Holland (philosophy, Hofstra U.) includes the first maps of the region and the frontier town, the city before and after the fire, its water sources, its hidden worlds (stock yards, dens of sin, gangland, jazz), and the city as it grew to become in the twentieth century. All maps in full color.
This Day In Illinois History by Jeff Ruetsche. (Emmis Books, 2005) and Illinois Trivia compiled by Robert Cromie (Rutledge Hill Press, 1992) reward browsing. So does the Illinois Biographical Dictionary. Comprising capsule bios culled from from various public domain sources, this is an eccentric collection. All congressmen, of whatever lack of distinction, and minor popular entertainers such as Bruce Dern are treated, while those who are not include the likes of Charles Yerkes, Amos Worth, Brand Whitlock, John Walker, Jonathan Baldwin Turner, Theodore Thomas, and William Maxwell, to name only a few of the missing from Volume 2. Still, while not comprehensive, the IDBN is full of facts not handy to come by anywhere else.
Illinois Fact Book and Historical Almanac, 1673–1968 by John Clayton (Southern Illinois University Press, 1970) was published in honor of the state’s sesquicentennial. It lists public office holders, manufacturing data, and population data—all, unfortunately, rather dated.
Virgil J. Vogel studied places named by or for Native Americans; the results appear in Indian Place Names in Illinois (Illinois State Historical Society, 1963). Illinois Place Names ( Illinois State Historical Society, 1969) was compiled by James N. Adams. And edited by William E. Keller, does the same for nearly fourteen thousand place names (many of places that no longer exist) as revealed in county histories, atlases, newspapers, and post office records. (An updated edition came out in 1989).
Place Names of Illinois by Edward Callary (University of Illinois Press, 2008) goes these works one better. While including fewer entries—around three thousand towns, cities, and other geographical features—the author placed each in its historical and cultural context. An interesting general introduction considers Illinois place names in the context of general patterns of place-naming in the U.S.