Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Eugene Field and His Age

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Eugene Field and His Age

Article excerpt

Eugene Field and His Age. By Lewis O. Saum (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 324. Notes, Bib., index. Cloth, $50.00.)

Although Eugene Field set the stage for the popular twentieth-century newspaper column, he is all but forgotten today. After working as a journalist in Missouri and Colorado, Field spent twelve years at the Chicago Daily News (later renamed the Record) until his death at the age of 45 in 1895. His column, "Sharps and Flats," combined news, commentary, satire, and pure fiction. Himself a poet, Field became an early proponent of western American literature. He wrote during an exciting era of Chicago journalism -- in the 1890s, the Columbian Exposition drew the world's attention to the Windy City, Hamlin Garland's midwestern realism elicited groans and praise from reviewers, and George Ade's "Stories of the Streets and of the Town" ran next to "Sharps and Flats." Lewis 0. Saum's Eugene Field and His Age assesses his contributions to American culture while explaining the shifts that have made Field obscure.

The body of Field's work has become fragmented by noncomprehensive published volumes, unsigned columns, spottily preserved newspapers, a literary estate divided among archives throughout the country, and numerous forgeries sold to collectors by his son. Although these practical obstacles can discourage research, studying Field also is complicated by his habit of reviewing nonexistent books, writing letters to the editor in response to his own columns and attributing them to other public figures, and mixing all this nonsense with frequent commentary about long-forgotten state and local politicians.

Saum painstakingly has found the majority of Field's journalism and interpreted what it means. Rather than dwelling on biographical details, he examines Field's main trends while acknowledging "that, to some degree, that involves assessing the images in a fun-house mirror." In assembling most of Field's work, Saum has performed an invaluable service for future scholars. Field's friends, for instance, often referred to his columns or clipped them for their own files, but the dates are sometimes inaccurate. Saum sorts out these problems (to the extent that this job can be done) and uses stylistic analysis to engage in reasonable speculation about unsigned pieces on Field's favorite themes.

In Field's day, newspapers emphasized the local scene, and so did he throughout his career, to his original readers' delight and our confusion. Saum makes Field comprehensible and again does a great deal of groundwork for subsequent researchers. …

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