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Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013 12:01 am

Clio in the cornfields

Why do so many cities with history not have a history?

Historians think nothing interesting happened here after the Civil War.
PHOTO BY KERRI WESTENBERG/MCT

 

Most towns of any size have history that is worth reading about, but surprisingly few have a good history in which they might read it. By “a good history” I mean a single-volume history for the intelligent and curious reader that is comprehensive and up to date. Springfield and Sangamon County has had fine books written about it, but its only general history (Helen Van Cleave Blankmeyer’s The Sangamon Country) was written for eighth-graders in the 1930s; I mean no insult to the eighth-graders of the 1930s when I say that this will not do.

Historians are drawn to the frontier era like sociopaths to private venture firms. There’s Paul Angle’s history of Springfield up to 1860, Here I Have Lived, John Mack Faragher’s Sugar Creek, Paul Stroble, Jr.’s history of Vandalia from 1819 to 1839 he called High on the Okaw’s Western Bank and The Social Order Of a Frontier Community by Don Harrison Doyle, which is about Jacksonville. If you conclude from that list that historians think that nothing much interesting happened around this part of Illinois after the Civil War, you’d be right; a town, like a person, is usually never more interesting than in its youth.

Springfield might have inspired a new Paul Angle-type treatment – a “Here the Rest of Us Lived,” so to speak – that would have carried Springfield’s story forward from 1860s were not so much brainpower and money over the years diverted by, and to, the study of Lincoln. The real impediment is not subjects but money. Today there is an enormous appetite for old-fashioned narrative history about hometown places in which the past is rendered as stories. Commercial publishing houses seldom try to feed that appetite, however, because the small size of the market means that sales can never be large enough to cover the costs. Academic historians usually are subsidized by fellowships or grants or the labors of graduate assistants, but they tend to focus on specialized topics or specific periods. Besides, storytelling tends to be disdained, as the guild these days favors data analysis.

That leaves local history to be written by amateurs. I mean no slur by the term. Springfield’s Benjamin Thomas, author of what was long considered the best one-volume biography of Lincoln, was an amateur. It is not the amateur’s status that is the problem. Rather, amateurs tend to be antiquarians fascinated with history because it happened in the past, while historians are interested because of what happened in the past. Also, amateurs tend to be local patriots who take up the pen out of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm will help one through the hard slog of writing it but it doesn’t often improve it.

In the end, the job requires deep reading and thinking that is beyond the grasp of those not trained in the discipline. Writing history is not quite the same as writing about history. Ask an opinion columnist and culture critic to write a history of the Springfield race riot, for example, and you will get something like Summer of Rage, the monograph on the Springfield race riots of 1908 that I wrote in 1973. The point in writing it was simply to announce to an unknowing city that the events of that August had happened. This would have been a piece of historical journalism I was capable of. Explaining the riots as well required more than I knew, with results that were exposed as glib by Roberta Senechal’s 1990 account, The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot.

A civilized city would provide the money to make it possible for better people to do good work. Maybe crowdsource publication projects using the Web, a 2000s version of the old subscription model that paid for such works as John Carroll Power’s collection of old settlers’ tales. Or set up a local history district like a sewer or school district that levies a small tax to be used solely to pay for the research, writing and publication of serious works of local history, jump-start historical preservation projects and the like.

Why should the taxpayers burden themselves with another special district? Here’s a quick answer. Think how useful it would be to a city facing problems such as economic development, public health or education to know which solutions are likely to work, and which ones are likely not to. Or to understand how social trends such as immigration are likely to affect it. Springfield does know – or would if it wanted to learn from its own past. The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know, as Harry Truman famously said – including the history of what happens to societies when the history they don’t know is their own.

Note: I neglected to note in the original version of this piece that it is the appetite for local history of a certain sort that commercial publishers disdain because of modest sales potential. This version sets that right.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com

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