Illinois books are not read because they are hard to find,
and they are hard to find because so few people read them
Essay by James Krohe Jr.
years ago, critic and teacher Robert Bray asked an interesting question
in his book, Rediscoveries: Literature and Place in Illinois.
The creation of a culture at any time and for any society
requires its re-creation from the materials of the past, wrote
Bray, now the Colwell Professor of American Literature at Illinois
Wesleyan University in Bloomington. And that act of re-creation,
the search for a usable past... ought to be as ongoing
and as serious as anything we do.
it ought; often the best way to see ones way forward is to
look backward. The materials from which to fashion a usable past
reside in old buildings, in native landscapes, in the recollections
of elders and perhaps the richest trove of all in
the books in which Illinois places and people figure. But, asked
Bray, Can the ethos of a state or region or nation be adequately
understood if a considerable segment of its literature, though no
more than a century removed in time, goes almost entirely unread?
the great works of Illinois literature really moldering away unread?
An answer must be inferred. Libraries, for example, do not release
data about the circulation of individual titles.
the Illinois classics arent much talked about. Floyd Dell,
the bohemian book review editor and central figure in the Chicago
Renaissance, probably comes up at parties less often than the Icelandic
sagas. Robert Herrick is reckoned by some to have been the first
novelist to explain Chicago to a disbelieving world; yet he has
been mentioned but three or four times in nearly 20 years by the
Chicago Tribune. His contemporary Elia Peattie was not Chicagos
first female novelist, but she was the first good one, and she usually
is recalled in the popular press only to mention how forgotten she
classics used to appear often on high school reading lists. The
horrors of life in Packingtown as depicted in Upton Sinclairs
The Jungle left such an impression of Chicago on tens of
thousands of downstate students that tourism traffic to that city
was depressed for decades. Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River
Anthology is another favorite; the collections poetic
elegies to the dead are short (which recommended them to students)
and simple (which recommended them to schoolteachers).
presence of such works on school reading lists would seem to suggest
their continued relevance. But students are an unwilling readership,
and, in any event, school reading lists serve several agendas beyond
nourishing the ethos of Illinois. What is true in the high schools
is even truer in the colleges. Eliza Farnhams true-life account
of pioneering in the wilds of central Illinois, Life in Prairie
Land, enjoys a vogue among teachers of college womens
studies courses because of the authors gender.
over 18 are free to choose their own reading matter. A book that
remains in bookstores is still being read, or at least being purchased.
By that measure, a surprising amount of Illinois 19th and
early 20th century literature still has an audience. Carl Sandburgs
Chicago Poems (you know, big shoulders) and Masters
Spoon River have never gone out of print, and one can still
find Studs Lonigan in the bookshops in various editions of the works
of his creator, James T. Farrell, perhaps because this account of
the life among the first urban underclass still resonates. The
Jungle is still in print, as is the work of Finley Peter Dunne
in various forms.
again, it would be a mistake to assume that classic Illinois books
that are being read are being read for the light they shine on Illinois.
Henry Blake Fullers Bertram Copes Year, a novel
about a student that was set on the Evanston campus of Northwestern
University, has found a new audience after more than 80 years. Its
implicit homosexual theme caused publishers to reject it in 1919,
but it is newly pertinent today. Jane Addams account of pioneering
in the wilds of the West Side of Chicago, Twenty Years at Hull-House,
also owes much of its appeal to an author who, as a social reformer,
social work pioneer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and woman attracts
readers from several constituencies.
commercial press is geared, naturally, toward titles that sell,
and in addition to those required by school courses, titles that
sell include those in demand by library acquisitions committees.
13th District, a Story of a Candidate by Brand Whitlock has
been reissued by Classic Textbooks. Reporter-reformer-writer Whitlock
spent time in Springfield, and drew upon it and the General Assembly
for material for two influential novels and several short stories
around the turn of the 20th century. The ever-present theme
of politics in Whitlocks stories almost always had the smell
of decay and corruption about it, wrote one biographer, and
many stories were specifically about that smell in Springfield.
