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On the Essence of Illinois-ness

An introduction to a book

See Illinois (unpublished)

June 2003

In which I try to tell my readers a bit about my guide to Illinois history and culture. (That aborted projected is described in Publications.) Not a bad introduction to Illinois itself, I now see. 


The prairie, the frontier, the perfect farm, it's from here
The fortress, the faker, the cornerstone, the baker
The dancer, the fisher, audition and the disher
The boxer, the fetcher, the chewing gum, dream catcher

Sufjan Stevens, “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders Part I: The Great Frontier,” from Illinois


 In 1997, Martin E. Marty, University of Chicago Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity, stood before an audience of people nearly as accomplished as he. The setting was the governor’s mansion in Springfield, the occasion the then-annual Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities, and the topic one that has vexed the deep thinkers at the State of Illinois’s tourism office for years—what, exactly, constitutes “Illinois-hood”?


Marty explained that, as a sanctioned political entity, Illinois is very young, having become a state only in 1818. As an idea—what the population historians call a “destination image”—it is not much older, having been born in the geographic fantasies of Spanish and French explorers in the 1500s. (The Indians did not conceive of sovereignty in terms of land; for them, we must assume, “Illinois” was merely a place.) Illinois was a place that people went to because it was better than the place they left. The result is that Illinois was usually defined in terms of what it isn’t—a Kentucky with clear land titles, a Virginia with unexhausted soil, a Tennessee without slavery, an Ohio with cheap land.


The state’s rapid development in the Euro-American era proved to be a protracted adolescence in which the search for a settled identity was repeatedly undone by events. Illinois became an American territory while it was still a French civilization, later a U.S. state while it was still largely a Native American land, and most recently an urban industrial state that retains the look and feel of the farm.


To this day, Illinois can seem like everyplace else and like no place in particular. From the start, the place names, architecture, food, and amusements of the people were second-hand, borrowed from the newcomers’ respective places of origin and, later, from each other. Time has blurred the evidence of origins even further. One would be hard put to infer that the Kankakee County town of Bourbonnais was named after a French Canadian fur trapper from the way its citizens pronounce it—“bar-BOH-nus.”


Earnest Calkins wrote in 1937, “The old Northwest Territory, Virginia’s gift to the nation, ended at the banks of the Mississippi, but Iowa belongs with Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. They are of the same general character, topographically of one piece, having a common history.” Saul Bellow in the 1950s once ventured beyond the ends of the el lines to do a magazine piece about Illinois and found that Illinois not only was indsitinguishable from the rest of the Midwest, but that the Midwest was becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the world. "How was I to distinguish it from Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, or Missouri?” he wrote later. 


The houses were built and furnished in the same style, the cows were milked by the same machines, the programs broadcast by CBS and NBC were alike in Rockford, Illinois, and Danbury, Connecticut, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The magazines, the hairstyles, the salad dressings, the film stars, were not merely American but international. What but slight dif­ferences in the dinner menus and the cut of the clothes distinguished the comfortable life of middle-class Illinois from that of Cologne or Frankfurt? 


Marty noted that people expect some congruity between political entities such as the State of Illinois and the cultures they encompass. Such congruity provides the contours of a civic identity—in Marty’s nice phrase, it “abets the focused loyalty of the patriot.” Unfortunately, the concept of Illinois-ness is so flimsy that it can support no caricature based on it. There is today no Illinois equivalent of the Southern redneck or the Texan braggart or the rude New Yorker or the laid-back Californian.


Partly this owes to the fact that Illinois is less than the sum of its parts. The state is a jumble of regions that are dissimilar if not antagonistic in their interests and political inclinations. “It is almost impossible to imagine a northern Illinoisan finding anything but an aspect of political identity by reference to the ‘Egypt’ of our south,” said Marty, “or vice versa.” To which Marty’s audience of government leaders at the mansion must have responded with silent “Amens.”


Apart from their common government in Springfield, each of these Illinois regions has as much or more in common—in other words, enjoys more of Marty’s congruities—with its neighboring states than it does with the rest of Illinois. The people of northern Illinois agitated to join Wisconsin in the 1830s, and elements of southern Illinois society agitated on behalf of the Southern cause in the 1860s.


State of Illinois government agencies draw regional boundaries convenient to their purposes, as do newspaper publishers, geographers, ecologists, and media marketers; no two are exactly the same. Geographers, academic and amateur, have attempted to impose an intellectual congruity on Illinois by imaginatively redrawing the political map. Most such cartographic fantasies abandon the arbitrary lines imposed by the old Northwest Ordinance and define statehood by new borders that follow the outline of  coherent cultural and geographical groupings. Probably the best known of these geographer’s maps is the one that journalist Joel Garreau drew for his 1981 book, The Nine Nations of North America. Garreau argued that the U.S. was not one nation but nine, divided topographically by mountains, deserts, and rivers and culturally by architecture, music, language, and ways of making a living.


Garreau’s Illinois sprawls across parts of three of his geographic nations. The 27 counties that lie south of old U.S. 40—Marty’s Egypt—belong to Garreau’s “Dixie.” Chicago lies at the westernmost outpost of the industrial Northeast (“the Foundry”) where it functions as a gateway to the adjacent agricultural Midwest (the “Breadbasket,” which takes in the northern two-thirds of Illinois) through which values and goods flow between the two.


One may quibble with the construction of these improved Illinoises—indeed, quibbling is part of the pleasure of contemplating them. Garreau’s tripartite Illinois, for example, while more congruous than the present state, is itself too simple. Chicago and its suburbs plausibly belong where Garreau put them, amidst an urban agglomeration that includes Wisconsin’s Milwaukee and Indiana’s Gary/Hammond. And Illinois’ southern third would indeed sit more comfortably as part of Kentucky, the latter being the place from which, in demographic terms, it largely sprang. But a satellite view makes plain that the old Grand Prairie of east-central Illinois is an extension of rural mid-Indiana. Metro-East belongs with the St. Louis that gave rise to that west-looking suburban accretion. Illinois’s northernmost fifteen counties are kindred, topographically and culturally, to Wisconsin, just as much of the old Military Tract that makes up western Illinois shares everything important with eastern Iowa except its legislators.

Conventional wisdom, however, holds that there are only two distinct regions in Illinois—Downstate and Chicago, the latter sometimes including not only the city proper but its suburbs under the lamentable but undeniably convenient term “Chicagoland.” More knowing observers will add a third—deep southern Illinois, the “Egypt” of legend. 


That duality is nowhere more conscious and contentious than in Chicago. As is true of New York city and state, Chicago and the rest of Illinois developed in the same state but in different worlds. Even so, the differences between Chicago and Downstate can be overstated. Generations of politicians have insisted on it; so (to be fair to its politicians) have many citizens of each realm who find in their cross-state neighbors a contrast that is the measure of their own virtue. It is the political equivalent of the popular literary formulae of the 1800s that pitted Virtuous Country versus Evil City. The differences were exaggerated then—critic Robert Bray has pointed out that Hamlin Garland and other better writers on Illinois recognized a healthy continuity between the urban and the rural—and they are considered outmoded today.


Chicago for example is not as different as it likes to think it is from its country cousins. The themes and sub-themes of the city’s famous rise and (relative) decline—industrialization, immigration, ethnic and labor strife, tension between antagonistic political cultures—differ only in scale from those of most of the rest of the state. Chicago in fact is an Illinois city in more than its location, being to the world city what the Downstate is presumed to be to  Chicago, a bumptious rube. 


If politics offers no popular definition of Illinois-ness, might we find an answer  in anthropology? Does some quality of Illinois-ness inhere in the people and their ways? Illinoisans of all regions and eras have tended to share certain collective traits, a cultural family resemblance that describe Illinoisans even if they do not, by themselves, define them. They are not exactly conservative but cautious and pragmatic people who like to laugh but distrust wit, who believe in God more than government but who’ve learned better than to trust either one entirely. Graham Hutton, a Briton visiting in the 1940s, found that Illinoisans still exhibited what he called the “confused restlessness” that other observers had noted in the 1840s. But these traits are common enough across the Midwest, indeed across America. They are distinct enough to distinguish an Illinoisan from a German but not from a Hoosier.


Marty touched on several other defining traits of Illinois.


Heterogeneity  The Illinois landscape surface consists largely of glacial drift, which is what geologists call the loose jumble of rock debris left behind by the ice sheets. This debris—the foundation of all building and the raw material for soils—varies in size from boulders to dust. Illinois’s social geology is like that too. The then-typical Illinoisan struck the authors of the 1939 Federal Writers Project guide to Illinois as “first and foremost, a heterogeneous character.”  Donald Culcross Peattie, in A Prairie Grove, which was published at about the same time, gazed upon his fellow citizens and saw the same character. “There is no formula for [them],” Peattie wrote, “and you cannot make a class or theory out of them. ”


What Illinoisans—many of them still only a generation away from Europe—had in common was difference. Loyalties are local, even parochial, which is why the cultural identity of the state as a whole is fuzzy. Chicagoans not only have more in common with other big-city-ans than they do with non-urban Illinoisans, they feel they have more in common. The same is true of the state’s farmers, its Seventh Day Adventists, its socialists. Marty argues that the risks to the commonwealth of Us vs. Them politics are modest nonetheless. He noted that what is for the moment called diversity was nicely balanced in Illinois. Some groups have enjoyed dominance in their sphere, but the sheer number of them prevented the state’s polyglot society from mere tribalism. “There is too much dynamism, there are too many confusions,” he said, “to allow for radical simplifications of that murderous sort.” Twenty-some years later, that optimism seems less well-founded as small but significant minorities urge that Chicago be severed from the rest of the state or presume to exempt themselves from obeying laws passed by what they see as hostile majorities.


