Illinois Issues Humanities Essays (third series)
By ROBERT BRAY
IT'S TOUGH on a town, being literary. In America, in the Midwest especially, to be a literary town is generally to be a town in trouble. Two notorious examples, those slatternly sister towns of Winesburg, Ohio, and our own Spoon River: The books are still good reads, but the towns are to modern taste uninhabitable. They inspire morbid curiosity in literary tourists. "Let's get off the Interstate and have a look at Edgar Lee Masters country. It won't be much out of the way." So there you stand in the heart of it all, perplexed: Where is the infamous graveyard on the hill? You know, the one where all those strange people are buried? You cruise the roads between Lewistown and Petersburg looking for possible Spoon Rivers. You need to know just what sort of place could have inspired the lasting literary malediction that is Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.
Doubtless something similiar goes on around Winesburg's geographical analogue of Clyde, Ohio (wherever that is), and in the vicinity of all the other well-known literary towns of the Midwest. Taking a detour off the main highway, we may believe we're catching a glimpse of the "real" America (which the town, by the time the phrase began to be applied, wasn't). But the irony is that our literary guidebooks almost always lead us right off the map to ghost towns that have failed. Spoon River, Winesburg, Gopher Prairie, New Canton, Lone Tree not so much towns as prisons filled with life sentences. "I loathed you, Spoon River," says the failed artist Archibald Higbee, and he means it. At the end of Winesburg young George Willard gets out, escapes. We never hear what became of him, but the implication is that wherever he went, he's bound to be better off.
"My God, what places!" say the "Village Virus" writers, and we are obliged to protest that not all our towns, literary and actual, are dreary or desperate variations on Spoon River. Fortunately, there is a counter-tradition to help us make the point, one founded on the gently ironic byplay between midwestern history and golden-age myth. It is represented in recent poetry by Dave Etter's answer to Spoon River, Alliance, Illinois; and in fiction by the work of numerous literary heirs of "the gentleman from Indiana," Booth Tarkington including the most relentlessly mythic novel ever written about Indiana, Ross Lockridge's Raintree County and in Illinois by the works of Harold Sinclair, most notably his novel American Years published in 1938.
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American Years is the opening novel in a trilogy (followed by Years of Growth in 1940 and Years of Illusion in 1941) that fictionalizes the first century of Bloomington, Illinois. The town is called "Everton," but it is a positive and credible version of Bloomington. Though Sinclair was a deft satirist and a probing social critic, his work is rarely cynical about the pioneering adventure or the motives of the men and women who planted towns. American Years is peopled with what Van Wyck Brooks called "objective-minded men," who are shown realistically at work in the business of founding a community. And throughout his richly detailed narrative, Sinclair makes a thorough and imaginative use of his documentary sources chiefly the local history of Bloomington and McLean County.
Thus far he was writing conventional historical fiction. But Sinclair tried something new that has made American Years a keeper in an ephemeral genre. Ever since Fenimore Cooper, the historical novel in America has grafted its history onto the frail stalk of the romance plot or its more modern variation, the family saga. More often than not the graft doesn't take, and at best the outcome is a hybrid that lacks formal integrity. Even such notable 20th century masters of the historical novel as Kenneth Roberts and Conrad Richter could not solve this problem. Sinclair, however, avoided it, though at the risk of being criticized as an inept plotter. In American Years the town of Everton is itself the protagonist. Dozens of stories are told the stories of great and small alike but no one individual's story predominates, and love and marriage are not the organizing principle of the novel. The town is the center of narrative attention. The characters are citizens of Everton, and this is how they are measured. Those who subordinate self to civic good keep their historical names and are rewarded with ample narrative space. (Judge David Davis and businessman Jesse Fell are two prominent examples.) But if selfish motives interfere with Sinclair's notion of civic duty an emphatically democratic and progressive notion the name of the historical personage is likely to be changed and the person treated unflatteringly in the novel. (General Asahel Gridley, Bloomington's opportunistic entrepreneur, becomes Abel Green, for instance.) For the rest, people by the hundreds come and go in Everton, move in and out, live and die, but the town itself endures and at least up to the eve of the Civil War stands in a fair way to prevail.
