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Hurt redefines Illinois
culture through its literature


James Hurt. Writing Illinois: The Prairie, Lincoln, and Chicago. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Pp. 154 with bibliography and index. $29,95 (cloth).

Every now and then a specialist in some field writes a book that ought to be read and pondered by a broad spectrum of educated people. Writing Illinois is such a book. Literary scholar James Hurt, professor of English at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, has produced the first book about Illinois literature that should be read by everyone who wants to comprehend the Illinois experience as well as by scholars of American literature.

Writing Illinois starts with the premise that Illinois is a distinctive localization of American culture, possessing a literature that provides important insights into "cultural construction" in the Prairie State. The author focuses on three facets of Illinois culture that have been repeatedly depicted by writers the prairie, Lincoln and Chicago and he views them not as geographical and historical realities but as symbols. As he points out, "the meanings of words like prairie, Lincoln, and Chicago are not natural or inevitable but instead are constructed; they are not simple mirrors of reality but the product of complex intertwinings of hopes, anxieties, wishes, desires, and fears, bound to history, not transcending it." Hurt perceptively unlocks the meanings of these words as he explores a variety of literary works that reflect Illinois culture from the frontier period to our own time.

Often depicted in early Illinois writings, the wild prairie evoked "cultural anxieties over the possibility of constructing a viable culture in such emptiness," according to Hurt. He examines several texts in which the treatment of the prairie landscape reveals cultural struggles over the meaning of freedom, the necessity for law and the nature of an emerging society. William Cullen Bryant's "The Prairies," a kind of signature poem for early Illinois, is such a work, and one for which Hurt provides a remarkably sensitive interpretation. He is surely right in seeing the famous poem as a justification for white displacement of the Indians and as an attempt to assimilate the prairie wildness into American cultural expansion. Hurt also comments on two of the finest accounts by Illinois settlers, Eliza Famham's Life in Prairie Land and John Regan's Emigrant's Guide to the Western States of America, both of which deserve to be more widely read, especially in light of his discussions. And he examines other accounts of the prairie as well, always providing insights that have escaped other scholars.

Hurt does equally well in examining the cultural conflicts that are reflected in literary treatments of Lincoln. In his chapter on "Writing Lincoln" he reveals the struggle to define the meaning of Lincoln's life by interpreting the classic Lincoln biographies by William H. Hemdon and Carl Sandburg, the Lincoln sections of Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull-House and the Lincoln poetry of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters and Sandburg. In the process, Hurt reveals how the personal and historical situations of individual writers have shaped the various Lincolns they put on paper. Of Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, for example, Hurt says, "Writing in an America in economic collapse, with Hitler casting an ever-longer shadow across the world, Sandburg creates a Lincoln who embodies a mystic faith that the American democratic experiment could survive."

In examining literary treatments of Chicago, Hurt shows "the transition from the realistic-naturalistic tradition in Chicago writing to a more open andpluralistic one." That is, he reveals how the Chicago of myth, the brutal city depicted in such works as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan and Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make, has given way to a more humanized city in the writing of Studs Terkel, Cyrus Colter, Maxine Chernoff, Stuart Dybek, Paul Hoover and Saul Bellow. In tracing this transition, Hurt reminds us that the great city has not generated one kind of experience but many worlds, expressing our cultural conflict over the nature of "Americanness."
. . . Hurt reminds us that the great city has not generated one kind of experience but many worlds, expressing our cultural conflict over the nature of 'Americanness'

The importance of Writing Illinois lies not so much in the particular discussions, insightful as they are, as in the cumulative impression of the whole book, for Hurt convinces us that Illinois' literary tradition has had a shaping impact on our cultural consciousness. He shows us what our state's literature has been most deeply concerned with, and he promotes sensitive comprehension of three important aspects of Illinois culture, as viewed by writers who ought to be more widely read than most of them are. *

John E. Hallwas is a professor of English and archivist at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He has published several books related to Illinois literature, the most recent of which is Spoon River Anthology: An Annotated Edition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

May 1993/Illinois Issues/33

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