Where Paradox Blossoms Constantly: The Humanities and the Heterogeneities

This was the fourth annual Illinois Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities, delivered on June 24, 1997. Here, Marty identifies three “Illinoises”—Land of Lincoln, Chicagoland, and Southern Illinois, sometimes called Little Egypt—in literature, ethnicity, and religion.


A Text about Paradoxes and Heterogeneities

He who would describe a typical Illinoisan may well find, after carefully combing the State, that his only valid generalization is that an Illinoisan is one who resides in Illinois. The Illinoisan is first and foremost a heterogeneous character, and symbols fit him with little grace. . . .[;] his heterogeneity is in itself the final key to his nature. Historically his State has been one where paradox blossoms constantly; where both Lincoln and the suppressors of Lovejoy were nurtured; where the Utopias of the Janssonists and the Icarians rose in counterpoint to the lusty individualism of old Chicago; the home of both William Jennings Bryan and Robert Ingersoll, of John Peter Altgeld and Samuel Insull. Criss-crossed by railroads from all corners of the country, a steel-maker as well as a wheat-stacker, Illinois in its entirety functions as a working model of the Nation as a whole. Therein the heterogeneity of the State takes on meaning and becomes in itself a symbol burdened with deep significance.(1)

Who wrote those thoughtful words in The WPA Guide to Illinois? Could it have been John T. Frederick, who was the editor of the guide to Illinois produced in a W.P.A. project in 1939? Or could it have been a major Illinois writer, one among many who also were employed by that Depression-era agency? An author such as Nelson Algren, Jack Conroy, Isaac Rosenfeld, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel? Or an African-American Illinoisan such as Richard Wright, Willard Motley, Arna Bontemps, Frank Yerby, or Katherine Dunham. Those mentioned were earning an average of $84 a month in this writing endeavor, doing work that helped them survive the hard times.

The 1939 guide has been reprinted with a new introduction, and there has been a freshly-conceived successor volume. But that little excerpt from the original can be treated canonically and classically to serve as an epigraph for our effort to address questions about Illinoisdom, Illinoishood, and the like.

On Humanities in Relation to Heterogeneities

Our effort is a specifically humanistic one. The questions I have raised are posed in the context of a celebration of the humanities that we are momentarily turning into a celebration of Illinois heterogeneities. Thanks to the chosen text for our meditation, we will also examine some of these heterogeneities, using the language of 1939 to explore “paradoxes” in Illinois. Heterogeneities, we are reminded, are “dissimilarities of elements and parts,” something that Illinoisans are supposed to exemplify abundantly. I thank Governor Edgar for his efforts through the years, and especially for this year’s invitation, to promote literacy, the literary, the humanities, and their bearing on Illinois citizens and their understandings.

An unabashed partisan for state humanities commissions and a veteran of our own, having been on the charter board, I shall also trade on efforts previously made by this Illinois Humanities Council. It spent years on themes that dealt with “inventing” Illinois. The sponsors of those earlier dealings pointed out that the dictionary sees “inventing” in two ways. It can mean “to make up, produce, contrive.” It can also mean to “find.” To come toward my own field of religious history to illustrate: the Catholic church year, for instance, celebrates on May 3 “The Invention of the True Cross.” That “invention” word recalled the claim of St. Helena that she had found the authentic cross of Jesus on a Holy Land pilgrimage on a May 3.

The Illinois Humanities Council through its project wanted to serve the state and its citizens both by helping “make up” and “find” Illinois, which are proper things for such a Council to promote. I acknowledge that, while I had lived in the state for some years before serving on the Council, I had not begun to “find” Illinois until then. The Council’s personnel and concerns came from and addressed the whole state, while I had been a provincial Chicagoan. The Council, of course, has a responsibility for all of Illinois.

What does it mean to speak of “humanities council responsibilities”? To address that meaningfully we have to spend a moment reflecting on what the humanities are and what humanists do. Rather than spend half a lecture addressing definitions that whole shelves-full of books do not exhaust, let me simply reproduce a paragraph from the National Humanities Commission, which does not define. But it does point enough to help us launch the current search: (2)

The humanities mirror our own image and our image of the world. Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: what does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason. We learn how individuals or societies define the moral life and try to attain it, attempt to reconcile freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship, and express themselves artistically. The humanities do not necessarily mean humaneness, nor do they always inspire the individual with what Cicero called “incentives to noble action.” But by awakening a sense of what it might be like to be someone else or to live in another time or culture, they tell us about ourselves, stretch our imagination, and enrich our experience. They increase our distinctively human potential…

The essence of the humanities is a spirit or an attitude toward humanity. They show how the individual is autonomous and at the same time bound, in the ligatures of language and history to humankind across time and throughout the world… Intensity and breadth in the perception of life and power and richness in works of the imagination betoken a people alive as moral and aesthetic beings, citizens in the fullest sense… They are sensitive to beauty and aware of their cultural heritage. They can approach questions of value, no matter how complex, with intelligence and goodwill. They can use their scientific and technical achievements responsibly because they see they connections among science, technology and humanity.

