Home Sweet Home
Springfield—unlovely and unloved
January 14, 1977
Illinois's capital city has long inspired tall tales, as local bards try to top each other's insults about the place. In A Springfield Reader, I noted that out of the dozens of descriptions of the city written by locals in the last one hundred and fifty years only a handful really tell us anything about Springfield. There are several reasons for this, but the natural unwillingness of the local patriot to embarrass Springfield was made stronger by the drubbings the city regularly took in the out-of-town press over its shabby appearance, its sordid vice district, its riots, and its scandals in City Hall.
Typical of the last was the 1947 profile of the Illinois capital in the Saturday Evening Post’s “Cities of America” series by Elise Morrow. It was well-written, as well-researched as a piece of its type needs to be, and thirty years after its publication stands as the best single portrait of postwar Springfield. Perhaps because of that, the editor of one Springfield newspaper wrote, “Writers like Elise [Morrow] visit Springfield regularly. They are as seasonal as the starlings in the statehouse trees and create the same nuisance. ” She was denounced as a “tramp writer” and a “money-mad woman,” and her work was denounced as “juvenile”—all this for apiece which, a generation later, seems not so much biased as merely frank.
Most of the descriptions of Springfield written by local writers, then, were in the nature of a counterattack. But the boundaries between portraying Springfield in the best possible light and distorting the facts, between Battery and untruth, were ill-defined. Many of the claims advanced for the city—fine schools, efficient and honest government—were later proven false, or at least misleading. Whatever their value as advertising, as historical documents they are untrustworthy.
Descriptions of Springfield by strangers, however, are more interesting. Unlike their local counterparts, out-of-town writers do not have to live and do business with their subjects (objectivity being not so much the willingness to speak painful truths as the ability to survive speaking them). And, being outsiders, they have not acquired the prejudices of a long residence.
Not all descriptions of Springfield by nonresidents are wholly accurate, by any means, any more than all such descriptions by residents are wholly inaccurate. But they are uniquely valuable,because, unlike their hometown counterparts, they bend the truth in unaccustomed ways.
"The only thing dumber than living in Springfield." snapped the suit-and-tied diner as he threw his napkin onto his plate, "is liking it." A common sentiment, expressed with uncommon heat. As John Garvey pointed out in a recent issue of this paper, Springfield harbors a sizable and ill-tempered minority who are itching to get out of town, and who are waiting to do it only until: 1) school is over: 2) that phone call from you-know-who in Washington comes through; or 3) Daddy's will is read.
I've heard it all before. Once or twice I've heard it from myself. Grousing about Springfield is a pastime old enough to qualify as a tradition. The little restaurant scene replayed above prompted a quick tour through the library to see how other malcontents have expressed themselves on the subject of Springfield's unlivability. The results were interesting.
John Hay, for example, didn't like it here at all. Hay was personal secretary to Lincoln during the White House years and coauthor (with his associate John Nicolay) of a formidable biography of the railsplitter. Hay later served as secretary of state under President McKinley and as ambassador to England.
By all accounts he was as glad as Lincoln must have been when Lincoln was elected president in 1860—it meant he could leave Springfield. He had been here since coming to town to study law in 1859. At that time he described himself in a letter to a friend as "stranded at last, like a weather-beaten hulk, on the dreary wastes of Springfield—a city combining the meanness of the North with the barbarism of the South."
Hay wasn't alone in that opinion. At about that same time a Britisher by the name of John Lewis Payton passed through town on his way west. He stayed only a little while, as "there was little in or about Springfield to interest or amuse a stranger." If, by some reincarnational mischance, Mr. Payton were to resume human shape in one of Springfield's fashionable bars on a Saturday night, he would feel only a little out of place. The music would seem unlistenable and the dress inexplicable, but the conversation would not have changed by so much as a comma.
Another visitor (this one from Chicago, which, like Great Britain, is a strange land very far away) sent home this less-than-glowing account:
I found things and matters moving along with that steady, old-fogy pace which is characteristic of the place. . . . The people are thoroughly conservative and seem disposed to look upon every alteration, every progressive step as an innovation rather than an improvement.
Springfield got a lot bigger between the 1860s and the turn of the century, but apparently it didn't get much better. For example, the Boston Transcript published an editorial about one of our perennial statehouse scandals in 1909. In a snooty bit of scene-setting, the editors commented, and I quote, "Springfield itself is a miserable little town."
Springfield's Illinois State Register rallied to the rescue. "The Boston commentator." it pointed out reasonably, " has beans for brains."
Even Abraham Lincoln earned his reputation as a storyteller partly at Springfield's expense. One of his favorites was repeated by Paul Angle in Here I Have Lived. It goes like this:
Thompson Campbell whom as Secretary of State, had custody of the Statehouse, for permission to deliver a series of lectures in the Hall of the House of Representatives.
"May I ask," said Campbell, "what is to be the subject of your lectures?"
"Certainly," came the solemn reply, "they are on the second coming of our Lord."
"It's no use," said Campbell, "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."
During his first few weeks in Springfield Lincoln felt lonesome and out of place—a common problem among newcomers of any era. He wrote to an acquaintance. "This thing of living in Springfield is rather a dull business, after all; at least it is so to me."
So even Lincoln thought the place dull—at first. It is believed that Lincoln, at least, changed his mind. ●
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