What Are They Reading?
By James Hurt.
University of Illinois Press.
154 pp. $29.95.
As a University of Illinois alumna, I'd like to say I wholeheartedly believed the Fighting Illini would emerge victorious from this year's NCAA men's basketball final. But as they sputtered to a 75-to-70 loss at the hands of a bigger, stronger University of North Carolina team, my creeping suspicions were confirmed.
While I watched that championship game, my classic Midwestern lack of self-confidence reminded me of the book I'd just read--appropriately, a book written by a professor at the very university whose team was losing.
In Writing Illinois, James Hurt argues that my home state, and by extension the vast American Midwest, materialized from nothingness. And so the symbols most closely associated with the state--the prairie, Abraham Lincoln and Chicago--are often thought of as having come from nothing: The prairie gave a name to vast nothingness, Lincoln emerged from hardscrabble roots to unparalleled prominence and Chicago's world-renown skyscrapers rose from a flat, smelly wasteland.
That rise from nothing, making much from little, is an idea that Illinoisians, not to mention their fellow Midwesterners, hold dear. We like to think of ourselves as a gritty, scrappy Illinois team always fighting a bigger, more powerful opponent--like North Carolina--that's coming at us from all sides.
But another part of our psychology is that despite our stubborn pride, we're never completely sure we measure up. Hurt writes of the "curious sort of ambivalence in the way my fellow Illinoisians talk about where they live, a mixture of affection and embarrassment," noting that "cultural insecurity [is] part of a Midwestern style."
Hurt's in-depth analysis of writings about Illinois spans from early descriptions of the prairie to Saul Bellow's novels. By showing how writers, the most readily available voices, deal with the state's simultaneous insecurity and pride, Hurt portrays how Illinoisians at large might see their home. The attention he gives to that perspective is equally valuable for Midwesterners in need of vindication and coastal Americans unable to understand why anyone would value a place away from all the action.
Hurt quotes Illinois writer Francis Grierson, in his little-known The Valley of Shadows (1909), as writing, "I have done my best to depict the 'silences' that belonged to the prairies, for out of those silences came the voices of the preacher and prophet and a host of workers and heroes." This is one of the many ways Hurt explores the something that can come from Midwestern nothingness and the value of that nothingness as a sort of incubator for greatness.
Abraham Lincoln, for one, may have benefited from such incubation. For Illinoisian Jane Addams, at least, "Lincoln is a model of achievement sprung from common roots." Hurt quotes Addams as writing, "Whenever I held up Lincoln...as the greatest American, I invariably pointed outhis marvelous power to retain and utilize past experiences; that he never forgot how the plain people in Sangamon County thought and felt...that this habit was the foundation for his marvelous capacity for growth."
What makes for such a foundation? Hurt tries admirably to explain it, but the richness of Illinois, and of the Midwest, is perhaps best characterized by a single passage Hurt quotes from Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make.
Loving Chicago, Algren writes, is "like loving a woman with a broken nose. You may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."