Dream Deferred: A little Illinois town goes all out to honor a politician who passed through

Dec 1, 2001

Telephone poles, train tracks and thick clumps of trees are the first signs that Old Route 66 is about to wind north into Lincoln. Once the highway crosses Salt Creek, clusters of roadside signs break the view. They announce that this central Illinois town of 15,400 is home to several high school athletic champions, the Lions and Kiwanis clubs and a host of churches. Others proclaim that, in state economic development lingo, Lincoln is not merely an Illinois Certified City, but a Main Street Community and an enterprise zone.

None of these signs report that Lincoln is the birthplace and favored setting of American Book Award winning novelist William Maxwell, or that Langston Hughes credited the community with identifying him as a poet long before his jazz- and blues-infused poems and racially inspired works such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers’’ would make him a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance — or that Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential theological scribe, was confirmed and ordained here. Or, for that matter, that one of the town’s dentists is arguably among the pre-eminent writers of haiku in the United States.

Visitors who get deeper into town, east of the county fairgrounds, beyond the Kroger, the Clark station and the Chopsticks Chinese restaurant, can see that Lincoln has at least acknowledged a bit of its literary heritage. At the corner of Union and Eighth streets stands what Lincoln Library Director Richard Sumrall calls a “huge” metal plaque. On it is inscribed the story of how in 1916 Langston Hughes wrote his first poem at the end of his year as a student at Lincoln’s Central School.

William Maxwell also attended Central and lived in a house around the corner. Maxwell, fiction editor at The New Yorkerfor 40 years, set half of his six novels and many of his short stories and essays in Lincoln, but there’s no plaque for him at Central — nor is there one at the stucco house on Park Place that plays a central role in his novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow. Nor is there a historical marker at the house on Ninth Street where he was born in 1908. Not yet, anyway. 

Collectively, the little town has long been more interested in its status as the only place to have been named for Abraham Lincoln before he went to the White House, and the lore that he christened the town with watermelon juice in 1853. Community historian Paul Gleason is assistant director of the Lincoln College Museum, where a few rooms store myriad artifacts, including letters signed by Lincoln, rails split by his cousin, a child-sized rocker into which Tad Lincoln carved TAD and pieces of the great emancipator’s hair. 

Gleason, a 63-year-old life-long resident of Lincoln, who serves on the Logan County Board and the local tourism bureau, stumbled across Hughes’ Lincoln connection while researching his 1989 Logan County history, composed mainly from a seat at Hardees, where he does most of his writing. Once Lincoln resident Margaret Peifer, a former nun, got hold of that information she whipped up the interest to get that plaque erected in 1998, nearly 30 years after Hughes’ death.

Maxwell’s Lincoln connection is not so obscure. Consequently, plans are in the works to erect a historical marker at Maxwell’s boyhood home, plans folks in Lincoln brought to the author’s attention before his death in 2000. 

William Maxwell was 7 when Hughes was the class poet of what was then the brand new Central School, but it’s conceivable that Hughes and Maxwell met. And they might have had some of the same teachers. So might have theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr, who moved to Lincoln in 1902 when he was 10 and grew up to write the Serenity Prayer, win induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and be named in 1990 by Life magazine as one of its “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” His main interest was in theological anthropology — the interrelationship of religion, the individual and society — which he explored in such books as Moral Man and Immoral Society and Christianity and Power Politics.

The Niebuhr family’s nearly three-decade stay in Lincoln is noted on a historical marker next door to Central School at St. John’s United Church of Christ, where Reinhold Niebuhr’s father, Gustav, was pastor in the early part of the century.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Hughes and Maxwell all attended Central School within a span of 15 years, so it may have been teachers who shaped Lincoln into a little town with a knack for producing great American writers, Lynn Spellman suggests. The most likely candidate is Hughes’ composition instructor at Central, Ethel Welch, whom he named as his favorite in his autobiography The Big Sea and to whom he continued to send inscribed copies of his books into the 1940s. 

Spellman, a retired associate professor of English at Lincoln College, says as a teacher she would like to believe it was an academic influence that formed these men into gifted, internationally recognized writers. But she recognizes that the culture, the personality, the landscape of Lincoln inspired Maxwell — and the contemporary Lincoln haiku writer Lee Gurga. Simplicity, barebones structure, is characteristic of both writers’ work. Neither Maxwell nor Gurga waste words on adjectives. Gurga limits his work mainly to the 17-syllable format, and So Long, See You Tomorrow, critically acclaimed as Maxwell’s finest work, is notable for its tight prose, filling just 135 pages in trade paperback.