Just like a town, we may say, and this is precisely what Sinclair intended. Or in part, as Kenneth Clark has observed: "A city is stones, a city is people. What is a city?" And Sinclair is asking this too. The physical presence of Everton is deeply felt in American Years, and such a palpable feeling is what makes the novel a necessary cultural artifact for the contemporary Bloomingtonian. More than a century after its closing events, we can walk through a Bloomington that is at crucial points an archaeological residuum of old Everton. The things that are gone and buried still echo up the years. Those that have survived are lessons in a town's evolutionary change.
The Oaks: 1849
On Grove Street Green was building a pretentious place that was costing him, so it was said, more than $25,000. It looked like that much money, anyway. There was to be a brick wall around three sides of it and a tall iron fence with fancy iron gates across the Grove Street front. The carriage house (Green didn't call it a barn, much to the amusement of certain citizens) was at the back of the lot, on Harvey Street.
Sinclair may have been wrong about the brick wall. At least there's no evidence of it today. And he certainly moved construction of The Oaks back a decade. But the continuity between past and present is nevertheless strong. On the flanks, where the wall would have been, are a neo-Georgian funeral home and an art moderne ex-auto showroom turned body shop. Out front is a nondescript recent red-brick apartment building that takes up all of what used to be the yard. The effect is mostly to obscure the Grove Street approach to Gridley's mansion. You can walk by and miss the place. One of Bloomington's grandest 19th century residences goes unnoticed.
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The Oaks was subdivided into apartments back in the 1930s, sharing the fate of many of the Renaissance Florentine villas after which it is patterned. The Italianate exterior, with its high pedimented windows, hides a group of expensive apartments it's hard to say how many without going into the foyer and counting the mailboxes and the address is said to be prestigious even in fragmentation: antique, permeated with history, still connected with the "Corn Belt Aristocracy" of which General Asahel Gridley was a founding member. But on weekends you'd swear the house was uninhabited. This particular Saturday, The Oaks is deserted and quiet except for the sounds of birds, scrabbling squirrels and an occasional car on the street. No one leans to open the French windows or stoops in the hallway to pick up the Daily Pantograph. The situation is perfect for a trespassing stroll and a bit of innocent window peeping.
Despite desultory modernizings, a few of the details of the house have survived to reveal its era: on the west drive a few feet of moss-grown wooden pavement, the remnant of a carriage path; and on the west wall, halfway up, black leonine cast-iron gargoyles peering down with curling tongues, the anchorings of a long-gone porte cochere. Circling slowly, trying to take in all the details, you sense that The Oaks has had good care for most of its 120-odd years. Once the exclusive estate of a single plutocrat ("Bloomington's first millionaire"), it's now the domicile of the middle-class many upscale, to be sure, but hardly in General Gridley's league. In that same "carriage house" that brought grins to the countenances of "certain citizens" in Everton, there are today three Cadillacs, one in each of the three slots that used to shelter Gridley's three barouches. Technology changes, amenities don't though their apportionment is more equitable: only one Cadillac per apartment, please.
The Oaks: 1852
The full moon swung gorgeously over Grove Street and the Green house.
When Green had built the house he had insisted that the trees be left untouched . . . and they had been. As a result the lawn was beautifully shaded, though the house was only a few years old.
The chair in which Davis sat creaked under the big man's weight and reminded Green that he had guests.
"You'll have some more of the punch, Judge?" he asked affably.
"Why not?" Judge Davis said. "Ward off these autumn chills. . . . How about you, Jesse?"
"No thanks, " Fell answered agreeably.
Jesse Fell, the teetotaler, could do without the whisky punch, but he must have been intoxicated by the harvest moon in Abel Green's trees. The east portico of The Oaks has French windows and a beautiful ornate door that opens onto a wide veranda. From there the original owner could look straight out at his favorite trees, oaks from the edge of Blooming Grove, of which today are left only a pair of old settlers, planted by nature too close together but having managed over the years to reach a lasting accommodation.
