Singing True

On Chicago, Mike Royko, and Henry Mencken

Illinois Times

March 4, 1982

I had occasion to consider the work of Chicago's famous columnist Mike Royko while helping prepare a script for a one-man show by Springfield actor Kevin Purcell devoted to his work. He was good at a time when few columnists were, but I did not believe that he deserved to be the first winner of the H. L. Mencken Writing Award offered by Mencken's old Baltimore Sun. In the piece I would write that calling Royko the new Mencken risks misunderstanding both men, but I was being polite. Privately, I thought the award demeaned Mencken and in defense of my hero I set out to prove why.

 

The result was unfair in parts—Royko's biography of Dick Daley, Boss, which I don't mention, is very good—but only in parts.

 

The smallest noise rings like a thunderclap when all around it is silence—which brings us, awkwardly, to the subject of Mike Royko. In an era in which publishers are again "united in printing pap" (as Carl Bode has remarked about the 1920s) and journalism threatens to degenerate into merely another species of flummery, Royko's columns in the Chicago Sun-Times are as conspicuous as farts in a church. Royko is not the first great newspaperman to come out of Chicago, although he is one of the very few to stay there. For a lot of people, Chicago without Royko is unthinkable. Indeed, to some Royko is Chicago.

 

I used to read Royko with the diligence I now apply to the soccer scores. For a couple of years back in the early '70s I even subscribed to the now-vanished Chicago Daily News expressly for his column which then ran in that fine paper. He detested many of the same things I detested, which was proof to me that he was a man of high intelligence and purpose. The papers in Springfield were devoted practitioners of the Post school of journalism—Emily Post, that is. They believed that if you can't say something nice about people you shouldn't say anything at all. This rule inevitably excluded much of the political and social landscape from their editorial purview, and Royko's rude bellyaching about Daley and racism and life under the thumb of the muscled overseers of urban USA was music to my ears.

 

It's been five or six years now since I sought out Royko, however; this in spite of the fact that his audience has never been larger, or wider. Royko is increasingly referred to as the Mencken of the '80s, a compliment conveyed officially last fall when the Baltimore Sun, the bard's old paper, gave Royko its first annual H. L. Mencken Writing Award. To those of us who honor Mencken, calling Royko the new Mencken risks misunderstanding both men.

 

At first glance these comparisons seem no more odious than most. The two men share a contempt for American politicians and American beer, finding both insipid. Both started at the bottom of the newspaper business, as beat reporters. Each was flattered (Mencken in 1948 at a Progressive Party convention, Royko in 1981 by the Illinois General Assembly) when a major political body (quoting Alistair Cooke) "officially deigned to regret his existence." Finally they share an intense love of their home towns. HLM so preferred Baltimore that he commuted to New York every fourth week during the year to edit The Smart Set rather than move from his house on Hollins Street. When the Chicago Daily News folded, rumors were rife that Royko would hie off to Washington, D.C. a place which offered him the same scope for endeavor that a statehouse renovation contract offers an ambitious architect in Springfield. But Royko too stayed home; just as Chicago is unthinkable without Royko, so Royko is unthinkable without Chicago.

 

Ultimately, however, tagging Royko as the Mencken of the '80s is merely another of those labels which journalists so carelessly apply, like "right-to-lifers." A reader knowing Mencken only by his being constantly compared to Royko, will find little to remind her of Royko. Royko is a champion of the working man, who leans toward a sort of AFL-CIO liberalism, a prole's prole who loved nothing more than a good game of softball. Mencken was a comfortable child of the bourgeoisie, a political conservative, even a reactionary whose private enthusiasms (besides covering national political conventions) ran toward string quartets and the drama.

 

These differences were nowhere more evident than in the writing styles of the two men. Mencken biographer Carl Bode traces the former's literary influences to Macaulay, Bierce, Rabelais, and Thomas Huxley. While Royko is a fine stylist, he is not really much of a writer. True, Mencken may only seem more vivid, more diverse because he is more self-consciously literary, but if (as Cooke has alleged) Mencken's invective sometimes amounted to using a blunderbuss to crack nuts, Royko merely throws a thesaurus at therm (Royko's tirades against Downstaters last summer are a case In point. Compare his "hicks," "rubes," and "bumpkins" to Mencken's description of a minor party candidate: "Soak a radio clown for ten days and nights in the rectified juices of all the cow-state Messiahs ever heard of and you have him to the life." )

 

One chooses one's tool for the task, of course. Mencken traded in ideas, and if his accomplishments as a thinker did not match his ambitions, at least he dipped his toes in that murky stream. Ideas and the books in which ideas are discussed seem not to interest Royko. Here I suppose is the most striking difference between them, and ultimately why Royko's work tends, over a long period to go stale. Royko is the chronicler of Chicago, all right, but nobody thinks in Chicago, and one of the things they don't think about is Chicago. 

 

Unlike the German Mencken, whose roots reach back to Europe, Royko's work (like the work of the long line of Chicago newspapermen from which he descends, and which includes Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner, George Ade, and Finley Peter Dunne) sprouts from thin soil which is fit only for one or two crops specially adapted to it. Of all the virtues traditionally linked to Chicago—brawn, vigor, ambition, humor—none is linked to the mind. His audience finds the paucity of ideas in Royko congenial—it is the root of his Chicago-ness—but it often oversteps the bounds into anti-intellectualism.

 

Royko's reputation as an iconoclast is not entirely deserved, for example. His complaints are complaints over means; his notions of the relations of capital, humans, and institutions are safely mainstream. Indeed, there are times when the only thing that sets Royko apart from the League of Women Voters is the ladies' revolting preference for chilled white wine. Stripped of its vaudeville-isms, for instance, Royko's sole contribution to the RTA debate last year was to ask for a state subsidy. This is not the '60s; at a time when the urban crisis needs imagination, anger is not a sufficient program. And while it is too much to expect a columnist to change the way people act, he isn't much good if he doesn't sometimes at least change the way they think.

 

I feel compelled to wonder whether Royko, who knows Chicagoans so intimately, really knows Chicago. I suppose what I miss most in Royko is the ability to explain his city. Saul Bellow fled to Chicago many years ago because he knew it to be a place where people don't read and thus a place where he could escape the intellectual fevers of New York. But Bellow is no Chicago writer. Indeed, he functions at the other extreme; as John Updike notes of Bellow's fictional self in The Dean's December, he "cannot think of urban deterioration without bringing in metaphysics and epistemology." Royko portrays the same subject in terms of tow company scams and aldermanic burlesque. Bellow is too far from the city to explain it, and Royko too close.

 

It is unfair to criticize a man for his failure to do things he never pretended to do, of course. What I don't like about Royko's work really is what I don't like about Chicago. Emmett Dedmon in his book Fabulous Chicago (recently reprinted) noted that in its literary heyday in the '20s Chicago was filled with people whose ideas were too big for any but the biggest city in the land, which is why practically all of them left for New York. It's too easy to forget how much smaller Chicago is than New York; writers as distinct as E. B. White and Jimmy Breslin, for example, can both be described as essential New Yorkers, while in Chicago Royko is the only possibility. Chicago is still a city that debates deep dish pizza recipes with the ardor with which more cosmopolitan cities argue about art or plot revolutions. Royko is Chicago's poet, and his only fault is that he sings it so true. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

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.

Chicagology

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.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

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.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated