Some Books of Illinois Fiction and Verse
A selective, if not select, list of works
See Illinois (unpublished)
While never passing muster as history or anthropology, novels and poems that draw upon Illinois for settings and events often add to our understanding of both. Here are brief descriptions of Illinois-based works of fiction and verse.
This list should not be taken as definitive or comprehensive. For that I recommend other lists. As I note elsewhere on this site, John E. Hallwas has compiled a Bicentennial Reading List for Illinois public libraries for the Illinois State Historical Society; 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, although a few are mentioned below. See also Illinois! Illinois!, a compendium of capsule reviews of hundreds of Illinois-based novels and story collections.
Chicagolandia gets the plaudits for its novelists, but Downstate has a rich tradition as well. The DeKalb environs are the setting of quite a few lesser novels, most of them published in the 1930s and ‘40s by Elizabeth Corbett, an author of what have been described as "nice novels about nice people." A more recent example is Prisoner's Dilemma, by Richard Powers (William Morrow: Beech Tree Books, 1988), a family drama set in DeKalb, where the author went to high school in the 1970s.
Oak Park was the adult home to two men who were among the 20th century’s more widely read authors, of very different kinds. For 25 years the Rev. William Eleazar Barton presided at the First Congregational Church when he was not churning out sermons, church manuals, and parables that found many readers of Christian works. (Barton once attributed Christ’s success to the fact that he was, while resident in Bethany, a suburbanite.) But Barton is also remembered by a larger world for his equally profuse writings on Abraham Lincoln. Barton published 13 books on the Great Emancipator; his 1925 two-volume biography was for a time considered important, although it is little read today. He also found time to instruct the world on women, God, books, Walt Whitman, and (in 1923) Chicago in books that found a wide readership in the 1920s.
Among Evanston’s native writers of note is Edward “Pat” Tanner. As Patrick Dennis, Tanner published the novel for which he is best known, indeed, for which he is known at all—Auntie Mame. Mame dwelt on the best-seller lists for two years in the 1950s and was adapted for both Broadway and the Hollywood screen. Tanner was born in Chicago in 1921 but grew up, unhappily, in Evanston. In his day he was one of the country’s more popular comic writers; at one point he had three novels on the New York Times bestsellers list at once.
In his private life Tanner was a closeted gay and an inveterate poseur whose life was worth a novel in its own right. (Late in life he became a butler.) His work is uneven, but at his best Tanner was one of the very few Chicagoland writers since the days of Dunne and Hecht who was really funny; his saucy comedies of manners make him a major minor writer.
Dave Eggers grew up in Lake Forest, (which he describes in one biography as “close to Chicago,” which is accurate in neither geographic or cultrural terms) and studied painting and journalism in attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which not close to Chicago at all. His memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a surprise must-read in 2000. In an interview, Eggers recalled himself at 13, “sitting in my orange-carpeted bedroom in ostensibly cutting-edge Lake Forest, Illinois, subscribing to the Village Voice and reading the earliest issues of Spin, I thought I had my ear to the railroad tracks of avant garde America.” Thinking that Lake Forest was even ostensibly cutting edge is one of those things that every 13-year-old comes to be embarrassed by.
J. F. Powers, whose novels Morte d'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green are widely praised if not widely enough read, was born in Jacksonville in 1917, where he lived until he was seven. Of his short stories (which are considered very good) several borrowed characters settings or themes from his Illinois years.
William Maxwell’s essential works from central Illinois are his stories (many of these works are set in Lincoln or Draperville, Maxwell’s only slightly fictionalized Lincoln) and which have been collected in All the Days and Nights. Of his novels, They Came Like Swallows (1937) and 1980’s So Long, See You Tomorrow draw upon his years in Lincoln.
Francis Grierson’s Valley of Shadows: Sangamon Sketches (Introduction by Robert Bray, University of Illinois Press, 1990) is a memoir of slavery agitation that seems to have been borrowed from other writer’s recollections, but Robert Bray called it an Illinois masterpiece.
Many writers of fiction include central Illinois locales merely to give their characters the opportunity to meet Abraham Lincoln, with results that range from the sentimental to the silly. A few authors have aimed higher. J. Edward Day was that rarest of artists, the novel-writing Postmaster General (he served in the post under President Kennedy.) About his Bartholf Street  one critic noted the book’s “interesting ideological views;” the novelist himself later called them “unsound ideas.”
