Illuminating Illinois’ Triumphs and Difficulties Through Literature

Several years ago, the staff of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute was planning our Renewing Illinois Summit for university and college students, and we wanted to offer them some reading suggestions about Illinois.

I checked my shelves at the institute and noted the titles of various books on state history and politics. So I called several colleagues and asked if they had any recommendations, phrasing my request this way: “If you were teaching an Illinois 101 course to highly motivated undergraduate students, what five books would you give them to read ? They can be stories, biographies, novels or essays. In sum, they would provide a broad and nuanced understanding of Illinois.

I decided to extend this question to some respected Illinois leaders and analysts, including U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, former Governor Jim Edgar, Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch, former Secretary American Transportation Ray LaHood and former Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon. They submitted recommendations that were both inspiring and humbling – inspiring in the sense that the many fascinating books highlight the richness and diversity of our state, and humbling in the sense that they remind me of how many important books I still need to read!

Recommendations included biographies of Illinois political leaders such as Paul Douglas, Everett Dirksen, Richard Ogilvie, Carol Moseley Braun, Robert Michel, and Adlai Stevenson. They also revealed a deep fascination with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and one of his successors, Harold Washington.

Respondents touted two general state histories: “Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People” by Roger Biles and “Illinois: A State History of the Prairies” by Robert Howard. Two Chicago chronicles were frequently recommended: “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” by William Cronon and “City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America” ​​by Donald Miller. There was also a clear interest in regional stories about central and southern Illinois and two legendary communities, Cahokia and Kaskaskia.

Respondents praised the works of revered Illinois literary luminaries Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks and Theodore Dreiser, as well as famous Illinois writer-presidents Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.

As director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, I was delighted to see several of Paul Simon’s books recommended: “Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness,” “Our Culture of Pandering,” and “Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy.”

The institute compiled the recommendations into a booklet called “Illinois 101,” which we sent to libraries, civic groups, and government officials across the state. If you would like a copy, email us at [email protected] and we will be happy to send you one.

Inspired by this interest in Illinois literature, the institute launched an Illinois Authors program in which we host conversations with writers about the state. So far we have had conversations with Robert

Hartley, journalist and historian, on his biographies of Paul Simon and Paul Powell; Kristin Hoganson, professor of history at the University of Illinois, on her book “The Heartland: An American History”; and Margo Jefferson, Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, on her book “Negroland: A Memoir.”

Our conversations with these impressive authors have been rich and stimulating. They’ve been on Zoom, but after COVID-19 subsides, we look forward to hosting in-person Illinois author discussions across the state.

We invite everyone to send us the titles of their favorite books about Illinois and recommend authors we should consider inviting for future discussions. Email your suggestions to [email protected]

I hope you will join me this year in reading fascinating and valuable books about our state. You might even consider starting an Illinois book club or focusing your current book club’s readings on Illinois-related titles. Such reading adds nuance, color, and perspective to our view of Illinois and fosters a greater appreciation for the legacy of those who came before us. I hope this reading and the discussion it inspires will guide us all to do more to renew and revitalize the state of the prairies.

John T. Shaw is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Shaw’s monthly column explores how Illinois can work toward better politics and smarter government.

Editor’s Note: This editorial was distributed by Capitol News Illinois on behalf of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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