little Illinois town goes all out to honor
a politician who passed through, but has been slow
to recognize the writers who called it home
by Maureen Foertsch McKinney
Telephone poles, train tracks and thick clumps of trees are the
first signs that Old Route 66 is about to wind north into Lincoln.
Once the highway crosses Salt Creek, clusters of roadside signs
break the view. They announce that this central Illinois town of
15,400 is home to several high school athletic champions, the Lions
and Kiwanis clubs and a host of churches. Others proclaim that,
in state economic development lingo, Lincoln is not merely an Illinois
Certified City, but a Main Street Community and an enterprise zone.
None of these signs report that Lincoln is the birthplace and favored
setting of American Book Award winning novelist William Maxwell,
or that Langston Hughes credited the community with identifying
him as a poet long before his jazz- and blues-infused poems and
racially inspired works such as The Negro Speaks of Rivers
would make him a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance
or that Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential theological scribe, was
confirmed and ordained here. Or, for that matter, that one of the
towns dentists is arguably among the pre-eminent writers of
haiku in the United States.
Visitors who get deeper into town, east of the county fairgrounds,
beyond the Kroger, the Clark station and the Chopsticks Chinese
restaurant, can see that Lincoln has at least acknowledged a bit
of its literary heritage. At the corner of Union and Eighth streets
stands what Lincoln Library Director Richard Sumrall calls a huge
metal plaque. On it is inscribed the story of how in 1916 Langston
Hughes wrote his first poem at the end of his year as a student
at Lincolns Central School.
William Maxwell also attended Central and lived in a house around
the corner. Maxwell, fiction editor at The New Yorker for
40 years, set half of his six novels and many of his short stories
and essays in Lincoln, but theres no plaque for him at Central
nor is there one at the stucco house on Park Place that plays
a central role in his novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow. Nor
is there a historical marker at the house on Ninth Street where
he was born in 1908. Not yet, anyway.
Collectively, the little town has long been more interested in
its status as the only place to have been named for Abraham Lincoln
before he went to the White House, and the lore that he christened
the town with watermelon juice in 1853. Community historian Paul
Gleason is assistant director of the Lincoln College Museum, where
a few rooms store myriad artifacts, including letters signed by
Lincoln, rails split by his cousin, a child-sized rocker into which
Tad Lincoln carved TAD and pieces of the great emancipators
Gleason, a 63-year-old life-long resident of Lincoln, who serves
on the Logan County Board and the local tourism bureau, stumbled
across Hughes Lincoln connection while researching his 1989
Logan County history, composed mainly from a seat at Hardees, where
he does most of his writing. Once Lincoln resident Margaret Peifer,
a former nun, got hold of that information she whipped up the interest
to get that plaque erected in 1998, nearly 30 years after Hughes
Maxwells Lincoln connection is not so obscure. Consequently,
plans are in the works to erect a historical marker at Maxwells
boyhood home, plans folks in Lincoln brought to the authors
attention before his death in 2000.
William Maxwell was 7 when Hughes was the class poet of what was
then the brand new Central School, but its conceivable that
Hughes and Maxwell met. And they might have had some of the same
teachers. So might have theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr,
who moved to Lincoln in 1902 when he was 10 and grew up to write
the Serenity Prayer, win induction into the American Academy of
Arts and Letters and be named in 1990 by Life magazine as one of
its 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.
His main interest was in theological anthropology the interrelationship
of religion, the individual and society which he explored
in such books as Moral Man and Immoral Society and Christianity
and Power Politics.
The Niebuhr familys nearly three-decade stay in Lincoln is
noted on a historical marker next door to Central School at St.
Johns United Church of Christ, where Reinhold Niebuhrs
father, Gustav, was pastor in the early part of the century.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Hughes and Maxwell all attended Central School
within a span of 15 years, so it may have been teachers who shaped
Lincoln into a little town with a knack for producing great American
writers, Lynn Spellman suggests. The most likely candidate is Hughes
composition instructor at Central, Ethel Welch, whom he named as
his favorite in his autobiography The Big Sea and to whom
he continued to send inscribed copies of his books into the 1940s.
Spellman, a retired associate professor of English at Lincoln College,
says as a teacher she would like to believe it was an academic influence
that formed these men into gifted, internationally recognized writers.
