Beneath the roof of the Illinois State Library in Springfield are inscribed the names of the state’s most distinguished authors. The big Chicago writers are all there—Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks—but the frieze’s designers also made sure to include the names of Downstaters who may not be well-known to urban readers: historian Paul M. Angle, poet Vachel Lindsay, novelist James Jones.
In putting together a list of essential Illinois books, I tried to strike the same balance between city and prairie. I chose books that covered not only the state’s 200-year history, but its 450-mile length. Doing so helped me understand how complicated Illinois really is. The state’s most experimental modernist novelists aren’t from Chicago, they’re from Herrin (Robert Coover) and Champaign (David Foster Wallace). And its best immigrant novel is by an Ethiopian who arrived in Peoria at age two, Dinaw Mengistu. Fiction, poetry and history are the best guidebooks. I hope this list provides an armchair journey through Illinois, from Chicago to Cairo, and from the Age of Lincoln to the Age of Obama.
Illinois has always been a proving ground for racial progress. The state produced the president who freed the slaves, the first black president, and more black congressmen and statewide officials than anyone else. Illinois is a microcosm of America, containing elements of the North, the South and the Midwestern country in between. In 1858, Lincoln and Sen. Stephen Douglas tried to work out the question then dividing the nation—whether blacks should be free to profit from their own labor, or were rightfully the property of whites—in seven small towns around the state.
Douglas clung to his doctrine of “popular sovereignty”: whites had the right to determine whether to allow slavery in their communities. “In the right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else which his own hand earns,” Lincoln declared in Quincy, the black man “is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man.” Illinois was the ideal place for Lincoln to develop a platform that appealed to all factions of the anti-slavery movement, from abolitionists to moderates who only wanted to stop the institution’s spread. Douglas won re-election to the Senate, but the debates propelled Lincoln to national prominence, and two years later, he won the rematch for the presidency.
Also read: Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Carl Sandburg
Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters
Edgar Lee Masters put the Spoon River on the map. Of course, it’s on the cartographic map, flowing for 145 miles between Kewanee and Havana, but no one outside west-central Illinois would know its name if Masters hadn’t applied it to his collection of small-town epitaphs.
A native of Lewistown who made his living as a Chicago lawyer, Masters conceived his work as a series of posthumous remembrances by inhabitants of a graveyard who are all “sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.” Franklin Jones could have finished his flying machine and become rich and famous “If I could have lived another year.” Margaret Fuller Slack was wooed by a druggist who promised her “leisure for my novel,” then bore eight children, leaving her no time to write, and the conviction that “Sex is the curse of life!” As a young maid, Elsa Wertman was seduced by her employer. The family adopted her baby. He became a prominent politician who was never aware that his real mother was listening to his speeches, wanting to cry, “That’s my son!” The human disease of ambition survives even death. All the sleepers have eternity to regret how they spent their short time among the living, and thanks to Masters’s poetic art, their stories are still read more than a century later.
Also read: General William Booth Enters Heaven, Vachel Lindsay
The Song of the Lark, Willa Cather
In the early 20th Century, Chicago—America’s fastest-growing city—was the place to set a realist novel. Theodore Dreiser did it with Sister Carrie, Upton Sinclair did it with The Jungle, and Willa Cather, the greatest novelist of that age, did it with The Song of the Lark, the story of Thea Kronborg, an aspiring pianist who leaves her small town in Colorado to study music in Chicago. Not even Chicago is big enough for Thea’s talent. In an age-old story, after serving her apprenticeship there, Thea moves on to New York, where she sings at the Metropolitan Opera. Another Chicago connection: the novel’s title was inspired by the painting of the same name by Jules Breton, which hangs in the Art Institute.
Also read: Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser
Native Son, Richard Wright
The best novel ever written about race in America. Bigger Thomas lives in a rat-infested apartment in the Black Belt, the South Side slum to which African-Americans were confined during the Great Migration from the South. Hired as a driver for a wealthy white family in Kenwood, he’s confused when the daughter and her bleeding-heart boyfriend try to buddy up to him by asking what it’s really like to be a Negro. He’s even more confused when he has to bring the drunken girl home and put her to bed. Terrified that her cries will reveal that he has broken a fatal taboo by entering a white girl’s bedroom, he smothers her with a pillow, then tries to burn her body in the furnace. The manhunt for Bigger, and his subsequent trial, point out that African-Americans were as much strangers and outsiders in the Promised Land of the North as in the South they fled.
Also read: The South Side, Natalie Y. Moore
A Street in Bronzeville, Gwendolyn Brooks
There may be more widely read Chicago authors than Gwendolyn Brooks, but there has never been one more beloved. “Miss Brooks,” as the poetess was known (although she was married to Henry Blakely for 57 years) succeeded the Olympian Carl Sandburg as Illinois Poet Laureate. Brooks’s first collection, A Street in Bronzeville, offered a more commonplace look at Black Belt life than Wright’s drama. The lead-off poem is titled “kitchenette building”: “‘Dream’ makes a giddy sound, not strong/ Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.” Brooks was an inspiration to the city’s rappers, and even in this early work, Brooks’s verses contain the seeds of hip-hop, as when she writes about “the soft man”: “Disgusting, isn’t it, dealing out the damns/ To every comer? Hits the heart like pain./ And calling women (Marys) chicks and broads/ Men hep, and cats, or corny to the jive.”
Five years later, Brooks became the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for Annie Allen. A statue of Brooks was recently unveiled in a Kenwood park that bears her name.
Also read: Electric Arches, Eve Ewing
Bloody Williamson, Paul M. Angle
The Herrin Massacre was the deadliest incident of labor violence in Illinois’s history, with more casualties than the Haymarket Bombing or the Republic Steel Massacre. On June 22, 1922, striking coal miners captured 50 scabs from Chicago at a strip mine, and ordered them to run for their lives toward Herrin. On the road back to town, 18 hapless strikebreakers were shot or stabbed to death. Their killers were acquitted by sympathetic local juries. That was only one chapter in Williamson County’s tumultuous 1920s, which also included a Ku Klux Klan war for control of the county, and shootouts between bootleggers. Angle, director of the Chicago Historical Society from 1945 to 1965, makes the case that Southern Illinois’s culture, with its penchant for feuds and suspicion of outsiders, never strayed far from that of the upcountry Kentuckians and Tennesseeans who settled the region.
Also read: Tales and Songs of Southern Illinois, Charles Neely
The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren
Wicker Park sure has changed since Nelson Algren lived and wrote there. Just after World War II, when The Man with the Golden Arm takes place, it was a Polish neighborhood of run-down three-flats and even more run down taverns. Frankie Machine returned from the war with a morphine habit – a “monkey on his back,” a term Algren heard among the hustlers and junkies on Division Street, and introduced to the popular vernacular in this novel. Unable to work as a musician due to his addiction, Frankie deals cards in backroom poker games, hence the title. Algren, who began his career during the Depression, was the last of the proletarian novelists, still writing about the urban underclass at a time when Americans were moving to the suburbs.
The Man with the Golden Arm won the first National Book Award, but Algren’s career went into a long decline afterwards, until he finally moved to Paterson, New Jersey, in the 1970s, to research a book on boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. Nonetheless, he is considered the Great Chicago Novelist, namesake of a fountain at Division and Milwaukee, and of the Chicago Tribune’s annual fiction contest.
Also read: Studs Lonigan, James T. Farrell
The Origin of the Brunists, Robert Coover
A graduate of Southern Illinois University and a former reporter in Herrin, where his father was managing editor of the local newspaper, Coover based his first novel on a 1951 coal mining disaster in West Frankfort, which killed 119 men. In his retelling, a religious cult forms around the sole survivor, Giovanni Bruno, attracting widespread attention for their hilltop vigils and alarming the respectable citizens of the town. Much of the book is told from the point-of-view of a small-town newsman who sells the cultists’ story to the big-city dailies. The book terrifyingly captures two strains of fervor that defined Little Egypt in the 20th Century: labor militancy and religious fundamentalism. Coover later became an English professor at Brown University in Rhode Island and a master of literary postmodernism, with such works as The Universal Baseball Association: J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor, and Pricksongs and Descants.
Also read: Some Came Running, James Jones
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
Although Infinite Jest mostly took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Wallace’s byline was well-known in such New York magazines as Rolling Stone and Harper’s, he was Central Illinois’s favorite literary son: a native of Champaign, and for nine years a professor at Illinois State University in Normal. This non-fiction collection contains “Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All,” Wallace’s reportorial excursion to the 1993 state fair — an essay that has never been surpassed in capturing the Midwestern qualities of excessive consumption and imperviousness to irony. At first, Wallace demonstrates that Midwestern writers are as neurotic as their counterparts anywhere else, refusing to enter the Poultry Tent because he was once pecked by a chicken at the Champaign County Fair, and obsessing over the “sexual-harassment” of the Zipper, because the carny operators tried to make his date’s dress flip up. Finally, though, the author finds himself transfixed by the corn-fed farm wives dancing in the Illinois Prairie Cloggers competition, his academic and literary sensibilities overcome by his native weakness for kitsch. The case can be made that Wallace’s journalism is better than his fiction. This is certainly an exhibit.
Also read: The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Ethiopia, but his family emigrated to Peoria when he was two years old, and much of his fiction concerns immigrants in Central Illinois. All Our Names is narrated in turn by Isaac, a refugee from a civil war in Idi Amin’s Uganda, and Helen, the prairie social worker assigned to guide him through life in his new country. Isaac and Helen strike up a romance, challenging the racial attitudes of 1970s small-town Illinois: when they try to eat at a diner, the waitress first asks if they want their meal “to go,” then serves Isaac’s on a paper plate. Throughout the book, the reader is never sure whether the “Isaac” whose revolutionary exploits are described so admiringly by the narrator was a compatriot… or the narrator himself. The back-and-forth narrative, and the question of identity, are storytelling strategies that reflect the immigrant experience: torn between two countries, but with a chance to build a brand new self in America.
Also read: The Question of Bruno, Aleksandar Hemon