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The View From the Bank

A Journey Through American History, One River at a Time


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In the fall of 1940, while the world was waging a mechanized war, a gray-headed poet sat down to write a book about his boyhood in the Sangamon Valley.

Edgar Lee Masters had been over this territory before, had used it to create an album of dark poems--Spoon River Anthology--that will be read as long as high schools teach English. But in the new volume he wanted to set down more sentimental tales of prairie life in the days of Lincoln and before. Entitled The Sangamon, the book would become the 16th in the "Rivers of America" series published by Farrar & Rinehart, edited at the time by poet Stephen Vincent Benet.

"There are several reasons for telling the great saga along the rivers," wrote Constance Lindsay Skinner, the playwright, critic, and onetime reporter for the Chicago American who'd conceived the series in 1934. "By the rivers the explorers and fur traders entered America. The pioneers, who followed them, built their homes and raised their grain and stock generally at, or near, the mouths of rivers. The first foreigners on these shores began their transition from Europeans to Americans as River Folk."

Skinner recruited nonspecialists to write the books, figuring they could present "the colors and textures of the original stuff of American life" better than the scholars who she felt had made history seem so remote and inhuman to the average reader. Her first authors were popular novelists, critics, and journalists: The Brandywine was written by Henry Seidel Canby, founding editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and illustrated by Andrew Wyeth. The Hudson was written by Carl Carmer, author of a celebrated 1934 compendium of Alabama folklore, Stars Fell on Alabama. James Branch Cabell, the mannered southern satirist and compatriot of H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, was asked to write about Florida's Saint Johns River.

Before her death in 1939, Skinner drew up a list of rivers the series would cover. The Hudson, the James, the Ohio, the Susquehanna, the Wabash, the Arkansas, the Columbia--the list rolled westward, but it rolled right past the Sangamon. The only mention Skinner made of it was at the bottom of a memo: "Illinois R. will include such small streams as Spoon and Sangamon."

The Sangamon may have been only a stream in geographical terms--it can't even make it to the Mississippi on its own, relying on the Illinois to carry its waters there--but it has a story to tell that rivals those of greater rivers. When Abraham Lincoln came to Illinois in 1830, he settled on a farm overlooking the river, and never lived away from its banks until he went to Washington. The Sangamon flows past New Salem, where Lincoln was postmaster, and also right through Springfield.

It was Masters who approached Farrar & Rinehart with the proposal for a book that would incorporate his memories of growing up on the Sangamon and Spoon rivers with history and folklore. The firm mailed Masters a contract, and he wrote The Sangamon in six weeks.

It was his last book, and, as is often the case in a writer's summing-up, it contains his first memories of the world. There is an obligatory opening chapter on Indians and pioneers, followed by a personal genealogy: "Squire Davis Masters, my grandfather, came from Overton County, Tennessee, to a farm near Murrayville, Illinois, in 1829. Later, in 1847, he moved to the Sangamon River country, to land about five miles north of Petersburg. To the west of his house was a pasture of sixty acres, where I used to go to fly kites and to gaze at the Mason County Hills five miles north, or at the rims of forestry all around the horizon, or at the thunderheads under which the turkey buzzard gracefully sailed."

Masters's patch of prairie was settled by southerners, who brought with them barn dances, poker clubs, and racehorses, along with a love of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Masters wrote of their tolerance for eccentrics, like Bill McNamar, a silent man who always walked about with a pipe in his mouth and one eye clenched shut. McNamar refused all rides to church, and when he arrived there he sat in the back pew. "Although he talked incoherently," wrote Masters, "the minor key of his voice lent a strange enchantment to his rendition of hymns." The Sangamon also includes Spoon River-type poems, about George Kirby, who lost three corn crops to flood in one spring, about Black Hawk the warrior chief, about the "infinite space" of the prairie.

Masters knew he had a historian's task, but he felt free to impose his own sentiments and prejudices on the story of central Illinois.

New Salem was the first village to rise in Masters's home county of Menard. It disappeared long before the poet was born in 1868, but he must have heard some legends about it, because he believed that its ruin was as great a loss as Babylon or Troy. New Salem elected Lincoln to the state legislature. It was the cradle of America's greatest political career.

Ironically, Masters was more disposed to forgive Lincoln for his politics than to celebrate them. Masters was a democrat and populist; Lincoln had been a Whig, and later, a Republican. New Salem was close to the fault line where the southerners migrating from Kentucky and Tennessee bumped into the Yankees coming west from New England. The Yankees, he wrote, "strove with the breed of New Salem for mastery." Masters's loyalty was clear: he hated Whiggery, and saw the decline of New Salem as the defeat of Jacksonian democracy.

"New Salem Hill is a shrine to the pioneers, to the America that might have been, the America that Thomas Jefferson wanted it to be," he wrote. "To me, the place is a heartbreak."

Perhaps America's golden age hadn't occurred in New Salem. But it seemed that way to the 72-year-old Masters.

"Memory is a kind of reading glass under which spots of earth long beloved take on the aspect of something magical, as of a miniature world examined with godlike eyes," he wrote, acknowledging his own nostalgia.

"'Rivers of America' was and continues to be the most significant publishing venture in the history of literature," says Carol Fitzgerald, a Fort Lauderdale librarian who spent ten years researching the series for her book The Rivers of America: A Descriptive Bibliography. "Library Journal mentioned that every library in America should have every single 'Rivers of America' book," she adds. "Here you have a complete history of America."

