Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
A house, a poet, a parody in 1,000 words
March 22, 1990
I include this piece not for its arguments, which are worthy if banal, but for the verse. State government seldom inspires poetry, even parodistic poetry, and I confess I am rather proud of mine. I was not parodying Lindsay on Lincoln but then-governor James R. Thompson. Readers unfamiliar with Thompson's personality and career will be baffled, then bored by it, as they might by reading Pope today.
I developed one or two points in another piece on Lindsay himself, which can be read here.
For nearly thirteen years I lived within a block of Vachel Lindsay’s house at Fifth and Edwards in Springfield, but I visited it only once, as the place holds no happy lessons for anyone eager to make an honest living with words. Critical derision, money worries, creative paralysis, and eventual suicide could have been the subjects of the poems Lindsay didn’t write in his later years. It seemed to me ineffably sad that the only question most visitors to the house were interested enough to ask was, “Where did he drink the Lysol?”
The state’s Historic Preservation Agency has arranged to take title to the Lindsay house. It had been privately maintained for years by the not-for-profit Vachel Lindsay Association, but it is an old house and they are not a rich organization. The acquisition requires no cash outlay by the state, although it is expected that at least $100,000 will have to be spent soon to make necessary structural repairs.
The casual newspaper reader may conclude from this news that the state is more willing to spend money to house its ghosts than it does to house its living citizens. Others may remark—indeed, I will remark and save them the trouble—that spending money to make monuments to writers seems silly in a state that refuses to teach all its children to read. Sadly, the alternative to state intervention was probably the dilapidation and eventual ruin of the house, given the scant resources of the Lindsay Association. It says something about a city when it can’t spare the wealth required to preserve its own past; a city that would not spare Lindsay a stipend while he was alive is hardly likely to extend its hand now that he’s dead and can no longer embarrass it by parading his poverty.
A number of homes of Illinois writers are open to tours. Edgar Lee Masters’ place in Petersburg is one, as is Carl Sandburg’s place in Galesburg. A group of Oak Parkers is raising money to acquire one of Ernest Hemingway’s boyhood homes and open it as a museum and study center. None is a hot tourist attraction, but the preservation of their houses means that their occupants will be remembered at least, even if they are no longer read.
Alas, Lindsay may not even be remembered in his own house. There were strong hints that the state wanted the house less because the poet lived and wrote there than because it had been partly designed by the architect of Lincoln’s house on Eighth Street, and because its first occupant was the brother-in-law of Lincoln, who often visited there. Lindsay, I suspect, will be peddled to tourists as the author of “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” to make the connection perfect. But while opening the Lindsay house as a Lincoln site will do nothing to expand the public’s understanding of Lincoln, it seems certain to diminish the stature of Lindsay.
Governor James Thompson at least seemed prepared to give the poet his due. In announcing the planned transfer of ownership, the governor described Lindsay as “perhaps America’s most profound and innovative poet.” Most critics wouldn’t agree, but then poets’ reputations fluctuate almost as wildly as politicians. (The critics once dismissed Poe and Melville as nobodies too.) I was delighted to hear the governor advance any opinion on a literary matter. I had no idea he was well-read enough to come to even a mistaken judgment about one of our poets. On such an occasion I would have expected him merely to read from a puffed-up press release written in his name by a flack with an English major.
I rely on my colleagues in the statehouse press corps to reveal the governor’s views on Swinburne and Eliot; as a taxpayer I am all ears.
Lindsay would have been touched by the governor’s praise. The poet admired Altgeld, of course, but did not always think well of the other governors who sojourned in the mansion across the street. It is interesting to imagine what sort of poem might have resulted had Lindsay lived long enough to write, “Big Jim Thompson Walks at Midnight.” It might have gone like this:
His head is bowed.
He lived the people’s king.
Through four terms,
his genius to go blandly.
But conceals he the
Pain of hopes still-born
Who dreamt of Taft
but looked like John Candy.
He cannot sleep in that fine mansion now,
This almost, nearly, maybe Bush VP.
But roams Chicago’s rude distracting streets
A chastened, and chafing, judge.
So much promise, when young, to stand dismayed:
Build Illinois is trashed; his DCCA maimed.
Which state cop is so strong that he might bear
The deficits, the headlines, the weight gained?
When, coffers bared, the state’s voters in hope
Said, “Innovate!” he said, “Fake hiring freeze!
Enterprise zones! Bond sales! Samantha! Guy!”
Made heads from tails and packed the ICC.
He cannot rest if foreign trade pacts pend,
So packs in hope of merry junkets free,
Talking tax breaks and beans while bravely fends
Off minor MPs and Hong Kong tummy.
His ghost, ill-paid, haunts this cold mansion still.
“I’m not a clerk!” he once in pride declared,
While taxpayers, outraged, their tea-bags mailed
And Pat Quinn said, “Best count the silverware.”
At pig barns and airports and photo ops
None was as good, for they all lacked his creed:
Give jobs to the rich and promises the poor;
Run only to win, and never to lead.
I admit that Lindsay was a better poet, but then he had a more inspiring subject. I suppose that, had Lindsay written poems like that, his house would find itself without a champion, and thus be doomed to become another parking lot. That is why keeping the Lindsay house open is a more justifiable public expense than, say, maintaining the Executive Mansion across the street. The Lindsay house provides a lesson in what happens to a man who tries to make a living writing what he sees to be the truth, while the mansion hints at the rewards that await the skillful poet of lies. ●
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.
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