The humanities are not simply one thing, and this series of talks is designed to draw upon several disciplines and approaches. Yet these do interact and we must draw on more than one of them to illuminate our subject. While history and especially religious history is my own discipline, it would be impoverishing to restrict the current inquiry to only one specialty. So in order to suggest something of the map of what is out there to provide possibilities, let us at least run a finger down the catalog of disciplines “licensed” by Public law 89-209, which set up the National Endowment for the Humanities some years ago. It provides many handles, thus:

  1. language and linguistics: These would help us pursue the many local dialects and diverse languages spoken from Illinois’ “Egypt” in the south to Rockford in the north. One would quickly find confirmation of the WPA proposal that “heterogeneity is in itself the final key to the Illinoisans’ nature.”
  2. literature has been the main humanities approach. Books like Robert C. Bray’s Rediscoveries; Literature and Place in Illinois (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982) and James Hurt’s Writing Illinois: The Prairie, Lincoln, and Chicago (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992) illustrate the riches of endeavor that appear in hundreds, if not thousands of volumes cited there. We can allude to this literature but will not be able to cite much for illustration. Other lecturers in other years can pursue this specialty
  3. history has been at least a match for literature. Again, let me point to the cornucopia. Robert M. Sutton in Illinois Issues October 1995 mentions Ellen M. Whitney, et al, Illinois History; An Annotated Bibliography (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood, 1995), with 603 pp. and 4,620 bibliographic entries. Abraham Lincoln, the biggest single Illinois humanities subject, has 400 items to himself, even apart from items on the Lincoln-Douglas debates or on Lincoln sites.

These histories include rich local references with which the various citizens can identify. My research assistant, Jonathan Moore, for instance, could not resist placing a yellow post-it with a note on one page. It said, “my wife’s home town” in respect to a reference to a two-pound apple grown there over a century ago. There is, as they say, something for everyone in these histories as they tell stories of the whole slate, thus contributing through their particularities to concerns over “Illinoishood” or “Illinoisdom.”

  1. jurisprudence, by definition devoted to Illinois law, informs this topic, but must be left to others.
  2. philosophy and ethics are next among the humanities, according to the U.S. enabling law for the Endowment. I am not poised to be aware of philosophers talking about “the essence of Illinois” or trying to find an Illinois ethic, though they certainly both deal with heterogeneities, if not in Illinois-specific ways.
  3. archaeology is another major, site-specific and thus state-specific subject by definition. But since it relates to prehistory it informs our State of Illinois subject but little, and, in respect to history, it can be subsumed under historical inquiries.
  4. comparative religion and ethics. The Congress, evidently fearing lest recognizing religious studies could look like privileging religion, which is an unavoidable subject in the humanities, chose to call it “comparative religion.” I think of Archbishop William Temple, who said there is “no such thing as ‘comparative religion.’ There are only some comparatively religious people.” Comparative religion will appear in what follows, but it will only reinforce the heterogeneity theme. A visit to the phone book Yellow Pages in any Illinois community will demonstrate religious heterogeneity. But that diversity characterizes most American communities. By itself it will do little to help us make a distinctive thesis out of the WPA’s contention that “heterogeneity is in itself the final key to the Illinoisan’s nature.” There has to be an especially describable set of heterogeneities if there is to be any prospect of illumination about Illinois.
  5. the history, criticism, theory, and practice of the arts might well make its contribution to understanding what Illinois has been about, chiefly because “the Prairie State” saw the development of “the Prairie School,” but it would take a specialist to make much of a point of this, and we move on in this celebration of the humanities to:
  6. those aspects of the social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic method along with the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to the relevance of the humanities to the current condition of national life. Of course, demography, ecology, environment, geography, and the rest have a bearing on the attempt to invent Illinois. It will be implicit in all that follows.

This catalog of specialties suggests the celebration of the humanities that we shall now pursue through a couple of the disciplines.

Getting Our Title in Line: Reflection on What Paradoxes Do, Besides Blossom

In the epigraphic paragraph on “heterogeneities,” the anonymous WPA writer produced a colorful phrase: in Illinois “paradox blossoms constantly.” I am not sure the writer’s writing teacher would have applauded such a lavish and no doubt not-thought-through phrase. It prompts us to ask what paradoxes characteristically do.

The logical forms of paradoxes get resolved, or will remain unresolved, in a form that medieval people called insolubilia. The logic books will pose some of these for exercise, e.g., “A man says that he is lying. Is what he says true or false?” The WPA people were not speaking of that sort of conundrum.

The writer instead had the second sort of paradoxes in mind, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A phenomenon that exhibits some contradiction or conflict with preconceived notions of what is reasonable or possible.” The late theologian Paul Tillich liked to make a point of this rootage of the word in reference to religion, and specifically to the Christian faith, which is rich in paradoxes. In it, “God” becomes “human.” The “finite” bears the “infinite.” The “temporal” language bears the “eternal” Word. The “dead” “rise” to new life. These are not, he reminded, contrary to reason; there is nothing unreasonable or irrational in these from logical angles. Instead they are para, contrary to; doxa, opinion.

Paradox Applied to Illinois and Illinoisans, as WPA Does.

Should we think of Illinois as a place, and lllinoisans as a people of paradox? There is precedent for connecting a people with paradoxicality. Historian Michael Kammen did in his book—not a state, but a whole nation—the United States as A People of Paradox. He took pains to define the term in ways that inform our present task, recalling that from the late sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century times,

“educated Englishmen were obsessed with paradox as a literary form. . . . [with]sharp antitheses [here to be. connected with Illinois], incongruous objects connected, [again, in Illinois] agonizing questions, [about, in the present case, Illinois] contrasts between desire and possibility [relevant to Illinois]…. Paradoxes equivocate [of course, also in Illinois] They involve dialectic, often to challenge some orthodoxy or another, [in our proposals about Illinois].

With that push from Kammen and our interspersals behind us, we focus on a place called Illinois and a people of constantly blossoming paradox called lllinoisans.” (3)

The Central Paradox, an Opinion and a Counter-Opinion

Exactly what occasioned and occasions the claim that in Illinois paradoxes blossom constantly, or at least sufficiently that to mention it can help characterize the state? The central one offered by the WPA writer and many before and after would go something like this: There are reasons to expect some generalizations to apply in any state, but particularism abounds. One expects some homogeneity in a state. But, countering this, we get remarkable heterogeneity in “Illinois.” Of course, homo- and hetero- geneity are relative terms. In no state would a demographer expect complete uniformity. But states may display some sort of organic, bounded, characteristics, especially because political and cultural identities often merge and fuse to some extent. Illinois, contrary to opinion and expectation, then, manifests a distinctive kind of heterogeneity. All others flow from that.

Why Care about this Paradox and the Others That Bloom from It?

Now it is in place to ask what is behind the choice of this topic, epigraph, and concentration on paradoxicality and hetereogeneity. Behind all the efforts there must be a special kind of concern to throw some light on what Illinois is all about. To what end? We can rule some out:

I hope this effort will not be seen as an element in what historian Daniel Boorstin called “boosterism.” Boosterism might reinforce weak citizen egos or attract industries and tourists to a state. Well and good. But we can leave such efforts to chambers of commerce or to other states entirely, states such as, say, Nevada or South Dakota today.

Clearly, this is also not an exercise in masochism. Those who relish sameness might consider a stress on diversity to be a form of self-punishment, incurred because we are not otherwise able to come up with a doxa on the essence of lllinoisans or the definition of organic Illinoishood. No, we are not mourning but celebrating heterogeneities. Leave masochism to Maine.

Nor is this bragging so that in respect to heterogeneity and paradox, citizens of Illinois can claim, “We’re number one.” Leave bragging to states with a head start in the art, such as Texas.

We get a bit closer to legitimacy when this is seen as an instance of “exceptionalism,” a concentration of a sort to which American historians devoted themselves four decades ago. But we shall back away from the exceptionalist impulse, thus leaving it as a specialty to states like California.

Instead, this is an effort at contributing to a concentration on places and people in order to help locate them among numbers of foci. These can serve people who seek spheres where loyalties can credibly be extended, or they can be mere but satisfying subjects for humanistic curiosity. Specifically, and again borrowing the WPA thesis in extension and then running with it: “Illinois in its entirety functions as a working model of the Nation as a whole. Therein the heterogeneity of the State takes on meaning and becomes in itself a symbol burdened with deep significance.”

Such a claim implies a specific Illinois tradition, about which few lllinoisans may be informed. Is Illinois history taught in the schools? Propagated on the media? Not notably. Some citizens, if they were somehow forced to confront Illinois tradition, might even want to reject it. Yet we know that while we may not possess a tradition, the tradition possesses us-in the form of language, gesture, habit, characteristic modes of thinking, inheritance, artifact, and the like. So one might as well follow Goethe’s frequently imparted advice and take possession of elements of a tradition in any generation.

The reference to “in any generation” is a reminder that identities and spheres of loyalty also do change. Talk about Illinois was much different before 1818 or before the Civil War or before the rise of Chicago than it was later. What is the tradition like today? And what attitude are we likely to have toward it?

If our thesis about paradoxical heterogeneity bears up in any way, one legitimately asks, is this a good or a bad thing? Must we “make do” and make the best of what we find, or do we seek to alter it? To anticipate the conclusion: those of us who welcome pluralism and heterogeneity as being both inevitable and promising will find reason to affirm what one finds in Illinois, in contrast to what we would come across in states where it is homogeneity of an unparadoxically character that is sought or featured.

Paradoxes Blossoming about Place and Politics

At the heart of it, now: what is interesting about the Illinois paradox in respect to place?

Opinion, doxa, as noted, expects there to be some congruity between political entities and their culture, which combines to help provide citizens with identity; second, to be an attraction for a focused kind of loyalty; third, to suggest boundaries of this ethos. None of these conditions work well for some states, notably Illinois. It is almost impossible to imagine a northern llllinoisans finding anything but an aspect of political identity by reference to the “Egypt” of our south, or vice versa. Chicagoans may have more in common with other metropolitans than with people in what one writer, Baker Brownell, called The Other Illinois. One must ask of the viewpoint: Other to whom?(4)

Thus, Brownell writes, “off to the south of the big-time Illinois and considerably older is another Illinois not well known even to Illinoisans.” Are not Egypt-Illinoisans lllinoisans? “Egypt, he writes is the popular name for the region; no one knows why.” The towns of its five provinces include Cairo, Karnak, Thebes, Dongola, etc. This is the Illinois suggested by the song vivified by poet and singer Carl Sandburg:

Way down upon the Wabash,
Such land was never known’,
If Adam had passed over it,
The soil he’d surely own;
He’d think it was the garden
He’d played in when a boy,
And straight pronounce it Eden,
In the State of El-a-noy.
Then move your family westward,
Good health you will enjoy
And rise to wealth and honor
In the State of El-a-noy.

Would Illinois, among Chicago-based authors Mike Royko, Ben Hecht, Studs Terkel, John Hope Franklin, Ben Hecht, or Saul Bellow have established any element of their identity from the existence of Cairo, Illinois, during their Chicago years?

Yet there are good reasons to ask questions of place. Let me jumble a collection of pithy references to illustrate this, without pausing to elaborate or document. Thus, novelist Flannery O’Connor sneered of someone, “they are not from anywhere.” George Santayana argued that we need a locus standi from which to view the world. Poet Wallace Stevens noted that “we live not in a place but in a description of a place,” so the description acquires great importance. José Ortega y Gasset in a somewhat less frantic time, when population mobility was not as erosive as it may be now wrote: “Tell me your landscape and I’ll tell you who you are.”

James Shaw in 1867 took up what was to become that Ortegan theme in his The Twelve Years in America, and spoke of Illinois as “a State so circumstanced in population, wealth, commerce, and natural resources.”(5) Ortega always wanted to measure how “I am I and my circumstances” [=‘circumstancia’: that which stands around me]. Shaw would ask, what if that standing-around me is a circumstance called Illinois?

“Get real,” the realists might suggest. State lines are not magical bounds. Legend has it that a farmer lived along the Connecticut River that separates “his” Vermont from the “other’s” New Hampshire. He hated New Hampshire and worshiped Vermont. In the course of his later years it was discovered that the Connecticut had changed course in the nineteenth century. There should have been a new survey and registration, so that he would be taxed in New Hampshire. Law required officials to notify him of this.

Eventually they found courage to do so: “We have terrible news for you. You hate New Hampshire and love Vermont. But legally and for revenue purposes, we have to tell you, you are a New Hampshirite, never a Vermonter.” He was long silent, after the manner of taciturn Vermonters. Pressed about this threatening and, they feared, ruinously demoralizing change of definition, identity and loyalty the farmer finally emitted: “Fine with me. At least I won’t have to endure one more of those ‘damn Vermont winters.”

With him in mind, we can talk about special features of statehood and citizenry without turning predestinarian about locale or reductionist about the many ways to find meaning in life.

Paradoxes about People, Beginning with the Name

The WPA Guide, to Illinois in 1939 said of the Illinoisan that “symbols fit him with little grace.” Compare that assertion with one that might be made of citizens in many other states, including some that have less physical coherence than does long Illinois. Many states, for instance, have panhandle extensions: Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, Virginia, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas. One has a detached portion: “Upper” Michigan. Yet they have certain kinds of homogeneities.

In many instances one can use. a word about a state that is full of its own kind of heterogeneity and still connote a symbol, an image. I once heard Ernest Gellner, a major British and Czech social philosopher, describe a postmodern world and speak of the “age of California.” Now, Northern and Southern California are bitterly different kinds of places, and there are more Californias than there are Illinoises, but still Gellner knew he could conjure up an image and convey a theme through such a choice.

Illinoisans and their state do not even have an endearing nickname that they might like to apply to themselves or have their friends use. People as individuals and in groups here do care about symbols and names. Illinoisans connected with the University of Illinois at Champaign fight for and against the symbolic “Indian chief” who dances at “fighting Illini” football games. But the Indian figure does not belong to the state any more than the state at large can get the university to stop using him as a symbol.

As for statewide and statewise realities: Illinois neighbors have acceptable names: Badgers, Wolverines, Hoosiers, Buckeyes, Hawkeyes, Gophers. Literally, or even by analogy, these mean little. Do we really think that everyone across Illinois’ southern borders to the west is a character who insists, “Show Me?” Still, Missourians endure and enjoy the collective image of “show-me-hood,” so far as we can tell.

Not so with Illinois, where paradox and ambiguity fuse to produce first stigma and then acts of forgetting. Illinois was “the sucker state” and its citizens were “suckers.” As early as 1846, Eliza W Farnham, in her important Life in Prairie Land, 1846, would write: “At Prairie Lodge our acquaintance with Sucker* life commenced.” Then followed a footnote: “The cognomen of the Illinoisan, answering to the Buckeye of Ohio, the Wolverine of Michigan, the Corn-cracker of Kentucky, &c.”(6)

A name that unattractive needed explaining. Robert P. Howard tried to provide one in Illinois: A History of the Prairie State: “Of several theories seeking to explain why Illinois became known as the Sucker State, perhaps the best is that the annual migration of the lead miners resembled the habits of a species of fish known as the sucker.”(7) You can believe that if you wish. There is more in the The Dictionary of Americanisms on “Sucker:”

A nickname for an Illinoisan. No generally accepted explanation of the reason for this nickname has so far been found. Perhaps the best, and certainly the simplest, explanation is that many of the first settlers of Illinois were the dupes of land speculators, i.e., were suckers. (also Sucker State. 1886: Chi. W News: “Illinois is the Sucker state (sometimes Prairie State), and its people are Suckers; it is supposed the name was derived from the habit of emigrants drawing water from the holes made by crawfish.”(8)

Add an ‘an’ to ‘Illinois’ and you get no more than, or you get what, the WPA writers got: heterogeneity. But add an “an” or an “n” to other states and you get some sort of stereotype or template for interpretation. Try this as a parlor game. You are likely to find that citizens of most states are candidates . We know something of what the following are: Alabaman, Alaskan, Arizonan, Arkansan, Californian, Coloradoan, (but not Connecticutite or Delawarean), Floridian, Georgian, Hawaiian, Hoosier, Hawkeye or lowan, Kansan, Kentuckian, Louisianan, not Massachusettian, but Wolverine, Gopher or Minnesotan, Mississippian, Missourian, Montanan, Nebraskan, (Cornhusker, in football), Nevadan, not New Hampshire or New Jersey, New Mexican, significantly not a New York stater, but a North Carolinian or Tarheel, Dakotan, Buckeye, Sooner, Oregonian, Pennsylvanian, South Carolinian, Tennesseean, Texan, Utahan (Mormon), Vermonter, Virginian, Washingtonian, Badger and more. Is there a clue in all this?

III. An Illustration: People, Place, and “The Soul of Culture”

Today “heterogeneity” is code-named “multi-cultural,” though in the humanities, because of their love for the humanities it might be better to speak of multi-multiculturalism. They are divided by race, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality language, culture, class, taste, location, and more.(9)

Let’s isolate religion. Paul Tillich liked to say that religion is the soul of culture; culture is the form of religion. Illinois’ “patterned heterogeneity” begins to reveal itself immediately to anyone who assesses the religious situation in the state’s most populous area, greater Chicago. There, one can almost say with a sense of the appropriate, “simply,” the city is shared by Roman Catholics and African American Protestants, while in the “collar” around them Catholics share space with white Protestants. But there is no mistaking, and the religious censuses and atlases make this clear: northeastern Illinois is Catholic. But Catholicism does not make Illinois homogeneous.

The soul of the Southern third, the “other,” is Baptist. Virtually every county in Southern Illinois shares Baptist culture with most of the national South. (Most American counties have a religiously dominant group; our pluralism is not even.) Long ago, reports the author of The Other Illinois,” a native from there told a traveller, that we are overchurched and underschooled, that is our trouble down here.”(10)

The middle third within our patterned heterogeneity is ensouled by a mix of United Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, and other predominances, heirs of the century when revivalists and evangelists swept across the western frontier from Baltimore to Kansas. They left a pluralist but still Protestant band of a sort that has little to do with Egypt’s Baptistness or Chicago’s Catholicism. What is an Illinoisan, in her religious soul? Heterogeneous, in a defined way.

Many jurisdictional names reflect this situation. Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and Orthodox do not have revealing names for theirs. Catholics, 3,593,896 strong, have so many communicants that they need numbers of dioceses. The Southern Baptist Convention with 292,644 (2.6%), has trickled up too recently to divide. But note for the longer-timed Protestants:

United Methodist Church, 440,681 (3.9%)

Northern Illinois; Great Rivers

Lutheran ELCA + Missouri 592,788 (5.2%)

ELCA: MetroChicago, Northern Illinois,


Missouri Synod: Northern, Central, Southern

Presbyterian: 158,320 (1.4%)

United Church of Christ 185,558 (1.6%)

Illinois and Illinois Southern

American Baptist Churches 96,440 (.8%)


Great Rivers

Episcopal 158,595 (1.2%) Chicago, Springfield etc.

The pioneers may have come as “Illinois Bands” to “Illinois Country,” but they did not found a single empire, establishment, or dominion or give the whole stale a denominational hue of a distinctive sort.

I have been arguing that we have “patterned heterogeneity” of a distinctive but not unique sort. The best match for Illinois is by no means California, Texas, Pennsylvania, or other slates with large populations and huge cities. The second-best is Massachusetts, with Boston and everyone else. The nearest match for Illinois is New York State, Say “New Yorker” and you mean the city, not the “Empire State” residents. New York has no single image nor do New Yorkers, to match that of Texas and Texans, California and Californians, Pennsylvania and Pennsylvanians.

