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Historic Illinois from an aerial perspective


David Buisseret, with illustrations and cartography by Tom Wilcockson. Historic Illinois From the Air. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Pp. 218 with appendix, bibliography and index. $34.95 (cloth)

As the world nears another millennium, nations wrestle with how best to revise or replace an order that may be more a construct of the past than a vision for the future. Illinois for years has pondered whether indeed there is a definition and model better able to comprehend the diversity now existing within its long-standing but perhaps outmoded geographic, social and political boundaries.

In part, the search for a paradigm of Illinois starts best with an overview of the state's heritage and of what is now in place. Fortunately, there is a canon for this study — one that has been growing rapidly, led by university presses and scholars but matched by equally important contributions from people outside the academy.

The WPA Guide Series volume Illinois is a most useful beginning, supported by other works giving local focus, such as Land Between the Rivers for southern Illinois and Chicago, City of Neighborhoods. Other perspectives are served by Illinois Architecture, giving voice to that discipline; Illinois, serving contemporary photography; and A Reader's Guide to Illinois Literature, Rediscoveries: Literature and Place in Illinois and the Prairie State Books reissue series, the latter items evidence of how literary studies have gained ground. These are a handful of the available titles not contained in David Buisseret's otherwise generous bibliography.

Nonetheless, Historic Illinois From the Air is a well-researched and welcome addition to that canon and that search. While marketed as offering both a real and an imaginary aerial perspective, it does much more. The reader is caught up in a visual panorama presenting Illinois' historical and contemporary "garden of delights" from many levels of observation rendered in photos, paintings, maps, lithographs, engravings and other types of images.

Historic Illinois delights the mind as well as the eye. It gives us in crisply written, nicely ornamented and neatly ordered mini-chapters an interpretive overview of the evolution of nature's imprint, followed by that of humankind. Together they call our attention to the distinctive lineaments that comprise the unique character of Illinois. Thus, the activities of finding the old sense of self and forging the new are properly placed within the larger context: discovering the sense of place.

Lithograph of Galena, Ill.

Lithograph by Endicott & Co. N. Y. Reproduction courtesy of Illinois State Museum

A lithograph representing artist Edwin Whitfield's view of Galena, 111., in 1856.

Buisseret admits to limitations, "given our tight constraints on time and money, which always dictated some compromise in order to get the job done.'' Certain limitations are glaring, such as the author's forgetting that what is conspicuous to the professional cartographer's eye might not be so to the untrained eye (David Buisseret is director of the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for History of Cartography at the Newberry Library). Some are a matter of preference, such as this reviewer's wish that Illinois' marvelous western cultural corridor as envisioned here might have included Galesburg and the Spoon River area. Some concern style, which on a few occasions swings between conversational and technical.

However, for every item of interest omitted another is offered. Thus we learn that the century-old "Dutch Mills" in DuPage County "were built by Germans"; we recall that transportation developments made the state's location and resources valuable first to the Mississippi Valley and subsequently "to the great markets of the East and Europe"; and we reflect that Illinois' Utopian and artistic communes are topics which deserve their own monographs.

Aerial photography yields interesting exposures of lighthouses, mounds, factory towns and water cribs, but its real merit is that through the lens aloft we see as if in bas-relief the state's structural lines —the disposition of its waterways, highways, railroads; its woods and open spaces; its built environment; and the demographics of its people. Often we see history repeating itself as when the paths of the National Road, the Amerindians and the Northwest Ordinance are followed by modern routes. And we discover the skeletal remains of important places which from the ground seem to have been erased. We see, and we understand, the logic of the body politic in Illinois.

Colorful as is Buisseret's visual and narrative collage, perhaps it is a single snapshot and interpretive snippet that is most important in Historic Illinois. Reflecting on a photo of the state Capitol in Springfield, the author remarks that it stands as a gentle reminder "of what surely must be the greatest problem facing both city and state: the increasing pressure on natural resources .... But it also stands as a symbol and measure of the state's progress."

Although it more whets than quenches the appetite, Historic Illinois From the Air serves scholar, student or casual reader as a fully credible and enjoyable introduction to the state's heritage as well as a visual companion to the more weighty narrative forays found in the canon of that heritage. It belongs on most coffee tables and in most tourist rooms, in many libraries and classrooms, and in some scholarly carrels.

Francis J. Pettis is director of the Illinois Humanities Council.

24/July 1991/IIinois Issues

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