A Nest of Singing Birds

Two Springfield English teachers raise a flock

Illinois Times

September 8, 1978

A piece about writers of various ilk, ostensibly, but in fact about the influence of two remarkable teachers of English at Springfield High School, Susan Wilcox and Elizabeth Graham. (I also wrote about Graham here in a piece that refers to this fine encomium by former student Phillip Bradley.) 

 

One of my irregular correspondents is a student at Springfield High School—as I was—and like me she was surprised when she first discovered that Springfield was once home to a major literary figure. “When I was researching my term paper,” she wrote a few months ago, “I found by complete accident that Robert Fitzgerald grew up in Springfield. We had to read his translation of the Odyssey last year!” She found this startling bit of intelligence “kind of neat,” as indeed it is.

 

The Robert Fitzgerald in question was a member of the Class of 1928, from which he graduated after a busy Solon career as debater, football and tennis player, class officer, and yearbook (“The guy who’s responsible for this”) editor. Fitzgerald, who is now Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard, is author of several award-winning translations of the Greeks, Dante, and Borges. In fact, his fame as a translator has obscured the merits of his own verse, which one critic has described as the product of “an elegant and educated sensibility.”

 

But Fitzgerald was only the second poet of international rank to earn his diploma at SHS. The first, of course, was Vachel Lindsay of the Class of 1897. Lindsay’s life described a soaring arc from obscurity to fame and back again, coming to earth violently in his house on South Fifth Street in 1931. He left behind him a reputation as bard and troubadour that in many ways is unique in American letters. If his poems are little read today outside the anthologies, his remains one of the fullest examples we have of a man’s Quixotic dedication to Art.

 

That two such talents as Lindsay and Fitzgerald should have emerged unscathed from a middle class warren such as SHS comes as a shock. One is reminded of Dr. Johnson’s boast to Boswell about the former’s alma mater. Pembroke College. “Sir,” he asserted triumphantly, “we are a nest of singing birds!”

 

It was a crowded nest, even if not all its nestlings flew as far as Lindsay or Fitzgerald. Virginia Eifert, for example, was a classmate of Fitzgerald's who had to quit school before graduating in 1928 because of illness. She wrote many books and became one of the more accomplished practitioners of the art of nature writing as it existed before its lyricism began to be blunted with polemics or science.

 

Grace Humphrey (Class of 1900) was a master of the wide-eyed travel memoir and what might be called the sitting room biography. She found a willing accomplice in the Penn Publishing Company of Philadelphia, which published a string of her books in the 1920s and ’30s. Her “Father Takes Us to . . .” series stopped off at New York, Philly, Boston, and Washington before running out of steam, and her biographical series, “The Story of . . .” included the Marys, the Catherines, the Elizabeths, the Williams, the Johns, and the Janes. (Humphrey apparently worried that, having found one good title, she might not be able to find another, and so used the same one over and over; the books are as formularized as the titles.) A typical line from F.T.U.T.W. reads, “It’s Stuart luck, isn’t it, that Grandfather’s best friend is a senator?” Life was like that for Judge Humphrey’s little girls.

 

There is an unseen thread binding these diverse careers together—the English department of Springfield High. Beginning in 1888, when Susan Wilcox (Class of 1884) arrived from Wellesley to begin teaching English until the retirement in 1957 of Elizabeth Graham, Wilcox’s friend, protege, and successor as department head, the English department of SHS was the equal or better of many small colleges. Lindsay, Fitzgerald, Eifert, and the rest all studied under Wilcox, Graham, & Co. Their influence was profound and gratefully acknowledged. Lindsay described Wilcox “as a person and a teacher the noblest and most faithful friend” of his life. Thomas B. Morgan (Class of 1944), a journalist and editor who bought The Nation in 1976, dedicated his 1966 novel, This Blessed Shore to “the unforgettable Elizabeth Graham, with love and admiration.”

 

What made them special? Morgan said that Graham, for example, was an “instrument of individuality.” Wilcox was herself a poet, so when these teachers spoke to their students about literature it was as something not just to be read but something to be lived. They offered their students a sense of the possibilities of language, they had a personal dedication to young people, and they were willing to take the chances that talent demands.

 

The Wilcox-Graham dynasty was link among students of different generations. With the retirement of Miss Graham in 1957 that link was broken and the future Fitzgeralds and Lindsays at SHS left, as my correspondent was left, to learn about their celebrated classmates by accident. That is a shame.

Springfield High’s literary heritage is a modest one but worth remembering and one of jobs of modern teachers ought to be to protect and enlarge on it. There are lessons to be learned from the old grads—if not from their work, then from their lives. ●

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