Could dispersal of urban populations into large complexes within a state be a factor in creating the idea of relative homogeneity in other instances? California has San Diego and Los Angeles and San Francisco. Pennsylvania has Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Texas has Dallas and Houston and Fort Worth and Austin. New York has New York and everything else. Illinois has Chicago and two other elses.

The result in the New York and Chicago cases was a forced pattern of pluralism, early perceived. This was the case already in ancient New Netherlands and New Amsterdam, a commercial colony with a market city attracting a population mix. Its market-oriented citizens soon shunned efforts at religious establishment and, with it, cultural dominance, early on. Illinois, even before Chicago rose to lead to disproportionate northward apportioning of religion and culture, was recognizing its pluralism as so many states did not do early on (and, as in the Bible belt, may not even do so now). Listen to Robert W Patterson on Illinoisans confronting pluralism long ago:

But in spite of the prejudices and illiteracy of many of our early citizens, they were by no means an unthinking people, their minds were stimulated by the necessity of invention imposed upon them by their peculiar circumstances; by the political discussions in which they became interested from one election to another; by the moral questions that were debated among them; and, above all, by the religious discourses to which they often listened, and the controversies between the adherents of different sects, in which almost everybody sympathized with one party or another. Women, especially, were even more accustomed then than now to discuss grave questions which required thought and provoked earnest reflection. Often a woman of unpromising appearance and manners would prove more than a match for a well-educated man in a religious dispute.(11)

A Central Paradox: Illinois as both “Crossroads” and “Heartland”

As I read many works by people who were trying to summarize Illinois, I found two main sets of images, the “heartland,” which seems less appropriate, and “crossroad,” which is more so.(12) Heartland would imply a settled place from which everything else emanates and radiates. Crossroad suggests crisscrossing and restlessness.

A condensation of the case for homogenizing “heartland” is in what strikes me as a rather unrepresentative if not slightly foolish essay by the usually sensible Donald Culross Peattie. One hopes he was an ironist of sorts as he wrote for the New York Times, April 26, 1959, “The Best State of the Fifty”(13)

Why, then, do I say Illinois is best? It has no gorgeous scenery, no stately ante-bellum mansions, no hallowed customs and no true cosmopolitanism like New York City’s. In fact, just the opposite. Illinois is the best state precisely because it is so American… More, it is heartland. As Castile is of Spain, as the plain of Beauce is the granary of France, or Tuscany of Italy, so Illinois is core America. . . . It is American in its unappreciated beauty of plainness—something that Thoreau would have understood perhaps, something that the three poets of the state who really sound to me like Illinois give voice to—Sandburg all the time, Vachel Lindsay sometimes, and Edgar Lee Masters in the one truly great book of poetry that he produced, “Spoon River Anthology.” He added “The state flower is the modest violet, and it is a good choice …”

I hope it is hard to recognize Illinois in his picture of American “core” character, plainness, modesty. Over against it, pose “crossroads,” as many have done, (14) typically Junius B. Wood in the May, 1931 National Geographic. He called the article simply, “Illinois, Crossroads of the Continent:

With mighty rivers for strokes, Nature outlines Illinois as the heart of a continent. The Union sketched this same map and made it a State. In the more than a century since then, life has changed and the frontier has disappeared, but the fundamentals which destined Illinois to be the heart of a great and growing Nation are the same.” [Setting out to travel:] “The proposed trip will be an easy one, for no other State has more miles of concrete roads.” [A subhead:] “Every Traveler Changes Cars, Boat, or Airplane at Chicago.” . . . “Geographical location has made Illinois the State which Nature chose as the crossroads of a continent.”. . . “Where the Nation’s highways cross is the hospitable heart of the land.”

A single author quoted in each instance carries too heavy a burden for me to make the case that he makes the whole case. But I think these are provocative and they resonate with themes in the larger picture. To say “crossroads” is not to say that no one has stayed or stays. Millions did and do; they find the state a workshop or a Mecca of sorts. And to say that it is “crossroads” is not to say that it is the only crossroads place. But the crossroads character of Illinois has done more to define it than could crossroading on either coast define states there or to contribute to the nearest designation that we might come to the genius of Illinois.

Illinois’ Special Case: Lincoln and Chicago

The humanities scholar who is trying to discern this genius may find two other contributing factors to the complexity of Illinois’ patterned heterogeneity. The humanities search stumbles upon two creative barriers against homogeneity Think of them variously; I think of Illinois somewhat as an astrophysicist colleague David Schramm teaches us to think of the universe. Given the energy of the Big Bang, one would have expected a uniform, “flat” universe. Yet ours is “lumpy.” Given the way Illinois was settled and always crisscrossed, one would have expected leveling in what a British traveler J. C. Burton in 1913 noted was, Louisiana and Delaware aside, “the most level state in the union.”(15)

Culturally, humanistically, Illinois is heterogeneous, but not in a uniform way; its pattern is lumpy, for two main reasons: Lincoln and Chicago. Think of them as “black hole” gravitational fields, or electromagnetic fields with two axes, or places in the sucker state that make what might be called two “sucking sounds.” Lincoln is the most written about American, and one of the most written about humans; Lincoln lore is mountainous; it creates a high cultural and a folk cultural lump in the uneven The Prairie State (as licenses have had it) and that claims to be, with good warrant. The Land of Lincoln (another auto licensing agency) has it. And second, Chicago may well be what novelist Richard Stern has called it, the most fictionalized city on the continent. It independently creates another cultural lump, black hole, electromagnetic field, or sucking sound.