Folks are used to that smell in Springfield, but it apparently repels
non-Springfieldians; the capitals public library is one of
only three in the state that own a copy of the book.
of the states classic books qualify as arcane, which happily
makes them a fit subject for a university press. Many are in the
public domain (dead authors come cheap) and, apart from new forewords,
there are few editing costs. They may sell only a few copies per
year, but they usually keep on selling for years. Southern Illinois
University Press in Carbondale, for instance, publishes reprints
of books on local lore, the Civil War, reminiscences and other topics
that touch on life in deep southern Illinois, which it markets as
the Shawnee Classics. Typical of the series are two recent titles:
Before Mark Twain: A Sampler of Old, Old Times on the Mississippi,
a 1968 compilation of reprints from diaries, newspapers and journals,
and Tales and Songs of Southern Illinois, a folk history
classic by SIU professor Charles Neely that was originally published
the other end of the state, Northern Illinois University Press in
DeKalb has given us new editions of recent works that, while dating
only from the 1940s, are already classics, to the extent
that term may be applied to works of merit that have been forgotten.
One of them is Midwest at Noon by Graham Hutton, the other
Herbert Asburys history of the Chicago underworld, Gem
of the Prairie. NIU Press still has in print the important addition
it made in 1970 to the library of the curious student of Illinois
Clyde Waltons anthology of recorded history, An
University of Illinois Press in Urbana-Champaign has come closest
to producing what could be called a pleiade series of Illinois classics.
Its Prairie State Books consists of quality paperback editions of
some 30 titles, in decent bindings and augmented with scholarly
introductions (which, it must be said, often are more interesting
than the books they introduce).
U of I Press has cast its net wider than the Shawnee Classics, and
includes works about Chicago and all parts of downstate. Windy
McPhersons Son, Sherwood Andersons first novel (one
of many country-boy-comes-to-Chicago stories) is thus reborn, as
are such varied works as Paul Angles history of gang war in
a southern Illinois county, Bloody Williamson, Black Hawks
autobiography, Farrells Chicago Stories and Peatties
The Precipice, which recounts how a University of Chicago
coed finds feminism in a settlement house. The U of I Press also
occasionally brings out as part of its regular line of trade paperbacks
new editions of such classic works as Milo Milton Quaifes
Chicago and the Old Northwest, 1673-1835: A Study of the Evolution
of the Northwestern Frontier, Together With a History of Fort Dearborn.
of what is in print from our more arcane authors, and lesser works
on the known ones, survives thanks to the small presses. Vachel
Lindsay has received special attention from the small press, perhaps
because in Lindsay a literary man who knew nothing about
business they see a kindred soul. Tramping Across America:
Travel Writings of Vachel Lindsay was brought out by Springfields
Rosehill Press in 1999, following the example set in the 1980s by
Peorias Spoon River Poetry Press, which put out a comprehensive
collection of his verse, The Poetry of Vachel Lindsay, in
three volumes. Lindsays reformist fantasy, The Golden Book
of Springfield, was returned to the shelf after 70 years by
Chicagos Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co. (Subversive
literature for the whole family since 1886.)
famous authors, in fact, are pretty well served by the various arms
of the publishing industry. Most of the editions described above
came out since Bray published his lament in the early 1980s. Back
then, he found, many of these titles were out of print and could
be obtained only through a library. Now we have the Internet, which
makes it much easier for curious Illinoisans to track down used
out-of-print books and copies of books in print that general-interest
booksellers cannot find room for on their shelves.
many other Illinois writers of note have not fared well at the hands
of the commercial press. Don Marquis was a novelist, playwright,
poet and columnist whose characters were familiar to millions in
the 1920s and 1930s, including archy the cockroach and mehitabel
the cat. Critics of the day likened him to Twain and Mencken as
a humorist and social critic. While archy and mehitabel stories
remain in print (thanks, one assumes, to the eagerness of cat owners
to buy anything that features felines), Marquis novel Sons
of the Puritans, in which the humorist recalled his hometown
of Walnut in Bureau County as it was in the late 1800s, is all but
impossible to find in Illinois libraries.
is not alone in his neglect. Robert Herricks novels are out
of print or hard to find. Donald Peatties natural history
of trees is still in print, but buying his two nature books based
in Illinois Prairie Grove and Almanac for Moderns
requires a search of the used book shops. The works of Hamlin
Garland are out of print save for expensive library editions. One
can find the name Ben Hecht on scattered titles in the bookstores,
mainly his writing for and about Hollywood, but not Gaily Gaily,
his rip-roaring memoir of newspapering in Chicago.
curious Illinoisan whose appetites go beyond we will not
say above the famous, the officially sanctioned or the controversial
will have to repair to a local library. But they often are as bare
of Illinois classics as the bookstores. A check of the Online Computer
Library Centers massive WorldCat database (which catalogs
the holdings of more than 700 Illinois libraries, including all
of its larger public and academic collections) finds that John Hallwas
fine anthology, Illinois Literature: The Nineteenth Century,
is available in only one in four WorldCat libraries. Robert Coovers
novel, Origin of the Brunists, is listed by only 43, including
only one public library in West Frankfort in the deep southern part
of the state where the story was set. Only six public libraries
in Illinois own a copy of Marquis Sons of the Puritans.
Whitlocks 13th District, as mentioned, is on the shelves
of exactly three.
paucity of Illinois literature in Illinois public libraries is proof
of neither indifference nor illiteracy among our librarians. Most
of the states public libraries are small. Of the 624 public
libraries in Illinois in 2001-02, 414 served towns of under 10,000
people; most school libraries serve even smaller populations.
institutions are obliged to spend most of their tax money on what
most of the taxpayers want; they have limited space and scant budgets
for what must be considered coterie books. The public library as
presently conceived is a service agency whose job it is to circulate
books, not a museum where literature is preserved and curated.
the literary canon is, however, one of the jobs of the university
library. Thanks to the interlibrary loan, the diligent reader can
augment the skimpy collections of public libraries, one book at
a time, by tapping into collections of colleges and universities.
These tend to be both broader and deeper than all but the biggest
public libraries can afford. Of the 109 libraries in Illinois that
own at least one edition of Francis Griersons fanciful memoir
of Illinois in the Lincoln era, Valley of Shadows, 61 are
part of a college or university. Of the 15 Illinois libraries of
all types that own a copy of Marquis Sons of the Puritans,
nine are academic. Of the 21 Illinois libraries that keep Whitlocks
13th District on the shelves, 17 are attached to a college
wont ask for a book unless they have heard of it. The states
cultural institutions have done good work in seeing to that. Illinois!
Illinois! is a 2,233-item annotated bibliography of fiction
about Illinois compiled by Thomas L. Kilpatrick and Patsy-Rose Hoshiko.
They began their labors in 1971, and the first edition was published
by Scarecrow Press in 1979. An updated and expanded online version
is now posted on the Web, courtesy of Southern Illinois University
Carbondale. In 1985, the state librarians office published
A Readers Guide to Illinois Literature and distributed
it free to all public and school libraries in Illinois. Contributors
included such stewards of the canon as the University of Illinois
James Hurt, Western Illinois Univer-sitys John Hallwas, Bray,
Chicago States Babette Inglehart and John Knoepfle of what
is now the University of Illinois at Springfield. The guide is an
invaluable tool for any teacher or librarian who wants to develop
a course or a reading group using Illinois literature as
well as a CliffsNotes for journalists wishing to impress
readers with having read more widely than they have.
states curriculum mavens have been busy, too. Illinois State
University contrived The Connections Project funded
by the Illinois State Board of Education. Aimed at high schoolers,
the project proceeded from a Bray-ish premise: As residents
of Illinois, it is important to understand the history, settlement,
and culture of the state. The planners chose as texts works
by Ernest Hemingway and Sandburg (Chicago), as well as the
life of Abraham Lincoln, to give the students a good idea
of the dense history and culture of Illinois.
the schools do more? There are many reasons to wish they will not.
If few Illinoisans read for pleasure, it is partly because verse
and fiction were forced on them as school texts. Schools that no
longer ask kids to read Charles Dickens are not likely to introduce
them to the likes of Joseph Kirkland in any event; schools that
cannot teach kids to read are not likely to do a good job teaching
them Edna Ferber.
Illinois literature is sneaked past unwitting students in the guise
of social history. A case can be made and several experts
made it in 2000 in Illinois History Teacher for such
works as Black Hawks autobiography, Griersons The
Valley of Shadows, Addams Twenty Years at Hull-House,
Masters Spoon River Anthology and Gwendolyn Brooks
A Street in Bronzeville as local history texts. But is it wise
to surrender our literature to the sociologists, as one might give
an old coat to the Salvation Army? Lorraine Hansberrys famous
1959 play, Raisin in the Sun, may be read as a treatise on
the housing problem in the Depression-era Black Belt but
to read it only as that is a disservice to Hansberry and,
for that matter, the reader.
the great Illinois books are not read because they are hard to find,
it is equally true that they are hard to find because so few people
wish to read them. There are a dozen reasons why this is so. Carl
Smith, professor of English and American Studies at Northwestern
University and author of Chicago and the Literary Imagination
1880-1920, says of his students, Its out of fashion
to read for the ethos of a place students are suspicious
of literature as a bearer of ideas because theyve been taught
that every author has an agenda.
with agendas probably bother readers less than authors without skill.
More than a couple of the books in the Illinois canon are there
because they are by Illinoisans or about Illinois, not because they
are great books. (Frank Norris The Pit is a good, or
rather a mediocre, example.) Bray argued in 1985 that A Prairie
Winter, a diary of a woman living on a farm near Mokena in Will
County that was published in 1903, has a similarity to a genre of
cozy country books that includes such best-sellers as Yorkshire
veterinarian James Herriots All Creatures Great and Small.
If we are going to read such stuff and we are
why not read our own? he asked. One reason may be that while
the farmers of the Illinois frontier era dwelt in a place as exotic
to us now as the faraway Dales of Yorkshire, they arent quite
exotic enough to be entertaining.
even bigger deterrent to taking up Illinois literature than the
lack of skill among its authors is the lack of skill among our readers.
Too many readers are like the young person who found the vocabulary
of Jane Addams Twenty Years at Hull-House a little
is a great autobiography, reported the reader in a review
posted on the Web, but not for beginners. The reviewer
was almost 20 years old.
has argued eloquently, if not quite persuasively, on behalf of Griersons
The Valley of Shadows. I can think of no better book
for teaching students the high emotional drama that the Illinois
folk lived through in those crucial years of the rise of Abraham
Lincoln just before the Civil War, he wrote in the aforementioned
Readers Guide. I firmly believe that The Valley
of Shadows should be read in history and literature classes
all across the state, both high school and college.
much of the dialect in which much of Griersons book was written
makes demands on even readers comfortable with printed English;
to the high schooler to whom printed standard English looks like
Sanskrit, it will be all but unintelligible.
the prospect of learning about the ethos of Illinois does not drive
people to the library, it may be because Illinois is
mostly a political construct, not a social or cultural one. There
is not much that is distinctive about Illinois these days, save
its lack of distinctiveness. About the only people who think in
statewide terms are politicians, intellectuals and cosmopolites.
the extent that most other Illinoisans, including most of its writers,
are aware of an ethos at all, it is a local one. Virtually none
of the classic Illinois books are about Illinois. Rather
they are about places in Illinois. One can make a fair case that
Chicago literature is distinct from Illinois literature to
the extent that Chicago is distinct from the rest of Illinois.
had something to say about life in every Illinois small town, yet
they are but distinct cousins of the Chicago neighborhood. Lindsay
brought Springfield alive, to the extent that was possible, and
no one will think Galesburg is just another burg who has read Earnest
Elmo Calkins history of it, They Broke the Prairie.
no part of Illinois is regional identification stronger than in
southern Illinois, and only in Chicago does so much of that identity
owe to writing. The citizens of Little Egypt love to
read about themselves, perhaps because no one else will, the rest
of the state being unaware that there is any Illinois south of Collinsville.
If literature sustains, indeed creates a regional ethos anywhere
in Illinois, it is here. The SIU Press Shawnee Classics series
began about 10 years ago, following the example of Gordon Pruett,
who had reissued such regional titles through his Crossfire Press
before he joined SIUs staff. Since then, one new/old book
usually comes out each fall. Twenty-two Shawnee Classics titles
are still in print. They have sold well, by the standards of a university
press, with several titles going through multiple printings. Jonathan
Haupt, the marketing manager, explains why. There is a fiercely
loyal sense of heritage in southern Illinois, making an excellent
audience for reprints of classic regional histories, especially
tales of our heroes and antiheroes.
course, many a classic book with a local focus is being read as
local history in the narrow sense. This frustrates Brays larger
hope to develop a usable past. If history tells about the past to
explain something of the present, or even the future, antiquarianism
extols the past because it tells about the past.
is Brays past even possible? Increasingly, the Illinois classic
seems local in terms of time as well as place. The Illinois described
in the classic books doesnt exist not just in the sense
that anything past doesnt exist, but in the sense that there
is little of the old Illinois that informs life in the present one.
Even if Illinois books could inspire a love of Illinois, it might
be unwise to try. If literature is poisoned by being turned into
a history lesson, it is so much more so if it is turned into a civic
Krohe Jr., a veteran commentator on Illinois public issues, is writing
a guide to the states history and culture for the Illinois
Issues, March 2004
For information about how to subcribe to Illinois Issues go to:
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