Call them Fell and Davis, Asahel Gridley's fellow patriarchs in Bloomington, but Abel Green's arch-antagonists in the civic and business matters of Everton. When the town's welfare was at stake, they could be tough on an opportunist, particularly when Green tended to confuse his business with the commonweal. Green wanted to start a bank: Fell warned him about wildcatting. Green wanted to bring yet another railroad through Everton: Davis read him a basic civics lesson.
"I'll try to make myself clearer, " Davis said into the moonlight.
"Railroads are a business proposition and therefore to a certain extent a gamble. What a man does with his own money is largely his own business, Abel, but you can't gamble with tax money. For your benefit I'll go farther than that. So long as I'm judge of this circuit I'll rule in favor of any citizen who brings suit against his town or county owning stock in any railroad project."
"I see, " Green said, "I see. "
The oak called Fell is thin, dessicated, his rough bark splitting as if the skin were too tight for the bony energy within. His branches are drawn in, and the tall, lean trunk gives a convincing illusion of economy. Fell leans a few degrees north toward Normal, the temperance town he was thinking of founding ("North Everton"), while a few of his larger branches, approaching the sphere of Davis, have curled inward, away from politics, satisfied with local enterprises.
Davis, as in life, has twice Fell's girth. His trunk is smooth and round, with branches that reach gracefully outward to balance great weight. He is all torso and no top, offering to the world a frank embrace. If Fell was preoccupied with Everton, Davis looked beyond it to the Republican convention of 1860, to Washington and to the Supreme Court. "They didn't need close contact with each other. A word, a sentence . . . usually sufficed for whatever business was in hand. They probably understood each other as well as two men ever can." Over the years both have lost a few lower limbs to saw and circumstance, but they don't appear to miss them.
Climbing the stairs to the east porch again for a last look at the lawn, Abel Green's daily vantage: Fell and Davis were the greater men the two old oaks, as always, put the house in the shade.
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Withers Park: 1840
"It was your idea, Fell, in the first place, " Dr. Henry said, a little sardonically. "I hope it amounts to something, though I'm afraid it won't."
"Vandalia has a library, " Fell said, "and so has Springfield and Edwardsville. Why not Evert on?"
"Why not indeed?" echoed Henry. "But perhaps, Fell, they also have a populace that can read. Had you thought of that? Pearls before swine, you know."
Allen Withers, for whose family Bloomington's first real library was named, was part of the little group of Evertonians that Sinclair brought together that night. Withers was a little chary about getting involved with this initial subscription fund. But he wasn't worried about the people's literacy. A library required him to put up hard cash money, and besides, wouldn't the locals permanently borrow all the books within a year? As it turned out, young Withers was right, but Jesse Fell, as usual, prevailed on the matter and the books were duly bought and shipped from Philadelphia. In the end, Bloomington, too, got its free library, and the Withers' name got nearly a century of immortality until the aging Victorian-eclectic structure on the corner of Washington and East streets wore out, was razed and replaced by a new library a few blocks to the south.
Architect George Miller's strangely attractive building is gone. What remains is Withers Park, a fractional acre of green across from State Farm Insurance and kitty-corner from Bloomington Federal, two of the town's most powerful institutions. At lunchtime the two businesses spill out clerks and managers onto the grass for a brief half-hour pastoral in one of Bloomington's significant places. Back in the days of Withers Library, there were paperbacks to read over a sandwich, but now the best thing to do while eating is meditate on the fountain.
The fountain is a characteristic work by Lorado Taft, one of his vague Indian princess allegories in limestone, constructed in 1911 and dedicated to someone named John Trotter by his family. Today no one calls it the John Trotter Fountain; it's just "that fountain by where the library used to be." Yet in 1911 Taft's public sculptural outlook was perfect for Bloomington. His smooth carving and agreeably inexplicit symbolism accorded well with a myth of the pioneer past everyone could swallow: no sharp edges, an idealized feminine presence and absolutely no hint of genocide by the founding fathers.
The fountain is a menage of wolves, bears and Indian squaws. Since these were all long extinct in Illinois, they were ready for complacent mythologizing. Taft made it the destiny of this prairie Pocahantas ever to pour water for the town (at least when the city workers remember to turn her on), and she stares out of eroded suggestions of eyes toward the ground floor of the State Farm Building across the street. Years of cascading water have blackened the right side of her face, and a stain runs down her sweetly flowing bodice, and over the classicized drapery of her skirt, to splash on a pair of feet that look like they've been attacked by a stony fungus. But Taft didn't want us to look at her feet. The water from her shouldered urn flows first between high breasts, the artist's focus: She's the only Indian, a dead Indian, an Indian that never was.
Until she's shut down for the winter the Princess makes her daily watery obeisance to State Farm, whose splendid art-deco building dominates the downtown landscape. This was the company's home office until the bosses decided to move east a decade ago to Bloomington's amenable frontier. Sinclair tells us that as early as the 1840s when a handful of "Forty-Eighters" from Germany replaced a wagon train of "Forty-Niners" bound for California, and the Irish began to arrive for the building of the Illinois Central West meant working and East meant leisure. The generations have confirmed the division. Today you'll still hear talk about the "Forty Acres," though nobody can say exactly where its boundaries are. It's been a kind of movable ghetto of Irish, continental and (more recently) Afro-American and Latino residents. The fact is Bloomington has a social demarcation more pronounced than towns with different sides of the tracks. Main Street is the line. In you live on the east side, the farther the better. On the west side it doesn't much matter. Near or far, you're on the
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wrong side, and eastsiders will need a map to find your place. Sinclair knew: He lived on West Washington Street. When State Farm left, the west side was devastated commercially not to mention the town center. Yet weekdays, downtown still bustles in an odd sort of way. The firm footsteps of lawyers and bankers make a hollow sound as they bounce off empty commercial buildings. They are pursuing the same old phantoms of justice and a stable currency as in the days of Judge Davis' 8th Circuit Court and Gridley's McLean County Bank. But now they labor without benefit of a supporting culture, the town having unaccountably moved somewhere else. The State Farm Building today houses only the company's fire insurance division, whose employees probably wouldn't underwrite policies on most of the downtown's turn-of-the-century shells. Not that you can blame them. On weekends there's no one around to turn in an alarm, unless it might be some vagrant biding his time in Withers Park, sitting in the middle of a deserted urban canyon, listening to the faraway message of the Fountain Princess.
The Old Courthouse: 1832
In town, the county commissioners held a meeting and talked about building a courthouse. . . . Once more it was Green who seized opportunity's forelocks. . . .He put in a bid for $339 and they gave him a contract for "a building one story high, eighteen feet by thirty, to be finished as a comfortable dwelling house, " and he had the job done by Christmas.
The present McLean County Courthouse, built after the Great Fire of 1900, is a Roman caprice that somehow works. Perhaps it's the superb materials and craftsmanship: smooth-cut limestone, bronze doors, plenty of marble facing, mosiac floors and pride of all neoclassical buildings a dome of oxidized copper on the outside painted, half-naked female allegory within. But maybe it has something to do with the right choice of place: four buildings between 1832 and the turn of the century, all on the Square, all tapping the same wellspring of civic and county greatness that James Allin divined when he gave the land to the public in 1831.
In the rotunda is a bronze statue, smaller than life, of General Asahel Gridley, the gift to a grateful people from his daughter. For the past 50 years or so the fingers of the general's right hand have been polished up by an endless stream of schoolchildren, desperate for something to touch in the midst of all the high-ceilinged abstraction. Adults also put the touch on him. En route to playing the Lotto, they supplicate Bloomington's first millionaire in the hope that bronze will turn to Gridley gold. But in the end it's all brass: The thin shiny fingers point inexorably downward to a sign that reads, "Pay Taxes Room 100."
