Speak No Evil?

From Springfield's literature of abuse

Illinois Times

May 23, 1980

In which your author laments that one of the causes of our present unhappiness as people is that we have lost the ability to insult each other. In 1980, scarcely a word escaped into the public realm that had been not been reviewed by an editor who'd gone to Sunday School. The rise of the internet, and in particular of vile social media, means that every man and women is her own editor—with predictable results.

 

There are among many people—by whom of course I mean me—who do not lament the anger of so much of public comment today but its lack of wit.

 

The IT associate editor mentioned below was me.

 

One of the causes of our present unhappiness as a people is that the more things we give ourselves to curse at, the less well we are able to curse. Invective, or the art of speaking ill of others, is a crucial skill in any advanced culture. I think it was Freud who pointed out that civilization began when people first flung a curse at an enemy instead of a stone.

 

Sadly, American invective has been discouraged for years by Sunday school teachers and TV network executives who maintain that one shouldn't say anything about some one unless one can say something good about him. Good invective is not easy to find under any circumstances, since it requires a rare blend of literary imagination and precision and malice. Most Americans are reduced to using either a cliche or an obscenity. Or, now that obscenity is a cliché, both at once.

 

Over the years I have culled many personal favorites from the local literature of abuse. That literature is vast; Springfield, which was excoriated in the 19th century for wallowing in the mud of its unpaved streets, wallows today in mud of a figurative sort, and it should surprise no one that these eccentrically 'centrifugal' 'People'—of Sangamon" (as an Alton editor called them in the 1830s) should pick it up and sling it occasionally.

 

In the 1850s, for example, an anonymous letter (purportedly written by Lincoln) was published in Springfield's Republican paper. "They wouldn't let no Democrats in," the author said of a recent social event, "for fear they'd disgust the ladies, or scare the little gals or dirty the floor." (We are not so squeamish today, and let Democrats in anyway.) The Democratic press gave as good in return, of course; when the antics of a succession of Republican city halls led local voters to adopt the commission form of government in 1911, the Register described the vote as "a jolt for the 'grafter' and a reverse for the 'moocher,' the special privilege-seeker and the pestiferous ward-heeler."

 

Local politics has been bringing out the Don Rickles in Springfieldians ever since. About his mayoral opponent who had previously spent several terms as county coroner, Nelson Howarth (himself a three-term veteran of city hall, and obviously the wiser man for it) said, "He's always had trouble with the living." And of the fondly remembered 1975–1979 Springfield city council (which one observer likened to the Italian parliament) one exasperated voter told a local editor that the council had subjected the citizens of Springfield to four years of the most asinine, childish and stupid arguments, squabbling and pettiness experienced in the history of the city."

 

No collection of vented spleen is complete without samples of that vented at the city of Springfield itself, which seems always to have inspired insult in the way Venice inspires poetry. The story's been told many times before, but perhaps the best of these was told by Paul Angle in Here I Have Lived. A man applied to Thompson Campbell, Illinois's secretary of state in the 1850s, for permission to deliver some lectures in the Statehouse." 'May I ask,' said Campbell, 'what is to be the subject of your lectures?' 'Certainly,' was the solemn reply, 'they are on the Second Coming of our Lord.' 'It's no use,' Campbell said, 'if you will take my advice you' will not waste your time in this city. It is my private opinion that if the Lord has been in Springfield once, he will not come the second time."' That is still true today, the Prairie Capital Convention Center notwithstanding.

 

Echoes of Mr. Campbell's lament can be heard even today; two cross-country cyclists stopped in Springfield in 1979 and said, "This town sort of looks like Fort Wayne, Indiana." (That depressed me for days. I can't imagine the effect it must have had on [tourism promoter] Fred Puglia.) Defending themselves against such jibes for a century and a quarter has made Springfieldians pretty good at this sort of thing, too. I recall with special admiration former mayor William Telford's 1978 remark that hiring a city manager for Springfield "would be like the way the school board hires a superintendent. They go out of town and it takes him two years to find [the school board offices] Monroe Street."