We take up Lincoln, first. In 1967, the editors of National Geographic had Robert Paul Jordan write about Illinois as Jordan. He looked at the geography under the culture and faced west:

And the windswept knoll? It rises about ten miles southwest of Decatur, a green and peaceful tract above the sycamore-lined Sangamon River. Here, in 1830, began the saga of Abe Lincoln of Illinois. Arriving from Indiana, he and his family settled on this plot, putting up a log cabin and sowing a crop of corn. A simple marker states as much. But beyond it I could see—as Lincoln must have seen—this good land spreading to the horizon. I think I came closest then to knowing him, and Illinois.

[And Donald Culross Peattie, from the already quoted article:] “Only in Chicago are Lincoln’s quiet traces obliterated. Elsewhere the greatness marches invisibly across the wide, plain land.”(16) Lincoln is so consuming as a definer that one loses appetites for the search for others, lessers.

James Hurt points out that the second of these cultural “lumps” defining our heterogeneity Chicago, has drawn talent from everywhere: Sherwood Anderson from Clyde, Ohio; Floyd Dell from Davenport, Iowa; Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute, Indiana; Vachel Lindsay from Springfield; Edgar Lee Masters from Lewistown; Carl Sandburg from Galesburg. They were “in revolt against the village.” (Ben Hecht of New York and Robert Herrick from Boston are exceptional big city people who became Chicagoan to the core.) Women of interest in the humanities have similar small town roots and became Chicagoan not Illinoisans: Jane Addams, Edith Wyatt, Elia Peattie, Clara Burnham, Susan Glaspell, Clara Laughlin, Alice Gerstenberg.

With the three exceptions of Sandburg, Masters, and Lindsay who felt an Illinois-wide calling, once writers begin to write about Chicago they do not concern themselves much with Illinois. If one writes about Galesburg or Lincoln (as William Maxwell has done) or Springfield; about Vandalia or Jacksonville-then one is seen as writing about Illinois, but only of a putatively homogeneous strip across it. We are not helped in the definitional task by all this. It is in this context that Chicago novelist and humanities scholar Richard Stern’s (18) word is à propos. Chicago is “the most fictionalized of American cities [and it] grows ever thicker with its selves, so much so that between the fictions and the actualities, there is hardly room for a shadow. Chicago is as much a verbal as a stone and metal construction.” Like the Lincoln of the Land of Lincoln, the Chicago of the Not-the-Land of Lincoln, is literarily invented: made up and found.

The “other Illinoises” produce writers about Chicago, but Chicago writers do not see or know how to write persistently about Illinois. Think, for examples, of the authors featured by the Chicago Tribune in its own 150th year: Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Theodore Dreiser, Finley Peter Dunne, James T. Farrell, Henry Blake Fuller, Lorraine Hansberry Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner, Willard Motley Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright; Chicagoans all; rarely Illinoisans.

Conclusion: Why Accent Paradox and Heterogeneity? The Matter of Spheres

In these conflicted times, when the hermeneutics of suspicion and public cynicism are said to prevail, one might ask here at the end: Why are you doing this? Who are you mad at? What are you selling? Is this a “whatever is in Illinois is right” essay? Hardly. But there is a semi-hidden agenda. In an age when “identity politics” is overdone, it seems valid to point to multiple spheres or intersections where loyalties can be expressed, but without fanaticism; where people find enriched, but not exclusive and hence overlapping communities that can contribute to their identity without turning them into tribalists.

Such citizens may sometimes direct some energies to global loyalties, which are necessarily remote and diffuse, but for all that not unimportant. And loyalties to the nation. Also, we add, to their religious communion, and more. Georg Simmel spoke of “the web of affiliations,” and I like to think that one’s state, this state, is in that web. The medical ethicist Dr. Willard Gaylin has offered a theory that deals with an emotion that is at once beautiful and threatening. He spoke of proximal identification.

This theory of proximal identification [deals with something that is] not pretty but we tend to identify with things close to us. If your child burns his hand it causes you more pain than if something awful happens to India. You may care what happens in India, but your child causes you more real pain. That’s why local news interests people so much.

Crossroads Illinois prevents proximal identification from turning into a legitimation for mere tribalism. There is too much dynamism, there are too many confusions, to allow for radical simplifications of that murderous sort. So it has long been. When in 1891 the University of Chicago, however, was trying to lure the major Eastern seaboard historian Herbert Baxter Adams to Chicago (and hence Illinois, and hence the West), Adams wrote a page full of contrasts to help him sort out elements for his decision. His list included these polarities:

East/West: Quiet/Rush – Continuity/Broken –

Society/New People – Conservatism/Boom –

Duty/Advantage – Settled/Moving.