Back outside, birds everywhere. There are birds in the belfry, birds on the balustrade. The old courthouse convenes a parliament of starlings who've been in rump session for years and show no indication of adjourning. They filibuster, they dirty issues that were crystal clear to the founding fathers. But they are undeniably in possession of the place. Meanwhile, the main legal business of the county has moved two blocks south to something called the "Law and Justice Center," which is definitely not a Roman caprice, since its principal architectural feature is a radio tower. The old courthouse stays behind like a widower and no longer knows what time it is. The compass-point clocks in the dome can't agree. Someone let the air out of "Johnson's Pneumatic Time System, Patented May 12, '96." It's either ten-to-ten or an hour earlier if you're on the west side, which, as old-timers on the Square will tell you, has always been a little slow.
Bert Killip surveyed the taproom contentedly from his vantage point behind the hand-hewn walnut slabs of the bar. There might be a panic on, but this was a pretty good night, even for a Saturday. Men will buy liquor, Bert reflected vaguely, when they can't buy anything else.
Everton's Square was the stage for its most dramatic events, from the first auction of town lots in 1831 to the catastrophic fire of 1900. On the Square, General Abel Green preached the First Crusade (the Black Hawk War) and, 15 years later, the Second (on to Mexico). If the proclamation of war meant one thing more than another, it was liquor, and Everton, much to Fell's disgust, never managed to banish Demon Rum permanently from its central precincts. Saloons grew to be plentiful, restaurants too, along with a few high-falutin' cathouses. Often you couldn't tell just where you were. Might as well sit down for a meal and a drink and see what happens.
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Urban renewals and the free market have done what the Society for the Suppression of Vice never could. The madams are gone now, but so is most everything else, and one is tempted to say better whorehouses than nothing. Whole blocks of buildings sit empty on the Square, buildings that were put up after the fire and had style and architectural force. George Miller did most of them, and a better home-grown architect it would be hard to find. Meara, Gresheim, Evans, Livingston, Klemm, all are vacant or have the most transient of business occupants. Now and then one of the Square's buildings gets torn down, to be replaced by a prefabricated structure so egregious in design and workmanship that it would be repudiated by a child fooling around with Leggo blocks.
What isn't empty is likely to be closed. These days even the Federal Cafe on Front Street is closed Saturdays, meaning you can no longer get a cup of coffee weekends around the Square. Yet all is not lost: If you can wait till 6 a.m., the Twenty Grand Tap will open and you can get a drink. Here is where Everton and Bloomington truly merge proof (80 proof at least) that Sinclair was half-right. Politics and booze were Everton's prevailing passions. Today in Bloomington politics is a bore, but saloons are still our most persistent institution.
The Lost Speech Parking Lot: 1856
He let the horses walk as they drove homeward under the overhanging branches of Washington Street. The horses knew the way alone quite well, and Ransom was thinking. He didn't give a tinker's damn about politics on the whole, and yet . . . and yet tonight he had been moved beyond anything he could explain. It was strange. . . . "Son, remember this night as long as you can. Remember what Lincoln said, but mostly remember the way he said it."
But no one seemed to remember just what Lincoln did say that night in Major's Hall, May 29, 1856 the night the Republican party was born. By all accounts the speech was as moving as Sinclair makes it, so much so that the audience forgot to take notes. The hour-long address has come to be known as "Lincoln's Lost Speech," and the missing words have formed one of the chief mysteries in the Lincoln cult. A book has been written claiming to have reconstructed text (indeed, a local man, Elwell Crissey, has given most of his thinking life to the question), and high school oratory contestants have declaimed any number of bogus versions. Yet the only indisputable fact about the speech is its legendary ending: "We say to our southern brethren, 'We won't go out of the Union, and you shall not!' " After which a moment of stunned silence in Major's Hall, then spirited cheering and the rest, as they say, is history. But doggone that Lincoln for never writing anything down.