Jean Rykoff set her Timble trilogy, Dear Ones All, Rites of Passage and Voyage In, Voyage Out (New York: The Viking Press, 1961, 1963, and 1966) in Springfield during the 1950s. Rykoff portrays life there as melodramatic in the extreme, which life in Springfield in the 1950s manifestly was not. The indefatigable readers of Illinois! Illinois! note its soap opera-ish plots, but conclude, “in comparison with other titles representing central and southern Illinois, it ranks rather high.“
The Lemon Jelly Cake was a hit when it came out in 1952, and made a star out of author Madeline Babcock Smith. Smith was the poetry columnist for the Decatur daily newspaper, which then as now was not usually thought of as a platform for a national writing career. Rochester, then a farm town, now a suburb of Springfield, was the model for her town of Tory, Illinois.
Augusta Lyons got the revenge for what many a bored small-college professor’s wife has endured by writing Season of Desire, a 1961 novel that excoriates the bigotry of a small town that the author called Canaanville, but which was all too recognizable to fellow residents as Carlinville.
The Grand Prairie of east-central Illinois has inspired more than one notable work of fiction. Romances of the “Grand Paraira’s” settlement in the form of “breaking of the land” novels were being written into the 1930s. One such was Joseph Kirkland, whose best book—perhaps, as critic Robert Bray notes, the only one he had in him—was Zury: The Meanest Man in Spring County, published in 1887. The book was iconoclastic for its time, lacking the coating of romance that writers then poured over their stories as their heroes might have poured molasses over their johnnycakes.
Mary Hartwell Catherwood made herself enormously popular in the latter 1800s by writing small town and historical romances such as Spanish Peggy: A Story of Young Illinois, Stone (New York City), 1899. Catherwood wed a Hoopeston man in 1882 and lived now and again until 1897, but set no stories in east central Illinois, where romance has always been scarce as trees.
In The American Years (University of Illinois Press, 1988, with an introduction by Robert Bray), native Harold Sinclair used literary techniques borrowed from John Dos Passos to chart Bloomington’s rise. The book enjoyed a modest national success. It was widely and for the most part favorably reviewed by the national press, and it was a book club selection. See also my view of the book here.
Looking to the south, Paul Angle found Vandalia’s James Hall, whom he called “the first Illinois man of letters”—that is, “first” as in “earliest.” Hall wrote stories in which tried to convey the lore of what was then still the wild West. Paul Stroble’s opinion—that the stories often are flawed by sentimentalism, one-dimensional characterization, and moralism—seems fair enough. Most of the region’s writers have been happy to follow Hall’s example and recycle folk tales rather than create new ones, as John Driver did for his 1911 novel, Americans All: A Romance of the Great War, which borrowed from the life of John A. Logan, which was better plotted.
Historians have usually rendered the saga of the unionization of Egypt’s coal fields as class struggle, or as romance, with miners playing Don Quixotes carrying pickaxes rather than lances. It might have interested a Tolstoy. It didn’t get one, but several able writers gave it a try.
In 1962, Howard Fast, author of Spartacus and many other popular fictions, wrote Power. The book transforms incidents known from Herrin, West Frankfort, and other southern Illinois coal towns into a representative saga of a union that resembles, in ways that are more than coincidental, John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers.
Robert Coover’s flawed but impressive first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, won the William Faulkner Award for the best first novel of 1966. Set in a town that he calls West Condon, Coover's novel is an imaginative elaboration of a mine disaster based on the explosion in the Orient No. 2 mine between West Frankfort and Benton in 1951 in which one hundred and nineteen men died. Coover spent his youth in Herrin—his father owned a newspaper there—and he covered the events while home from college. (In addition to this novel, Herrin provided Coover with the subject for his first published story, "Blackdamp," which appeared in 1961.) The best parts of the book are grippingly told; few other accounts bring home what it must feel like to be, and die, underground.
Finally, Thornton Wilder set his 1967 novel The Eighth Day partly in the southern Illinois’s made-up “Coaltown;” the book won that year’s National Book Award, and is described as an old-fashioned saga that is probably read less than it deserves.
Lanford Wilson’s play The Mound Builders, which won an Obie in the 1975 season, takes place in the fictional Blue Shoals, Illinois, where the Wabash, Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers come together. The play deals with a team of archeologists who are racing to retrieve priceless relics from Native-American burial mounds before they are swallowed by a new man-made lake that government officials think will become a major tourist attraction.