"Rivers of America" is, more accurately, a sprawling folk history of our country, full of songs, poems, yarns, legends, and local boasts.

The series was shaped by its origins in the Great Depression. Hard times prevented Americans from traveling, so regional writing was in vogue. And resurgent liberalism made it fashionable to tell the history of America from the point of view of "the people." "Rivers of America," though a commercial publishing venture, flowed from the same idealism that inspired the WPA "American Guide" series and the huge murals you can still see in older Chicago post offices. In her essay announcing the series, Skinner declared that the books would encourage Americans to look inward and borrow strength from their local histories.

"When American folk have troubles which do not end swiftly, they begin presently to examine their own sources as a nation and their own story as a people," she wrote. "They forget about these in good times."

When the series petered out with the publication of The Yukon in 1968, it comprised 64 titles. Two in particular are still considered classics. The Everglades: River of Grass (1947), by Florida newspaperwoman Marjory Stoneman Douglas, stands as a landmark of American environmental writing, and inspired the foundation of the conservation group Friends of the Everglades. Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, by southwestern novelist Paul Horgan, won both a Pulitzer and a Bancroft Prize for American history in 1955. (Although commissioned and written for the series, Horgan's book does not technically belong to it, owing to Farrar & Rinehart's last-minute decision to publish Great River as part of the firm's 25th-anniversary list instead.)

Only a third of the volumes are still in print. Most of these were revived by regional publishers and university presses. Fitzgerald persuaded a Maryland publisher to reprint Rivers of the Eastern Shore, and a Syracuse concern is working on new editions of The Mohawk and The Genesee.

At one time, the University of Illinois' Prairie State Books planned to reprint The Chicago, but the book never reappeared, although the same publisher did reprint The Sangamon.

No state is better represented in "Rivers of America" than Illinois. That's because no state's borders are defined more by rivers: the Wabash, the Ohio, and the Mississippi conjoin southward, giving our state the shape of an arrowhead. And we have more miles of the Mississippi than anyone else. The Wabash, The Ohio, The Upper Mississippi, The Illinois, and The Sangamon all touch on Illinois.

These books all promote an Illinois myth, a sense that this state played a special role in the nation's destiny. Illinois was home to the commander in chief who led the Union to victory in the Civil War. According to the myth, Lincoln could only have risen to prominence in Illinois, because Illinois fought the battle over freedom and slavery before anyone else. Forty years before Lincoln became president, Kaskaskia's Daniel Cook (for whom Cook County was named) was elected to Congress on an antislavery platform. As James Gray tells the story in The Illinois, in 1820 there were still a few slaves in the state, most belonging to French settlers along the Mississippi. Cook voted against the Missouri Compromise. Then he championed a public referendum against slavery in Illinois. In a state divided between Yankees and southerners it was a hard campaign, but the referendum passed.

"He had lived much more triumphantly than he knew," Gray wrote of Cook. "For by destroying in Illinois the inclination to make slaves of men, he had prepared it as a testing ground where, later, it could be dealt with as a national issue. Illinois, having been through the struggle once, knowing all the arguments and all the answers, being neither self-righteously smug in its denunciations of slavery nor inclined to hug it hysterically to its heart, was the ideal and inevitable place to become a forum of freedom."

Even the Chicago River was worth a book, though the French voyageurs could only paddle it five miles before dragging their canoes across the swampy portage to the Des Plaines. It's the link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. You couldn't get from Montreal to New Orleans without navigating the Chicago.

The job of writing about this torpid waterway went to Harry Hansen, an Iowa native who had begun his career as a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, then fashioned a literary life as a book critic for the New York World and as editor of the annual O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies. Like Masters, Hansen wrote his book during World War II. He rightly concentrated on the history that had been buried under the skyscrapers.

The recorded history of Chicago began on the river, on a day in 1673 when two young men "came paddling down from the Forks in a canoe, turned the curve of the hill where a sand bar intercepted their eastward passage and entered the great lake a few hundred yards to the south." Father Jacques Marquette and his traveling companion, Louis Jolliet, were headed home from their trip down the Mississippi to the Arkansas, and were taking a shortcut recommended by the Kaskaskia Indians.

"The place at which we entered the lake is a harbor, very convenient for receiving vessels and sheltering them from the wind," Marquette wrote in a letter. "It would only be necessary to make a canal, by cutting through but half a league of prairie, to pass from the foot of the lake to the river which falls into the Mississippi."

The Chicago River is less spirited than the people who lived along its banks. Hansen described a Gypsy-like river culture in the city. On the North Branch, just below Irving Park Road, he visited the houseboat dwellers who tethered their homes to the bank.

"To me they were the logical successors of the Indian wigwams of other centuries, the last vestige of makeshift living," he wrote. "From the bridge they seemed shabby and unkempt, with their tarpaper sides, flat roofs and tiny stovepipes, but artists who came to paint them found them picturesque."

Further south, Hansen visited Goose Island, which at one time considered itself an independent village, stitched to the city by a few bridges. He met one of the few remaining cottagers, and she told him how the island got its name.

"'Twas one night a gentleman, who had been a bit too friendly with the bottle, lost himself and fell asleep in some unknown place," she said. "When he woke up he was surrounded by hissing geese. 'I must be on Goose Island,' said he, and that's how it got its name.'" She paused and then identified him: "'Twas a gentleman from Chicago,' she said."

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