Centrality  Illinois is both victim and beneficiary of its geography. Its centrality was essential to its economic success in the 1800s, sitting as it did between the rich East and the resource-rich West. As long as the national economy depends on moving stuff by truck, train, or plane, most of the stuff that moves must still go through Illinois, which guarantees the state’s economic relevance as a point of distribution if not origin for many goods. But geography presumably will matter less in a future in which products move by satellite and wire and in which more tangible goods come to Chicago from manufacturing capitals on newer, faraway frontiers. Poised as it is between the more energetic East and the more pleasant West, Illinois’s centrality now looks a lot like remoteness. In either event its location will remain decisive to its identity.


Small-townness Illinoisans are no less reluctant urbanites than other Americans. It is a rare Illinois native older than 50 who does not count a farm or small town in her background. As for its newer immigrants, virtually none—not boot-heel Italians or Polish peasants or delta sharecroppers or Mexican villagers—brought experience of city life with them to Illinois. The city is where opportunity is, but the village remains home to such people. One cannot understand Illinois’s late 20th century social landscape until one realizes that the old village persists everywhere in new forms, from the Chicago ethnic parish and the gated enclave to the suburban subdivision and the exurban mini-estate and the farm-town-turned-bedroom-community.


Mobility  The social history of Illinois consists in large part of a series of migrations into, out of, and within the state. More recently it is the region’s social and economic climates that turned harsh, and Indian populations waxed and waned with  chronic warring over furs, and later by forced relocations as peoples to the Great Lakes and eastern forests were pushed west and south into Illinois by white expansion from the east.


The later migrations of Euro-American settlers into the state are well-known and matched since then by other mass flights such as the “goin’ North” of millions of African-Americans from the South to Chicago, and most recently the exodus of job-seekers from Illinois to the Sunbelt, during which an Illinoisan could be defined as a Texan who doesn’t know it yet.


As for movements within the borders, flints and bones make a record of human restlessness that goes back 12,000 years, as presettlement peoples moved to uplands or river valleys and back in response to swings in climate. More recent was the movement within Illinois from farms to cities and later from cities to suburbs, what some call the largest internal migration ever, Since the 1980s, population shifts within the state are rendering the old Chicago-Downstate dichotomy moot; Illinois-ness increasingly means Greater-Chicago-ness.


Illinois has enjoyed relative  social peace  in the post-civil rights era. This comity is explained more by social mobility than by any superior forbearance of today’s Illinoisan compared to their choleric ancestors. Modern Illinoisans keep social friction from becoming combustible by simply moving out of contact with irksome neighbors. Rather than attempt to rearrange the social order, disgruntled citizens have rearranged their cities instead.


Mobility shapes the state’s personality. On one hand, civic loyalties are weakened; the only real estate most Illinoisans will die for is the lot they have equity in. On the other hand, mobility explains why Illinois-ness persists over time in the face of demographic flux. For example, what the sociologists call individualistic political culture, imported in the first half of the 1800s with settlers from the upland South and the mid-Atlantic states, persists today, long after the cultural streams that brought it to Illinois have dried up. Subsequent immigrants of like mind—southern Europeans, the Irish, African-Americans, among others—find the place congenial and stay; immigrants otherwise inclined—the reformist, the sybarite, the aesthete—eventually leave. Because Illinois’s population has changed,  Illinois remains unchanged.


Violence  Apart from its geographic extremes, Illinois has a surface of fabled plainness. The landscape is not even perfectly flat (which would be interesting), just flat enough to be perfectly boring. The outcome belies the violence of the process by which mountains of ice marched over an older landscape, first crushing it, then rearranging it into something newer but duller than what was there before.


Illinois’s social landscape was shaped in much the same way. Illinois’s past has been contentious and frequently bloody—wars among and against the Indians, coal miners fighting owners and each other, an armed insurrection against Mormons, race riots in a half dozen cities, Army troops in the streets against strikers. After Lincoln, Illinois is best known abroad as the home of that most romantic of sociopaths, Al Capone, icon of an era whose major holiday is the St. Valentine’s Day’s Massacre.