James Jones and the Handy Writers' Colony by George Hendrick, Helen Howe, and Don Sackrider (Southern Illinois Press, 2001) recalls what has been described fairly as one of the most unusual writing colonies ever established in the United States, which nurtured the author of From Here To Eternity in Marshall County.
Politics has inspired many works of fiction, not counting state budget proposals, campaign biographies, newspaper articles. To date no serious work of fiction has taken up statehouse politics, although in 1912, reformer-turned novelist Brand Whitlock published a novel about The Thirteenth District, an imagined central Illinois congressional district. Admirers call it one of the few successful novels dealing with American politics at the grass-roots level, and rank it with work of William Dean Howells (faint raise to today’s readers). Detractors call it weakly plotted and sentimental, a reform tract with dialogue. (The horse this particular author was riding was direct elections.)
Authors of books for younger readers call Illinois home. Central Illinois alone has given us Jamie Gilson, the prolific and award-winning author of humorous books for middle-grade readers, was born in Beardstown in 1933. Virginia Eifert, for 27 years ending in 1966 the editor, author, and illustrator of Living Museum, the Illinois State Museum monthly, published many books (mostly on nature subjects) aimed at younger readers. Richard Peck, the prolific and much praised writer of novels for young adults, has set many of his novels in small towns based on such real places as his old home town of Cerro Gordo (A Year Down Yonder and its sequel, A Long Way from Chicago), Illiopolis (Dreamland Lake, 1973) and the farm country near Taylorville (Fair Weather, 2001).
Illinois has inspired a good crop of poetry. In “Jim Bludso,” his best-known poem, John Hay (see Military Tract) depicted a famous riverboat race between the “Prairie Belle” and the “Movastar,” the latter boat bearing the name, as rendered in central Illinoisan, of Mauvaise Terre Creek.
Edgar Lee Masters’ enduring work of course is Spoon River Anthology. The fastidious reader will note that Spoon River is in western Illinois, but we include it here because, the author’s relocation notwithstanding, the imagined village of Spoon River is in fact an amalgam of the two Illinois towns in which Masters grew up, one of which was Petersburg in Menard County. (The edition of the poems annotated by John E. Hallwas and published by the University of Illinois Press in 1992 is especially useful.)
Vachel Lindsay imagined Springfield most eccentrically in 1920s in The Golden Book of Springfield, which offers the Springfield of 2018 as imagined by the members of the Springfield Prognosticators Club. The wider world knows him for his poems, several of which the capital city figures centrally. Among the best known of these are “Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight,” ”The Eagle That Is Forgotten,” (about governor John Peter Altgeld), and “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” Lindsay’s poetic recollection of the day in 1896 when Bryan came to Springfield to campaign. Such lesser works as “The Soul of the City Receives the Gift of the Holy Spirit,” ”Our Mother Pocahontas,” "The Tale of the Tiger-Tree,”"On the Building of Springfield,” and “Springfield Magical,” are beloved mainly by local patriots.
After having spent decades being a dead poet in every sense, Vachel Lindsay has enjoyed a small vogue. His letters were published in 1979, and in 1999, Rosehill Press of Springfield published Tramping Across America: Travel Writings of Vachel Lindsay, which combined the poet’s two travel books. Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914) and A Handy Guide for Beggars (1916). The Art of the Moving Picture, a precocious appreciation of the then-new medium, was reprinted in 2000.
In his 20s, Dave Etter began to make a living as an editor for various Chicagoland publishing houses, but his life was made in what is today the far western suburb of Elburn, in Kane County. (Scholar James T. Jones once noted perceptively that Etter settled into Elburn as a convert settles into a new religion.)
Etter's chef d'oeuvre is Alliance, Illinois. This popular work appeared first in 1978 and was expanded in 1983; the work consists of approximately two hundred monologues spoken by townspeople a la Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Etter has often been praised as the successor to Masters, Lindsay, and Sandburg as the pre-eminent poet of Illinois, although it may be more accurate (and scarcely less complimentary) to compare him to “Prairie Home Companion’s” Garrison Keillor.
Among more recent poets, John Knoepfle lived just outside Springfield for many years, and his Poems from the Sangamon (1985) contains artful musings on topics from the vanished Kickapoo to a nuclear power plant. ●