But she recognizes that the culture, the personality, the landscape
of Lincoln inspired Maxwell and the contemporary Lincoln
haiku writer Lee Gurga. Simplicity, barebones structure, is characteristic
of both writers work. Neither Maxwell nor Gurga waste words
on adjectives. Gurga limits his work mainly to the 17-syllable format,
and So Long, See You Tomorrow, critically acclaimed as Maxwells
finest work, is notable for its tight prose, filling just 135 pages
in trade paperback.
The spareness of central Illinois, its unadorned language and wide-open
landscape, informed these writers, and Lincoln, centered amid miles
of gently rolling or flat farmland, is emblematic of Illinois literature.
Of course, the majority of Illinois people, and most of its
buildings, are crammed into the corner of the state, up against
the great lake. At its bottom tip, Illinois craggy terrain
is blanketed in forest. But most of Illinois looks like Lincoln,
with a landscape defined by fields, as Maxwell
wrote, that stretch all the way to the edge of the sky.
On the approach to Lee Gurgas rural Lincoln house from I-55,
the vista, especially now, not long after harvest, is mostly sky.
Brown, stubbled fields and blue, deep blue, Illinois sky.
It gives you time to think about whats important in
life if you live in a place like this, says Gurga, who
uses words as a photographer does a lens to capture his environment
and his experience, writing about rows of corn that stretch
to the horizon and the pink glow of the sunset
hes seen through .22 holes in a country stop sign.
In full haiku form, those phrases would be expanded just slightly
to flow into verse:
bird dog in the stubblefield
Gurga, who is designated as the next editor of the journal Modern
Haiku, looks out his kitchen window at the woodland he is regenerating
from what he calls the abuse of the last 100 years: the logging
and grazing and farming. The neighboring property, he says, pointing
to the east, is where Illinois Grand Prairie biogeographical
zone bleeds into the finger of the western forest division that
extends into Logan County. Western Illinois ends in my backyard,
basically, and central Illinois begins, he tells a visitor.
His land is a bit hilly. It has a creek and varied vegetation:
hedge trees, locust trees and multiflora roses. But its not
so hilly that an out-of-towner cant find the way to Lincoln
from Gurgas homestead by driving toward the water tower on
The pace is slower here; life is less complicated than in the urban
environments where so much of literature is set. Gurga, whose haiku
have won awards in the United States, Canada and Japan, says hes
been enriched by the rural, Midwestern sensibility. Here, he says,
he counts cars rather than frustrations when hes held up by
The poet grew up in Chicago and moved to Lincoln 22 years ago,
and until they moved to their farmland south of Lincoln a decade
ago, Gurga, his wife, Jan, and their three sons lived in Lincoln
proper, on 10th Street, across an alley from the Maxwell home. Gurga
walked to his dental office along a brick road lined with 100-year-old
Maxwells odyssey moved in reverse. He lived in Lincoln until
he was 14, when his family moved to Chicago. He eventually settled
in Manhattan. While Gurga writes in the moment, capturing a fleeting
experience, Maxwell wrote mainly from the memory of Lincoln, his
imaginations home, which he sometimes referred
to in his fiction as Logan or Draperville. The texture of
his work, the detail, comes from Lincoln, says Maxwell
biographer Barbara Burkhardt. The defining moment of Maxwells
life as a writer was the death of his mother in the 1918 influenza
epidemic. It is a subject he would return to again and again.
Burkhardt teaches a seminar in postmodern literature at the University
of Illinois at Springfield, in which she discusses So Long, See
You Tomorrow, a novel based on events Maxwell remembered from
his childhood in Lincoln. Writing 60 years after his mothers
death, he brought the same sense of wonder to the place,
now tempered with wisdom and experience, says
Burkhardt, whom Maxwell charged with organizing his correspondence
currently catalogued at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
where he earned his bachelors degree in 1930. The setting
is very stark its bare, she tells graduate
students. So was his prose in the novel, says Burkhardt, who has
expanded her dissertation on Maxwell into a full critical biography.
Certainly, that style is one of the most distinctive characteristics
of his writing. Certainly, I think as he got older his language
became more spare. I dont know if it was intentional, but
I think it serves to mirror the landscape.
