Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Cover to Cover
An education in monthly installments
December 23, 1987
If my favorite bookshop in Springfield was an autodidact's university, as I argued here, its lecture hall was its capacious magazine stand. I don't know which was the chicken and which the egg—I always found magazines fascinating, and I ended up being a magazine writer—but I do know that they mattered to me when I was young.
It was easy to spot Time magazine on the crowded racks at Hunter's Cigar Store in Beardstown twenty-five years ago. Alone among the True Detectives, its cover stories did not feature dismembered adulterers. I was working summers in Beardstown then, and Time was like a message from home, containing news of a wider world which Beardstown then seemed to acknowledge only by its suspicion about it.
Magazines provide something like substitute communities for those disconnected from like-minded human ones by distance (including dissent). The pages of a favorite magazine are for the disconnected a public square, park bench, coffee house, and tavern—its contributors something like friends. Books were important to me as a boy too, but the topicality of magazines made them a much more immediate presence. Reading them seemed less a lesson than conversation. If the great books are mountains to be scaled, magazines were for me a local pond where I could repair at will, a place familiar and accessible but which still offered the chance of some new discovery with each visit, a place where I need wade only as deep as I wanted.
I outgrew Time, as we all do when our tenth-grade educations make the Luce view seem suddenly so simplistic. Back home in Springfield I began reading things like Downbeat and The New Republic. (I was too young for Esquire.) I remember the latter with particular fondness. The New Republic was then printed on paper that seemed like parchment, which seemed appropriate for the pronouncements of writers such as Murray Kempton and the redoubtable Stanley Kaufman. I devoured every word, including reviews of books by writers I'd never heard of, disputes about foreign policy toward places I'd never heard of, analyses about economics I couldn't understand.
You are what you read, and the alert observer would have seen in the sight of me poring over The New Republic at fifteen the man who was to be—pretentious, well-informed in an ignorant sort of way, and eager to live vicariously in a wider world for which I was unfit in any role except that of reader.
I got older in the 1970s, but magazines all of a sudden seemed to grow positively decrepit. There were exceptions to the malaise. I recall the excitement of reading the early Hunter Thompson in Rolling Stone, and it was in the 1970s that I discovered belatedly that writers the quality of John McPhee and Jane Kramer were hiding out at The New Yorker. But the decade will live for me in the single nightmare vision of Richard Nixon reading People while he listens to the Bee Gees on the radio.
A few years ago the magazines started getting better, maybe because people my age began to run them as well as read them. Today I read lots of magazines, or at least read from them. When I am in that rare mood for serious reading I of course turn to World Soccer. The test of the time I still read parts of The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Reading New York can be fun in the same way that watching car wrecks can be fun, and the "front-of-the-book" pieces in GQ are often pretty good.
I still read Harper's and Atlantic Monthly too, although the word "still" is misleading. Harper's reinvented itself a couple of years ago and now offers one of the few really new approaches to the form since Henry Luce's brighter days, one which stretches the definition of journalism with invigorating results. The Atlantic reinvented itself too, in a more modest way. It still does what the quality monthlies always sought to do; it just rediscovered how to do it well. Among the newer magazines I find Grand Street (actually a quarterly journal) consistently interesting, meaning it is filled with things I wish I'd written. The Utne Reader is the counterculture's Reader's Digest in every way except that it doesn't fit as conveniently on the back of the toilet.
These are the magazines I leave about in the living room where probation officers and impressionable young people can see them. Poke around under James Krohe Jr.'s sofa however, and you will find a different sort of library. What I really read these days is trash of a certain pretension. Such as Andy Warhol's Interview. Conventional journals err in assuming that anything which important people say is popular; Interview proceeds from the assumption that anything the popular say is important. On one page you can learn where a Nobel Prize winner likes to buy his neckties and on the next read Jill St. John on theology—either, it should go without saying, is more interesting and more substantial than what, say, [then-U.S. Senator from Illinois] Paul Simon has to say about economics.
The college catechism from the 1970s—rock lyrics are a kind of poetry, Wordsworth was a poet, rock lyrics are as good as Wordsworth—forms the Interview creed. I do not agree with critics who complain that Interview is valueless, but I agree that it is pretty much values-less. In this it merely anticipates trends in the culture at large, which is what good fashion magazines always do.
Actually, Interview is pretty funny if you get the joke. A recent article about Christmas books opened with this sentence: "Hegel wrote in The Phenomenology of the Spirit that the history of the world is the story of the universe becoming more aware of itself. This year's best gift books fit that idea perfectly." One of my favorite columnists is Interview's Glenn O'Brien. This month he (I assume he is a man) opens with "I love this time of year. Everybody is so friendly. It makes everything better, and that's the way to go"—David Byrne by way of Andy Rooney. Those of you keeping a "Dear Prof. Alan Bloom" file may wish to clip O'Brien's "Yuletide Litany of Love" ("I love the President. Life is like a movie now") from the December issue.
Reading Interview is like watching a really bad movie, by which I mean that it's fun until you let yourself realize that it wasn't meant to be. In such a mood I turn instead to Spy. Spy ("The New York Monthly") confirms Krohe's Second Law of Journalism, which states, for every excess there is an equal and opposite success. Wildly funny at its best, Spy is a deadly serious magazine which assumes that the only vocabulary appropriate for the description of the world's bogus experts and fraudulent politicians and corrupt money brokers is ridicule. Spy's style is hipper-than-thou but in fact it betrays a very old fashioned moral outrage at a world in which charlatans are crowned kings.
This confuses some people. Spy does not stoop to parody like National Lampoon (a magazine which was itself pretty good in its early days, when it reminded me of an updated Mad). It has been said—in fact it was said in Interview—that Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust is misunderstood as satire, that Waugh in fact was merely telling "the honest, blatant truth." The truth demands that Henry Kissinger be described by Spy (not denounced, mind, simply described) as a "socialite-war criminal." And that fashionably anorexic society bimbos be profiled under the title, "Too Thin and Too Rich." And that Elvis fans be served by a chart which shows how much the King would have weighed on each of the planets.
Spy is innovative in more than its attitude. Michele Bennett's review of reviewers is must reading for those of us who know about popular arts only by what we read in the papers. After reading an essay by Denis Donoghue in The New York Times titled, "What Makes Life Worth Writing?" Bennett wrote, "I wish he knew." Equally useful is Bruce Handy's "Coming Attractions" column, which reviews movies still in production. Movies these days are accretions of deals, not works of art, argues Handy, and watching the finished film only distracts us from the real point of moviemaking, which is merchandising.
You can't buy Spy at Hunter's Cigar Store. Can't buy it in Springfield either. I can let you have my copies when I'm done with them, but you may have to wait a while. I read the whole thing from cover to cover. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture