Reading: Currents of History | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Currents of History 

Edgar Lee Masters on the Sangamon River and James Gray on the Illinois: both meander quite a bit and occasionally pass by something interesting.

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Neither the Illinois River nor the Sangamon is usually mentioned in the same breath with the Mississippi, the Columbia, the Colorado, or the Ohio. The Illinois meanders across the state--for some 420 miles--from the confluence of the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers near Joliet to its rendezvous with the Mississippi near Alton. The Sangamon is one of the Illinois' more significant tributaries, entering it from the east. It drains the once-grand prairie on which Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington, Decatur, and Springfield now stand.

Their biographies are as closely connected as their courses. James Gray published The Illinois in 1940; Edgar Lee Masters The Sangamon in 1942. Both were installments in the Rivers of America series begun in 1937 by publisher Farrar & Rinehart; both have now been reissued by the University of Illinois Press as part of its series of Prairie State Books.

The Illinois has always been more useful than inspiring, serving successively as a voyageurs' route, a commercial artery, an industrial-scale fishery, and most recently, a series of hydrologically managed ponds for the barge companies. Gray praises it as "the calmest and most disciplined of rivers," which is a pretty way of saying "dull." As for the Sangamon, Masters, who grew up in the river town of Petersburg, concedes that it's "not navigable, not noted for its commercial activity, not distinguished for majestic scenery, not for a battle, not for a single historic event, distinguished for nothing but for good and useful lives lived along its shores--which is a very pretty way of saying "dull."

Much of Illinois' history has flowed through these valleys nevertheless. The Illinois was the route by which Europeans first explored, then conquered this territory. And because the Chicago River is connected, via canal, to the headwaters of the Des Plaines, which flows into the Illinois, which flows into the Mississippi and, ultimately, the "Gulf" of Mexico, Chicago owes its early prosperity as much to the Illinois as to Lake Michigan. Both the Illinois and Sangamon valleys were favorite haunts of the state's various aboriginal cultures, and hundreds of unexplored archaeological sites dot their uplands. And of course Lincoln spent most of his life near the Sangamon (mostly in New Salem and Springfield) and rode its waters on one of his more fateful trips, when he journeyed by flatboat to New Orleans in the slave-holding south.

While not great in themselves, then, these rivers were the scene of great events. Their stories are told here in unconventional books that combine history and fiction. Each book has a mood but no real theme, and each is about as organized as an attic storeroom. Readers who have spent a pleasant afternoon or two poking around attic storerooms, however, may think the clutter part of their charm.

Gray's The Illinois, for example, gives us a lively sampling of 19th-century travelers' accounts, which some might call the first works of fiction to be inspired by the state of Illinois. He also gives us the barge sailors and the small-town eccentrics, even a critical review of the three poets of the Illinois country, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Masters. Much of the book consists of character sketches. We meet backwoods entrepreneurs like Dennis Offut, circuit-riding preachers like Peter Cartwright, and political heavyweights like Stephen A. Douglas, the "Little Giant" who was Lincoln's debate antagonist, and Judge David Davis, the kingmaker behind Lincoln who later became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gray's way with an anecdote is almost cinematic. It isn't hard to imagine Steamboat Elsie in a John Ford film, or Chief Black Hawk, or those wild boys from Clary's Grove who "distracted themselves by rolling complaisant drunkards downhill in barrels." Gray also had the knack for a phrase that used to mark the better class of newspaper writer. French governor Frontenac, he tells us, was "always zestfully on the make." La Salle "boiled with principles." The Iroquois were "artists in destruction." As for the river itself, the Illinois "made its bed ages ago, and continues, dutifully, to lie in it."

Personality excites in Gray some of the same urge to explore that the Illinois provoked in Marquette and Joliet. This may explain his affection for the French and the Indians; they had their faults, like the British and Americans who replaced them, but they were a lot less dull. The Peoria, Tamaroa, Kaskaskia, and Cahokia tribes practiced only rudimentary arts and religion and managed, in the midst of material plenty, occasionally to go hungry. Gray says of the men that they were handsome but vain, timid in war and unreliable in peace. The French liked them, though, perhaps because the French brought to their rule a tolerance, a gift for political accommodation, that eluded their greedier European cousins.

The Indians of the Illinois, Gray says, frustrate a reflex common to European whites--to sentimentalize them either as monsters or as noble savages. The tribes to the north and east of the Illinois valley were politically more adept and militarily more formidable; the Illinois River tribes were more easily corrupted by the settlers' trade-goods economy, becoming idle, dependent, and dissolute. (Masters's grandmother recalled Indians begging at her back door in the years before their final exodus to new lands in the western states.)

In Gray's view, the Illinois River's Indian past was as much farce as tragedy. So he dismissed the "orthodox" story of the death of the Ottawa chief Pontiac, who was reportedly ambushed after a debauch, as insufficiently uplifting. Gray offered instead an improved version in which the ambushed Pontiac is revealed as an impostor and the real chief done in by an Illinois chief named Kineboo. The murder thus acquires a political dimension, serving as a satisfactory provocation for the internecine war that concluded so melodramatically with the siege of Kineboo's Illinois tribe by Pontiac's allied tribes atop Starved Rock.

Gray's accounts of the more recent--European--tribes to occupy the Illinois valley are more truthful but less interesting. His treatment of Abraham Lincoln, however, is creative. He devotes a third of his book to Lincoln, even though Lincoln figures no more significantly in the history of the Illinois than Richard J. Daley figures in the history of the Chicago River. In order to write about Lincoln but not leave out the Illinois, Gray tells the president's story indirectly, through the lives of the men and women who shared Illinois' crowded stage with him. Typical is the way Gray addresses the slavery issue. He devotes a chapter to the martyred abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, but admits that Lovejoy probably didn't even know Lincoln (in 1837, Lincoln was just a Whig on the make in Springfield), and Lincoln referred to Lovejoy only once, and that time disparagingly. This is dubious history, but Lincoln had made Sandburg a best-seller in the 30s, and any writer who could get Lincoln into his book in 1940 may have been under some pressure to do so.

Lincoln is a conspicuous presence in Masters's The Sangamon too. He is not its hero, however. In fact Masters suggests that Lincoln was exceptional among denizens of the Sangamon country only in that the wider world actually recognized his qualities; nobility of character was everywhere among our pioneers, like the ague. Masters idealizes New Salem, for example, the village of Lincoln's early manhood, as precisely the sort of America that Jefferson had wanted. Masters's roster of characters--the lawyer bringing justice to the frontier, the preacher spreading the word of God, the sturdy yeoman taming the wilderness--are the stuff of pageants, not of history.

The Sangamon, which is mainly an extended reverie about the people and scenes of Masters's own youth near the town of Petersburg, combines reporting, reminiscence, and verse. Masters gives us as varied a group as the population in Spoon River Anthology: his grandfather; Indians like Shickshack and Shabbona; the Armstrongs, who won fame when one of their clan was bested in a wrestling match by young Lincoln. Famous names appear occasionally: Masters once escorted a curious Theodore Dreiser down from Chicago to talk with a man who had known Lincoln--and who described him to the fascinated novelist as looking "like one of these cranes you see along the Sangamon." More typical of Masters's citizens is Bill McNamar, the village idiot of Sandridge, who "went to the Shipley School District for a while, where the boys teased him, and where he sat like a frog in a trance, looking with one eye at Jane Rodeman."

Masters's sketches have the quality of good talk--they're relaxed, personal, possibly even true. The author regards the heroes of his youth indulgently, even reverently. At one point he likens the people of the Sangamon country to meadowlarks, which is not a comparison that would suggest itself to everyone who's known them.

Fortunately, the reader doesn't have to believe Masters to enjoy him. The Sangamon may be foolishly romantic, but it's rich with personality and anecdote. Religion provided as much amusement in those days as it does today: A country church turned out one of its members for having publicly taken the temperance pledge--apparently he'd contravened some doctrine--at the same time it ousted another member for having been publicly drunk. "Whereupon," relates Masters, "a tipsy wag arose in the church, and holding a bottle of whiskey, called out, 'Brethering . . . I want to ask a question. It is this: How much of the critter does one have to drink in order to remain in full fellowship in this church?'"

Historian Constance Lindsay Skinner is the person who conceived the Rivers of America series over 50 years ago. She envisioned works that would retell the story of the United States as folk saga. The series was to be a literary venture, not a historical one, modeled more on Sandburg's Lincoln than on Gibbon's Romans.

Folk sagas are all right in their way, apart from inciting people to prose-poetry. In fact novelists and poets often write the best history, being more adept than scholars at distinguishing what is true from what is merely factual. But history told as a story is one thing; stories offered as history are another. Neither Gray nor Masters gives us a dependable history of his subject, indeed hardly writes about it at all. What we get instead are tall tales, reminiscence, elegy, verse, and hymns to the People.

The Sandburg-style hymn-as-history has been pretty thoroughly discredited in the last 40 years or so, and the authors of the introductions to these new editions feel compelled to defend Gray and Masters against the charge of peddling hokum. Charles E. Burgess, who wrote the introduction to The Sangamon, says in effect that as a historian Masters was a fine poet, a man more trustworthy with a metaphor than with a fact (as several libel lawyers tried to prove at various times in Masters's career). John Hallwas in The Illinois assures us--somewhat curiously for a man who is himself a historian--that Gray's book is "not just an historical account but a literary achievement," as though we shouldn't normally expect a book to be both. Hallwas may have intended a distinction between the factual and the imagined, but in any case his message is plain: this is history meant to be enjoyed, but not necessarily believed.

Masters must be included, of course, on any list of famous one-book authors. (Unless you add to Spoon River Anthology his Lincoln: The Man, a 1931 opus that Burgess lauds as "probably . . . the model of iconoclastic invective in American letters.") The Sangamon was Masters's last book by a major publisher, and it was only sporadically reviewed by national critics who, Burgess says, "had grown wary (and weary)" of an author who had produced only "irascible works of modest creativity" in the 30 years since Spoon River Anthology was published.

Gray was not a novelist but a journalist who published novels. He spent most of his working life in Minnesota, but was literary editor of the Chicago Daily News and lectured in creative writing at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s. Unlike Masters, in 1940 Gray was at the beginning of his writing career; The Illinois was his first book, and probably his best.

But though Masters was only 30 years older than Gray, they were a century apart in sensibility. Gray writes from observation, Masters from memory. Gray, the cynical journalist, is worldly wise; Masters, the romantic, is bitter, especially about progress. You can imagine Gray holding forth in the living room after dinner, highball in hand, while Masters seems to belong in a chair on the porch, sipping cider.

Yet the books have much in common, from their subject matter to their elegiac tone. No river rambles so much as our authors: Gray is digressive, Masters often simply garrulous. Both men have trouble sticking to the point. Reviewers complained that Masters's book had no recognizable structure; Hallwas concedes that Gray's book is mostly a historical miscellany. But the editors of these folk sagas had never aimed for literary greatness--they sought to give the People their own history in a form they could digest. Parts of both books sound less written than transcribed, and they read well out loud, which you may want to keep in mind for some evening when there's nothing on TV.

Story telling is an art not common in historical writing these days. I don't mean story telling as historical narrative, the way a Macaulay might have used it, but story telling as moralizing fable. Reading Masters, for example, reminds you that history does not flatter only the rich and powerful. Masters blamed the fall of his small-town heroes on the Irish immigrant to the big city, the slave-hating Yankee, and the big bankers. But as his accounts unintentionally make clear, his noble peasants were no strangers to sin. He offers as local color a bloodcurdling inventory of shootings, disembowelings, and knife slashings. His countryside is alive with barn burners and cattle mutilators and drunken crowds chasing preachers across swollen rivers. Boredom was epidemic on the frontier, and the antidotes included mob murders (abolitionists and religious prophets were preferred targets), trumped-up battles against Indians, and money-making schemes so unabashed in their fraudulence that today's Wall Streeter would blush to take part.

"Memory is a kind of reading glass under which spots of earth long beloved take on the aspects of something magical," Masters wrote. His own reading glass was rose-colored. True, early travelers had compared the Sangamon valley, not implausibly, to Eden. But by the time Masters was born, in 1869, it had already been plundered by speculators and raped by farmers. The wolf hunts that provided the locals with adventure after the Indians had been driven out no longer turned up any wolves, and the river, which had once harbored pike and bass, yielded only carp. "Somehow," Masters observes ingenuously, "wild animal life has diminished greatly in Illinois."

Human life had not. The impulse toward prosperity, that mania for "improvement" that transformed the Sangamon wilderness, also destroyed it. Masters's grandmother, he recalls, when she arrived in the Sangamon country was dismayed by this virgin land's loneliness. "But when miles of corn began to wave their banners," he writes, "and the land was diversified by houses and barns and divided by rail fences, the scene became beautiful." And in some ways barren, as the forests were cleared for houses, farm fields bled topsoil into the rivers, and hunters wasted the game. You can't have your cake and Eden too.

There is something wistful about these accounts, particularly Masters's. Even the artwork originally commissioned to illustrate the books reflects this: in The Sangamon, a sunrise over an abandoned horse plow, in the style of a poor man's Thomas Hart Benton, is typical. When these books were produced, the United States had been chastened by the Depression and faced problems of urbanization, industrialization, and migration, including the resulting racial tensions, with which it was ill equipped to cope. Uncertain of its future for once, the U.S. public clung all the harder to a past it imagined to be democratic, bucolic, and simple, an idealized national youth.

For all that, these books have an unexpected contemporaneity. Gray's hustlers and dreamers sound a lot like the eager plunderers transforming Illinois' modern frontiers in Du Page and McHenry counties. And Masters's brand of moralizing history, justifying the resentments felt by the white farmer, small-town merchant, and manual worker being squeezed from both sides by immigrant labor and big money, seems as fresh as a Reagan stump speech. Like Reagan, Masters at his most effective is also Masters at his worst; both show the same moony sentimentality and the same indifference to fact.

To complain that The Illinois and The Sangamon are minor books may seem harsh; these are minor rivers, and so may be said to have gotten the books they deserve. But greatness in a book is not necessarily a function of its subject. William Maxwell has made literature out of Lincoln, Illinois, for example, and Masters did the same for the Spoon River country. But when Masters suggests that the traveling legal sideshow that was the old circuit court is a topic worthy of Chaucer, you may wonder, as I did, whether the University of Illinois Press might have done better by commissioning a new Chaucer than by reprinting old Masters.

Any successors to these volumes would be sadder and angrier books, as any must be that chronicle the depopulation of our rural estate and its spoliation at the hands of farmers and other developers. Rivers offer only beauty and usefulness, Gray notes; but in the cases of the Illinois and Sangamon, we have sacrificed the former to the latter. Without quite meaning to, these books remind us that the people of the Illinois and the Sangamon, not the rivers, have charted the more turbulent and transient course. We have tamed the wilderness but not ourselves.

The Illinois by James Gray, University of Illinois Press, $8.95.

The Sangamon by Edgar Lee Masters, University of Illinois Press, $8.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Patti Green.

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