The Where, What, How, and How Much
On Illinois guidebooks
See Illinois (unpublished)
This here is the preface to my unpublished guidebook to Illinois history and culture, in which I remark on Illinois guidebooks as a genre. (See Publications for more about that project.) I revised it for The Corn Latitudes.
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.
Honest 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.
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 other’s world, and to that extent both are aliens in their own state; like the emigrating Brit or German or Swede of the 1830s, they must rely on printed guides to tell them the where and what, the how and the how much of life there.
Sometimes that ignorance is simple forgetting. Over and over in Illinois, the history of each human occupation of a region has been obliterated by its successor, leaving the stories of their regional forbears a mystery. The Euro-Americans knew no more about the Kickapoo than they knew about the ancient tribes of Israel—indeed, some thought Illinois’s ancient Indians had been one of those tribes—but Native American peoples had lost track of the region’s pre-white history too. Curators of the Under the Prairie Museum in Elkhart reminded visitors that a stone ax on display, which was found on the nearby Pine Ridge Farm, “would have seemed as strange to a Kickapoo Indian in 1800 as it does to us today.”
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. Indeed, measured by the number of titles in print, ours is a golden age of Illinois guidebooks. Sitting next to the inevitable guides to Chicago dining and shopping one finds special-interest 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.
The need for a guidebook that did probe more deeply has long been plain. I imagined one that would be not just a travel how-to and would be as useful in the study as on the road. Fans of the the 1930s Federal Writers Project guide will be disappointed that the book I had in mind would not (as the FWP guide does) enlighten them about the composition of the roof of the old Scottish Rite Cathedral in Moline (Bangor slate) or the illustrious dead in Warren’s Elmwood Cemetery (Abner Dalrymple, who led the National League in Home Runs in 1885) or the weight of the Parrott naval cannon that sits on the Ogle County Courthouse grounds in Oregon (9,722 pounds). In the place of such arcana would be the insights of the scholarship that has been applied to Illinois themes in the past thirty years by such thinkers as Daniel Elazar, William Cronon, John Mack Faragher, Liz Cohen, Daniel Bluestone, Jane Adams, and William Julius Wilson, among many others.
Finally, this plea: In 1918 historian Theodore Pease noted a few of the problems writing a history of Illinois that bear on the production of guidebooks as well. The past is a place too, Pease pointed out, and one that is only somewhat more difficult to describe than the present. Pease lamented the deficiencies of the old newspapers and contemporary travelers’ accounts on which he had to rely. “Under such limitations of information,” he concluded dolefully, “the picture of Illinois . . . if it is to be accurate, must be somewhat indistinct.” The risk is any picture of today’s Illinois, if it is to be distinctive, must be somewhat inaccurate. ●