The spareness of central Illinois, its unadorned language and wide-open landscape, informed these writers, and Lincoln, centered amid miles of gently rolling or flat farmland, is emblematic of Illinois literature. Of course, the majority of Illinois’ people, and most of its buildings, are crammed into the corner of the state, up against the great lake. At its bottom tip, Illinois’ craggy terrain is blanketed in forest. But most of Illinois looks like Lincoln, with a landscape defined by “fields,’’ as Maxwell wrote, “that stretch all the way to the edge of the sky.’’ 

On the approach to Lee Gurga’s rural Lincoln house from I-55, the vista, especially now, not long after harvest, is mostly sky. Brown, stubbled fields and blue, deep blue, Illinois sky. 

“It gives you time to think about what’s important in life if you live in a place like this,’’ says Gurga, who uses words as a photographer does a lens to capture his environment and his experience, writing about “rows of corn that stretch to the horizon’’ and “the pink glow of the sunset’’ he’s seen through “.22 holes in a country stop sign.” In full haiku form, those phrases would be expanded just slightly to flow into verse:

Christmas morning —
bird dog in the stubblefield
chasing sparrows
Gurga, who is designated as the next editor of the journalModern Haiku, looks out his kitchen window at the woodland he is regenerating from what he calls the abuse of the last 100 years: the logging and grazing and farming. The neighboring property, he says, pointing to the east, is where Illinois’ Grand Prairie biogeographical zone bleeds into the finger of the western forest division that extends into Logan County. “Western Illinois ends in my backyard, basically, and central Illinois begins,’’ he tells a visitor. 

His land is a bit hilly. It has a creek and varied vegetation: hedge trees, locust trees and multiflora roses. But it’s not so hilly that an out-of-towner can’t find the way to Lincoln from Gurga’s homestead by driving toward the water tower on the horizon.

The pace is slower here; life is less complicated than in the urban environments where so much of literature is set. Gurga, whose haiku have won awards in the United States, Canada and Japan, says he’s been enriched by the rural, Midwestern sensibility. Here, he says, he counts cars rather than frustrations when he’s held up by a train.

The poet grew up in Chicago and moved to Lincoln 22 years ago, and until they moved to their farmland south of Lincoln a decade ago, Gurga, his wife, Jan, and their three sons lived in Lincoln proper, on 10th Street, across an alley from the Maxwell home. Gurga walked to his dental office along a brick road lined with 100-year-old trees. 

Maxwell’s odyssey moved in reverse. He lived in Lincoln until he was 14, when his family moved to Chicago. He eventually settled in Manhattan. While Gurga writes in the moment, capturing a fleeting experience, Maxwell wrote mainly from the memory of Lincoln, his “imagination’s home,” which he sometimes referred to in his fiction as Logan or Draperville. “The texture of his work, the detail, comes from Lincoln,’’ says Maxwell biographer Barbara Burkhardt. The defining moment of Maxwell’s life as a writer was the death of his mother in the 1918 influenza epidemic. It is a subject he would return to again and again.

Burkhardt teaches a seminar in postmodern literature at the University of Illinois at Springfield, in which she discusses So Long, See You Tomorrow, a novel based on events Maxwell remembered from his childhood in Lincoln. Writing 60 years after his mother’s death, “he brought the same sense of wonder to the place,’’ now “tempered with wisdom and experience,’’ says Burkhardt, whom Maxwell charged with organizing his correspondence currently catalogued at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1930. “The setting is very stark — it’s bare,’’ she tells graduate students. So was his prose in the novel, says Burkhardt, who has expanded her dissertation on Maxwell into a full critical biography. “Certainly, that style is one of the most distinctive characteristics of his writing. Certainly, I think as he got older his language became more spare. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I think it serves to mirror the landscape.”

