Lit

Review: On Beyond Lincoln: Exploring the Land of Lincoln: The Essential Guide to Illinois Historic Sites

Exploring the Land of Lincoln: The Essential Guide to Illinois Historic Sites
By Charles Titus
3 Fields Books

I asked my non-Illinoisan Twitter followers to tell me three things they knew about my home state. Two subjects always came up: Abraham Lincoln and Chicago, the latter always providing the second and third answers. Otherwise, where the Prairie State’s history was concerned, everyone drew a blank. Understandable. Beyond Abe and that northwestern urban bit, Illinois’ story is rarely shared. Those who read Dr. Charles Titus’ Exploring the Land of Lincoln: The Essential Guide to Illinois Historic Sites will learn we do indeed have history, much of it quite interesting. Even so, the degree to which Dr.Titus shares it runs from the generous to the frugal.

Dr. Titus is an assistant professor at EIU, achieving emeritus status in their history department. I know plenty of Chicago experts, but no Illinois ones. Plainly, Titus has thrown himself body and soul into becoming a researcher and chronicler of the Land of Lincoln, and well beyond our 16th president’s perambulations. His passion for our state’s history, from prehistoric times to the mid-20th century is evident, and his Rate a Professor page provides confirmation with several students saying he made Illinois history interesting. Exploring the Land of Lincoln bears this out in most chapters, though in others the history seems a little less than alive.

Having road-tripped often through Illinois and the Midwest with my kids and history teacher wife, I can confirm that Dr. Titus is right: there are things to see and stories to discover in the non-Chicago region of Illinois, though reaching them can tax your odometer. Titus makes this clear, providing a simple map of Illinois, dotting and labeling each point of  interest mentioned in the text. But this is no guidebook. Titus provides no directions nor a suggested path of exploration. The book is more of a thorough outline, sections covering Early Illinois, Frontier Times, At the Turn of the Century, and so on. No particular itinerary is set. I suspect that everything here is in the syllabus. Titus’ quasi-travel guide is a serious one as well. Unlike the plethora of daffy road trip guides out there, this is more educational than recreational. You won’t  find tourist traps, thematic diners, or roadside dinosaur displays in Exploring the Land of Lincoln.

Much is familiar though, at least to this middle-aged Illinoisan. Several Lincoln loci are featured, because Illinois without the Rail-splitter is like Disney World without The Mouse. Lincoln wasn’t born in Illinois but he was made here. Thus Titus takes us to his parents’ cabin in Lerna; New Salem, where he made a failed go at being a storekeeper, but sharpened his mind with borrowed books; the Vandalia State House and the Old State Capitol in Springfield, where the young state legislator cut his political teeth; the homestead where he bade his beloved stepmom adieu before heading to Washington, DC; and Lincoln’s last stop, his ponderous tomb in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. Strikingly, Titus makes no mention of any of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates sites, where Lincoln lost the Senate race but raised his national profile. Perhaps it was a question of space, or the fact that only one debate site remains (the Old Main building at Knox College in Galesburg). No matter, but as Illinois history goes, the omission is noticeable. Nevertheless, Illinois’ favorite son is well-represented. But then, Lincoln left a deep Illinois-shaped footprint in the state and America’s history.

Beyond Lincoln, most of Titus’ selections are worthwhile and interesting, though some choices are debatable as important history. His methodology for selecting sites isn’t clear. He covers several forts. None of them are Chicago’s well-covered Fort Dearborn, which impressed the hell out of me, I can tell you. In Exploring the Land of Lincoln we learn about Fort de Chartres, Fort Massac, Apple River Fort, and Fort St. Louis, which briefly stood on Starved Rock. Titus attaches flesh to several names familiar to Illinoisans: Louis Jolliet; Jacques Marquette; René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle; General George Rogers Clark; and so on. And yet, while I’m a nut for local historical sites with obscure histories, not much happened at several of these forts. Often they were an idea some Frenchman had to establish a trading or military post. Some have brushes with fame. Apple River Fort in northwest Illinois hosted a battle in the Black Hawk War, a conflict mostly remembered today for giving Lincoln a few years of noncombat military services. Titus addresses its status as an attempt by Native Americans to recover lands promised to them. Illinois’ former tribes get a pretty good accounting in the first section, especially in his chapter on Cahokia Mounds, though there was room for more on the earliest Illinoisans.

Most of the state gets covered, but I couldn’t help noticing the center of the book’s repeated Illinois outline is blank; a midwestern Bermuda Triangle of bupkis, made more strange since yonder lie many of the railroad and river towns that once prospered in the 19th and 20th centuries: Peoria, Bloomington, Normal, Princeton, Pekin, and others. Perplexing indeed. Now, I didn’t expect Titus to cover Peoria’s status (as an online commenter pointed out to me) as the birthplace of both Richard Pryor and Dan Fogelberg, but plenty of history history happened there. To specify, other than a nice chapter on the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, and a few paragraphs crammed into the appendix, there’s little about the labor movement. Nor abolitionist and Underground Railroad history, for that matter, which are well-represented in Illinois’ less-touristy regions. Titus also seems to not pursue certain aspects of his subjects’ lives, perhaps avoiding sensationalism. But if you write the following description of Jane Addams’ bedroom:

“A large portrait of  Addams’s close friend Mary Rozet Smith…hangs on one wall. On another is a somber Tolstoy, dressed in a white peasant blouse.”

…without addressing the extremely close relationship between Jane and Mary, or the fact that Tolstoy sanctimoniously criticized the damn saintly Addams for being a poser with her puffy dress sleeves, it seems like an oversight or at least, a missed opportunity.

I make no accusations, and I appreciate Titus’ straightforward reporting and lack of sloganeering when sharing Illinois’ story. Also his eye for little-covered sites and events. As mentioned, he provides a nice breakdown on Cahokia Mounds, Chief Black Hawk, as well as the tale of sculptor Lorado Taft, the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony, and Taft’s concrete The Eternal Indian statue in Oregon, Ill.; and other people and places. In a refreshing turn, Chicago is underrepresented—though maybe a bit too much. Here we find three places: Hull House, the South Side Community Art Center, and the Old Chicago Water Tower. Jane Addams, as I said, gets a good chapter, but the other two histories are so brief, you wonder why he bothered.

In the main, Titus tips his scholarly hat by offering brief, bare facts, though sometimes at the expense of the anecdotes that can make history more real. When he does properly set a scene—Lincoln visiting his mother for the last time, or the Swedish settlement of Bishop Hill, a utopian commune that soon ended after its founder’s murder—he succeeds. His treatment of poet Vachel Lindsay’s life and his Springfield home shows an especially touching interest in a little-known subject and is the only unexpected entry. A poet whose verse has not aged well—well-meaning but racist seems to be a familiar take—his most famous work is the overly dramatic Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”. Fraught with triumphs, misery, and mental illness, Lindsay’s story deserves more than the few pages here and would be a worthy follow-up project for Dr. Titus.

Exploring the Land of Lincoln: The Essential Guide to Illinois Historic Sites is available at most bookstores and through the publisher’s website.

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