 

Invective might be said to be in the ear of the behearer, as when Springfield health and safety commissioner Pat Ward says, as he did in 1977, "I don't want somebody from New Jersey running the city of Springfield.” The phrase, "somebody from New Jersey" may be taken to mean anyone from out of town, in which case it is diffuse and thus harmless. It may be taken literally, however, to mean a Garden Stater—in which case Ward's disapprobation is specific and not at all harmless. It all depends on what you think of people from New Jersey. It is useful to keep this example in mind when reading what Marge Hensey, the late Paul Powell's secretary, told the Chicago Daily News a few years back about William Scott. "He is a very nice man," she said, "only he drinks milk whenever he goes out." Nothing more insulting need, or could, be said.

 

Ethnic invective is out of favor, at least in print, and I suppose one must consider that progress. But I confess I miss the smell of brimstone that wafts from the pages written by an itinerant preacher who described Washington Street's Levee district in 1910 as a collection of "blazing lighthouses of hell" including "Negro dive saloons, Bohemian saloons where the English language is never spoken [where] low-browed, pig-eyed, pug-nosed, potbellied products of the saloons . . . are lined up at the bar, drinking goblets of sheeny booze."

 

Indeed, the pulpit used to be a rich lode of invective; as recently as the 1940s, a Springfield anti-vice minister noted that if the people of Springfield could elect the then-incumbent mayor, "they can put on gas masks and prepare to stand any kind of stench." Alas, one seldom hears that magnificent outrage anymore. Springfield is a duller town than it used to be, and its pulpits populated by duller men. Nowadays sermons sound like Rotary Club luncheon speeches.

 

This dullness owes itself to more than just dull times, however. Commercial strictures on the organs of expression is a factor too. A few years ago a colleague of mine named Paul Rusdorf described one of Springfield's Big Three banks in a student newspaper as "just another predatory camorra of back-slapping Babbits." (Strictly speaking, this is not an example of invective, but of good reporting.) Those of us who write for real papers could never say that. It is widely assumed that politicians are so often the targets of verbal lashings because of our universally low opinion of them. I think it may be because politicians are the only people who need the press more than the press needs them.

 

Strangely, though, Springfield never accumulated much of an anti-government literature, in spite of its being the capital; perhaps it's because nearly every woman, man and child in the city has expectations of feeding at the public trough at least once in their lifetimes, and sensibly do not wish to antagonize a future employer. Oh, once in a while someone will describe the General Assembly as one 19th-century observer did, as "a tumultuous rabble from whose hands went forth paper balls, inkstands, law books and occasionally a chair—all with vile outrage of noisy words." But such frankness is rare, and to this day the bitterest words aimed at the General Assembly are aimed from outside the capital.

 

Favorite targets of the past, such as labor unions or ethnic groups have one by one been exempted from verbal assault by the rules of our modern, polite politics. Even intramural abuse has been curtailed as groups, having acquired a new sophistication about image, air their disputes in private. Lacking more recent examples, the very young may wish to study the 1930s. That was the era of the coal mine wars between John L. Lewis's United Mine Workers and the rebel Progressive Mine Workers. To the Progressives, Lewis was a "gangster" and a "dictator" whose associates were described as "coke fiend and booze-crazed cohorts”—which sounds like my high school class. Lewis, of course, was the Bard of Billingsgate, the best Springfield has ever seen; he once said that a rival "should file the sight off his gun So that it would not hurt him so much if it was taken from him and stuffed down his throat."

 

Nancy McPhee, author of The Book of Insults, complains that we live in an age of "fuzzy words and a mealy mouth." Too true. But here and there the spark burns still. A few months ago, an angry public schoolteacher wrote in response to a piece which appeared in these pages, "We doubt that a progressive publication such as Illinois Times can survive the narrow, unenlightened, often second-rate journalism (if the word is applicable) of its associate editor." No mealy mouth there. There's hope for the republic yet. □

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. 

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

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Click  here 

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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 important 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. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

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