Maxwell was meticulous in his efforts to capture the exact language of Lincoln, and the personality of Lincoln resonates in Maxwell’s work, notes Burkhardt who reads her class pieces of Maxwell’s correspondence, including letters from Roger Angell, Maxwell’s editor at The New Yorker. As he was preparing to publish So Long, See You Tomorrow in the magazine, Angell wanted Maxwell to clean up the language, to get rid of the colloquialisms of the Midwest, phrases like “the reason why,’’ and the use of “that” instead of “which.” But Maxwell held fast. He had an ear for the subtlety of the language of 1920s Lincoln, and wanted to preserve it. That subtlety extended to the images of Lincoln that he portrayed: a wood counter scrubbed until it became soft like velvet, a murderer’s gunshot assumed to be the sound of a car backfiring. Or an interloper who hides behind haystacks, waiting for the first light from a farmer’s lantern “to come bobbing across the pasture.’’

“I think they [dialect and description] work beautifully together to create a cohesive image both in sound and visual,’’ says Burkhardt. “You have this spare language and you have this landscape that can certainly be described as spare, this unrelenting horizon, ever out of reach of the land about which he’s writing.’’

Maxwell lived in Lincoln long enough to absorb a strong sense of the people, Spellman says. Farm women — mothers of school-age children — “reduced by hard work and frequent childbearing to a common denominator of plainness,’’ men who read only the newspaper, a dance instructor scandalized by a couple dancing cheek-to-cheek.

Caroline Kiest, the reference librarian at the Lincoln Library and next-door neighbor to Tim and Tami Kennett, who live in the Maxwell family home on Ninth Street, remembers coming to Lincoln as a child in the mid-1970s. Her mother read her Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, and would point to the Maxwell house, a sprawling structure with a side porch and bay windows, which Kiest calls a “payday home” — a hodge-podge design with additions erected as money became available. Her mother would say, “There’s the house; it’s right here.’’ Kiest smiles when she says, “We’re in that book — the Kiests — we’re the family hanging out the diapers.’’ 

Not everyone in Lincoln has been pleased about Maxwell’s portrayal of his hometown. A central focus of So Long, See You Tomorrow is a murder that occurred in Lincoln in the 1920s. A tenant farmer shot a neighbor who had been having an affair with his wife.

One Lincoln resident who asked not be identified says that in a Lincoln Library copy of So Long, See You Tomorrowsomeone crossed out Maxwell’s fictive names and wrote in pencil the names of the people on whom the characters were based.

Maxwell had changed the names in the story, but little else. He used old newspaper stories from the Illinois State Historical Library to build his story out of his belief that “life is a great storyteller. You can’t improve on it.’’ He once said, “I hated to change the facts. The facts themselves were so beautiful.’’

Though Lincoln is vividly portrayed in the Maxwell books ranging from They Came Like Swallows in 1937 to Billie Dyer and Other Stories in 1992, his relevance to the community slips past some. “Maxwell? What does he write? Mysteries? I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never read him,’’ says the proprietor of a used bookstore in Lincoln. She checks the M’s where there are volumes by McCullough, MacLean, McBain, but no Maxwell. In the A’s, even Maxwell’s editor Roger Angell is represented with his homage to baseball, A Season Ticket.

In a section where very old books are shelved, another native Illinois writer — Edgar Rice Burroughs — turns up with Tarzan the Terrible, along with turn-of-the-century spellers and slim volumes of Shakespeare’s plays. 

They’re well acquainted with Maxwell at Prairie Years Books and Prints, which is downtown next to Abe’s Carmelcorn. At Prairie Years, which actually devotes most of its space to what the sign out front describes as “quality toys,” six different Maxwell titles fill most of a shelf in the local authors section. 

“In general, there are lots of people in town who are very much aware of Mr. Maxwell’s importance and his connection to Lincoln,’’ says Spellman, the retired Lincoln College instructor. She adds that she presented a list of historically significant literary connections to Lincoln to the tourism board awhile back, but was told there hasn’t been enough money to do anything about it. 

Many of the buildings Maxwell wrote about, Central School, his two family homes, and Lincoln Junior High School, which was the high school in the author’s youth, still stand, though Central, which opened in 1915, is slated to be torn down, says Spellman, who notes that since the marker for the Niebuhrs went up earlier this year, visitors have come to Lincoln specifically to see it. 

Sometimes it’s hard for a community to see the significance of the history that is enmeshed in daily life. “It’s like anything, people take it for granted,’’ says Kiest. “But they’re getting it.’’

Spellman and others agree there is an intensified interest in Lincoln’s pivotal role in Maxwell’s work. 

And so it is possible that one day Spellman’s vision will be fulfilled, and the signs heading into Lincoln will tell the story of the little town’s literary legacy. 


Illinois Issues, December 2001