John Higham summarized: “Needless to say he stayed.”(20)

In Simmel’s mode, we picture the more nearly ideal image of these intersecting spheres of loyalty: the local community; the tribe as the couch of values; the voluntary sector; the family. In a book on loyalty George Fletcher wrote for Americans what he could have done quintessentially for Illinoisans at the crossroads:

We typically find ourselves in a set of intersecting circles of loyal commitment. In the United States and indeed in virtually every modern culture, we are members of multiple groups that demand our loyalties. A typical American is a member not only of a family but of an ethnic group, a profession or trade, a particular firm, a church or religious community the alumni circles of high school and university and perhaps an amateur athletic team or the fan club of a local hockey or basketball team. Add to this list the special loyalties of veterans and the politically active, and you generate a picture of the typical American caught in the intersection of at least a half-dozen circles of loyal attachment.’’(21)

Corroborating this was Walter Lippmann, writing in 1929, when “he” satisfied “him” and “her” alike:

Each man finds himself the center of a complex of loyalties. He is loyal to his government, he is loyal to his state, he is loyal to his village, he is loyal to his neighborhood. He has his own family. He has his wife’s family. He has his church. His wife may have a different church… The multiplicity of his interests makes it impossible for him to give his whole allegiance to any person or to any institution…These allegiances are partial. Because a man has so many loyalties each loyalty commands only a segment of himself, (“criss-crossing of loyalties.”) (22)


This set of observations about paradoxical, heterogeneous Illinois is presented in order to promote an agenda that values Illinois in a “web of affiliations,” of “criss-crossing” loyalties, that oppose fanaticism and privatism alike. It celebrates the humanities celebrating “crossroads” more than “core” or “heartland.” Had I credentials stronger than what I have, as a humanist and a citizen among many others, I would say welcome to the “lumpy” universe of the Land of Lincoln, Chicago, “the other Illinois, and Illinois as a whole.” The main feature remains the WPA observation of 1939:

“Illinois in its entirety functions as a working model of the Nation as a whole. Therein the heterogeneity of the State takes on meaning and becomes in itself a symbol burdened with deep significance.”


  1. The WPA Guide to Illinois: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide In 1930s Illinois. With a new introduction by Neil Harris and Michael Conzen. (New York: Pantheon, 1993; first published in 1939), pp. 3, 5-6.
  2. The Commission on the Humanities, The Humanities in American Life (Berkeley: Umversity of California, 1980), pp. 1,3.
  3. Michael Kammen, People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization. (New York: Oxford’), pp. 120-21.
  4. Baker Brownell, The Other Illinois (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1958), 3-5, for the song, see 133.
  5. James Shaw, Twelve Years in America etc. (London: Hamilton, Adams and Co., 1867), 73.
  6. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1846), 63.
  7. (Grand Rapids, Ml: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 166-67.
  8. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 1673.
  9. See Martin E. Marty, The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good (Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 100 for lists of types of groups.
  10. Brownell, op. Cit. 145f.
  11. Robert W Patterson, “Early Society in Southern Illinois,” quoted from Fergus Historical Series, no. 14:124-25 in So1on G. Buck, Illinois in 1818 (Urbana, IL: 1967), 179. Solon’s first edition was in 1917, so Patterson wrote before that, but Buck gives no reference to the year.
  12. Cullom Davis, “Illinois: Crossroads and Cross Section,” in James H. Madison, Heartland: Comparative Histories of the Midwestern States (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988), 127-57, has also chosen “crossroads” as the most appropriate image for Illinois. Davis, a mentor of mine in Illinois Humanities affairs, has provided me with a copy of his chapter, which had failed to come to my attention previously. He also cited the 1939 Federal Writers Project on “heterogeneity” (p. 130); the fact that this veteran did so gives me confidence that I am on the right track or, in the case of heterogeneity, on the right tracks.
  13. Donald Culross Peattie, “The Best State of the Fifty,” New York Times Magazine, April 26, 1959, as quoted in Paul M. Angle, ed., Prairie State, Impressions of Illinois, 1673-1967 by Travelers and Other Observers (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1968), 596.
  14. Typically, Junius B. Wood, “Illinois, Crossroads of the Continent,” in National Geographic LIX:5, May, 1931, pp. 528, 584, 594.
  15. Reprinted in Burton, op. Cit. 456.
  16. Quoted by Angle, op. Cit. 593, 601.
  17. Hurt, op. Cit., Chapter 3, “Writing Chicago,” 97-143.
  18. Ibid, 98.
  19. Quoted in “Reflecting on Loss: Welling of Tears, a Desire to Press On,” New York Times, 29 January 1986, A8.
  20. Quoted in John Higham, History: The Development of Historical Studies in the United States (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 12.
  21. George P Fletcher, Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1933), 155-56
  22. Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (New York: Macmillan. 1929), 267-69.


Scroll to Top