The speech was lost, and a hundred years later the building. Major's Hall went down in the first wave of urban renewal in the 1950s. What replaced it is the Lost Speech Parking Lot (actually called the "Abraham Lincoln Lot" surely a notably tasteless example of Lincoln-naming even for Illinois). The lot is one of our nicest asphalt prairies. You have to read a miscellany of tarnished plaques on the northern and corner walls to realize it was once something other than a home for sundry species of fauna from Detroit. In short, something happened here, though the here is gone.
Right across Front Street is the new addition to Bloomington Federal, all gleaming granite and glass. Its corporate logos in green and white the eternal flame of real estate can be seen for many blocks to the south, then being no buildings left to block the view. On the north side of Front the wholesale razings done preparatory to construction have opened up a kind of fortuitous urban archaeological dig. Nearby the old David Davis law offices from the 1840s have recently been restored to their federal-period plainness. The Davis building is at one end of the block, Bloomington Federal at the other. In between, the only other structure standing is the Twenty Grand Tap. Why it was spared no one knows.
But now its east wall is revealed for the first time in this century. The coarse mortar, crumbly to the touch, seems to have been frozen in the act of oozing from the bricks. Too amply troweled, it looks like chunky peanut butter overspreading whole-wheat bread to make a better sandwich, make a better building, though the public wasn't expected to see this wall not then and not now. At the top is a faded sign painted over another, a palimpsest on masonry. "New and Second Hand Furniture." Perhaps once, but it's been ages since the Twenty Grand sold anything but beer and shots. More appropriate is the legend of a neighboring wall: "Soda Fountains 5¢," which, as the Twenty Grand regulars might say, is pretty damned cheap for a whole fountain.
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"Heavens, Mr. Lincoln, I couldn't guess who it was for a minute there."
Lincoln doffed the weather-beaten hat and bowed. "How do you do, Mrs. Harrison? How are all of you? I just stopped for a visit ah, to your rear premises."
"Oh, you're welcome, I'm sure, " Mrs. Harrison said, blushing faintly. "We're glad to see you any time, Mr. Lincoln."
Harold Sinclair must be the only novelist to portray Abraham Lincoln taking a pee. And this is exactly the sort of thing that got him into trouble back home even as it won readers' hearts elsewhere. In New York he might win Guggenheim fellowships, get book clubs to buy his novels and collect enthusiastic reviews, but in Bloomington he was denounced as an atheist, an iconoclast, a communist and a heavy drinker (yes, yes, no, and yes). He and Rachel Crothers, the feminist playwright, were having a good run with the New York critics, but that didn't cut any ice with the Corn Belt Aristocracy especially those whose ancestors had their names changed in American Years. Yet it is now time to acknowledge his vision. Bloomington and Everton are close to being one. The differences are accidental, the similarities essential. Sinclair tried to answer the question, "What is a city?" in democratic rather than feudal terms, and for this the once and future citizens of Bloomington should be thankful. What if he did deride Everton's first millionaire as a general who never fought a battle? Gridley and Green led the cowardly flight at Stillman's Run, and both of them successfully avoided subsequent military service during all the succeeding years of their "generalship." This was historical truth. Sinclair couldn't help but use it, no matter how offensive it might be to the mentality which enshrined Gridley-Green in the courthouse rotunda.
But the constraints of history did not require Sinclair to be a radical debunker, much less a disillusioned writer infected with the Village Virus. He loved Bloomington in the uneasy way all dedicated individualists love the social institutions around them. Growing out of such an anxious love, Sinclair's ironies are mellow enough for all but the most unreconstructed local boosters or writers of saints' lives. Harold Sinclair was no hypocrite. The written exercise of his own critical intelligence confirmed him as one of us. There is a marvelous picture of him standing between John Ford and John Wayne in Hollywood: His Civil War novel, The Horse Soldiers, was being made into a movie. And then there is the story they still tell around here about what Harold Sinclair did with the money he got for the film rights: bought a brand new T-Bird convertible, paid cash. On fine days you could see him, top down, traveling a good deal in Bloomington. Or was it in Everton?
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