Certainly there remain neighborhoods in Illinois (not all of them in its bigger cities) that fairly hum with menace. But for the past few decades, Illinois has enjoyed the social and political version of the ice age interglacial, a clement interregnum during which Illinoisans have not been at each other throats. Yes, the state has seen bitter labor disputes such as the strikes in Decatur and Peoria in the 1990s and the vendettas by murderous youth gangs in Chicago. But the violence Illinois is mostly economic—progress by Illinois standards. Large-scale group violence is not known, unless one counts the effect on the state’s nonhuman creatures of Illinois’s plowed-earth policy.


Might the history-makers impose some congruity on the events of Illinois’s past in the same way that geographers have attempted to impose it on the map? Any attempt to root civic identity in history would find the soil deep and rich. Consider the main themes. Illinois’s subjugation by ice and the subsequent botanical invasion. The removal of the Indians and appropriation of the land by Euro-Americans. The transformation of a grasslands ecology by industrialized agriculture. Four decades of industrialization that began in the Civil War, and the progressive reforms that sought to ease its attendant poverty, pollution, and labor strife. The now-40-year contest over civil rights, popularly understood in racial terms, but including one-person-one vote rulings that, by enfranchising urbanites, arguably had even more profound an impact on politics. The re-invigoration of a sclerotic economy after the 1980s that transformed a classic factory-foundry society. The rise of the suburbs to challenge Chicago and Downstate among the contending principalities of the realm.


Sadly, as Marty pointed out in Springfield, very few Illinoisans know much about their state’s history. When Adlai Stevenson was campaigning for governor in 1948, he  referred half seriously to the “Wonderland of Illinois.” The campaign trail was the pampered Stevenson’s first exposure to the place; perhaps one needed to be a stranger to find the place wonderful. It is hard to imagine even a stranger finding it so today. Unexpected, yes, feared, frequently, but wonderful, no. The processes that made Illinois a better place in the past 50 years arguably also made it a duller place. If a guide book in the debunking If-Christ-Came-To-Chicago tradition is not published today it is because one is not needed.


Illinoisans do share a common experience in living memory, however, even if it is only dimly perceived. The epic of Euro-American settlement between roughly 1810 and the 1850s—what the schoolbooks call the frontier era—was only one of several such episodes in which Illinoisans (not excluding Native Americans) undertook the anxious business of peopling a frontier. Illinoisans had scarcely settled the prairie when they were unsettled by the growth of the city, which constituted what is now described as the urban-industrial frontier of the mid-to late 19th century. What the prairie was to the land frontier, Chicago and other Illinois cities were to the urban-industrial frontier. Cities then were the loci of displacement and ruin, out of which came new opportunities.


Frontiers are still being settled in Illinois. Just as the clank of factory gates being shut across the state in the 1970s signaled the end of the old urban/industrial frontier era, yet another new frontier had already opened up—the metropolitan frontier. It was first explored in some places as early as the 1920s and was opened to a full-blown land rush by the 1950s. Here the wilderness to be conquered was the suburban hinterland of Illinois cities. Again the lure was land, brought within reach by massive public subsidy. (What the Homestead Act and the railroad land grant was to the early 1800s the tax-deductible home mortgage and the interstate highway were to the mid-1900s.) Schaumburg, a prototypical Edge City of the auto age, was to the 1970s what Chicago, the prototypical city of the railroad era, was to the 1880s.


From the 1880s and accelerating into the ‘90s, the metropolitan frontier continued to be pushed back from its atrophied city centers, with the automobile doing what the railroads did, bringing ever more land within reach of settlers. Meanwhile there opened up yet another frontier, a cyber-frontier with whose challenges Illinoisans are now struggling. Here the landscape is one of ideas, not space. In it, Edens of opportunity can be anywhere, even in Illinois, where pioneers are laying claims to university campuses or redeveloped rail yards in Chicago or, in a wonderful irony, the same farm towns their frustrated grandparents fled for lack of opportunity.


Admittedly, Illinois does not feel like a frontier society outside of places like Pilsen in Chicago. It is no longer the setting for adventure for its settled citizens; where ancestors were menaced by wolves and malarial mosquitoes today live homeowners who go to bed at night dreading only the local tax assessor. The state can feel settled, almost stagnant, somehow less than the sum of its parts. The future of America stopped briefly in Illinois, at the turn of the past century, and has moved on; the action is on the nation’s coasts. Today Illinois is the place you’re in because haven’t moved to any place better—still less expensive than the coasts, less frenetic, less demanding. What was the Land of Opportunity for the daring is now a refuge for those who are not.


Illinois famously mirrors the U.S. as a whole in its politics, its economy, even its weather. As sociologist Daniel Elazar in 1970 described Illinois, it is “the highly heterogeneous centerpin of the nation” that “embraces within its limits the coming together of the varied cultural and political currents that shape the nation’s life.” If Illinois is no longer the place where the future is invented, as it was for a time, then places like Illinois is where the future is absorbed and accepted into the mainstream—in short, where it becomes American. ●




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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