Maxwell was meticulous in his efforts to capture the exact language
of Lincoln, and the personality of Lincoln resonates in Maxwells
work, notes Burkhardt who reads her class pieces of Maxwells
correspondence, including letters from Roger Angell, Maxwells
editor at The New Yorker. As he was preparing to publish
So Long, See You Tomorrow in the magazine, Angell wanted
Maxwell to clean up the language, to get rid of the colloquialisms
of the Midwest, phrases like the reason why, and
the use of that instead of which. But Maxwell
held fast. He had an ear for the subtlety of the language of 1920s
Lincoln, and wanted to preserve it. That subtlety extended to the
images of Lincoln that he portrayed: a wood counter scrubbed until
it became soft like velvet, a murderers gunshot assumed to
be the sound of a car backfiring. Or an interloper who hides behind
haystacks, waiting for the first light from a farmers lantern
to come bobbing across the pasture.
I think they [dialect and description] work beautifully together
to create a cohesive image both in sound and visual,
says Burkhardt. You have this spare language and you have
this landscape that can certainly be described as spare, this unrelenting
horizon, ever out of reach of the land about which hes writing.
Maxwell lived in Lincoln long enough to absorb a strong sense of
the people, Spellman says. Farm women mothers of school-age
children reduced by hard work and frequent childbearing
to a common denominator of plainness, men who read only
the newspaper, a dance instructor scandalized by a couple dancing
Caroline Kiest, the reference librarian at the Lincoln Library
and next-door neighbor to Tim and Tami Kennett, who live in the
Maxwell family home on Ninth Street, remembers coming to Lincoln
as a child in the mid-1970s. Her mother read her Maxwells
They Came Like Swallows, and would point to the Maxwell house,
a sprawling structure with a side porch and bay windows, which Kiest
calls a payday home a hodge-podge design with
additions erected as money became available. Her mother would say,
Theres the house; its right here.
Kiest smiles when she says, Were in that book
the Kiests were the family hanging out the diapers.
Not everyone in Lincoln has been pleased about Maxwells portrayal
of his hometown. A central focus of So Long, See You Tomorrow
is a murder that occurred in Lincoln in the 1920s. A tenant farmer
shot a neighbor who had been having an affair with his wife.
One Lincoln resident who asked not be identified says that in a
Lincoln Library copy of So Long, See You Tomorrow someone
crossed out Maxwells fictive names and wrote in pencil the
names of the people on whom the characters were based.
Maxwell had changed the names in the story, but little else. He
used old newspaper stories from the Illinois State Historical Library
to build his story out of his belief that life is a great
storyteller. You cant improve on it. He once said,
I hated to change the facts. The facts themselves were so
Though Lincoln is vividly portrayed in the Maxwell books ranging
from They Came Like Swallows in 1937 to Billie Dyer and
Other Stories in 1992, his relevance to the community slips
past some. Maxwell? What does he write? Mysteries? Ive
heard of him, but Ive never read him, says the
proprietor of a used bookstore in Lincoln. She checks the Ms
where there are volumes by McCullough, MacLean, McBain, but no Maxwell.
In the As, even Maxwells editor Roger Angell is represented
with his homage to baseball, A Season Ticket.
In a section where very old books are shelved, another native Illinois
writer Edgar Rice Burroughs turns up with Tarzan
the Terrible, along with turn-of-the-century spellers and slim
volumes of Shakespeares plays.
Theyre well acquainted with Maxwell at Prairie Years Books
and Prints, which is downtown next to Abes Carmelcorn. At
Prairie Years, which actually devotes most of its space to what
the sign out front describes as quality toys, six different
Maxwell titles fill most of a shelf in the local authors section.
In general, there are lots of people in town who are very
much aware of Mr. Maxwells importance and his connection to
Lincoln, says Spellman, the retired Lincoln College
instructor. She adds that she presented a list of historically significant
literary connections to Lincoln to the tourism board awhile back,
but was told there hasnt been enough money to do anything
Many of the buildings Maxwell wrote about, Central School, his
two family homes, and Lincoln Junior High School, which was the
high school in the authors youth, still stand, though Central,
which opened in 1915, is slated to be torn down, says Spellman,
who notes that since the marker for the Niebuhrs went up earlier
this year, visitors have come to Lincoln specifically to see it.
Sometimes its hard for a community to see the significance
of the history that is enmeshed in daily life. Its like
anything, people take it for granted, says Kiest. But
theyre getting it.
Spellman and others agree there is an intensified interest in Lincolns
pivotal role in Maxwells work.
And so it is possible that one day Spellmans vision will
be fulfilled, and the signs heading into Lincoln will tell the story
of the little towns literary legacy.
Issues, December 2001
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