Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry / Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume One: The Authors
Woolley, Lisa, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. Edited by Kevin Stein and G. E. Murray. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Pp. xxiv, 366. Contributors, acknowledgments, index. Cloth, $39.95, paper $19.95.)
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume One: The Authors. Edited by Philip A. Greasley. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Pp. 666. Photos, index, appendix. Cloth, $59.95.)
The literary historian, like all historians, cannot account for the complexity of a time period, movement, or geopolitical entity Some writers will be left out, others given special emphasis. Although inherently imperfect, books, articles, presentations, displays, and classes, as well as anthologies and reference works, nonetheless organize the literature of the past and give shape to its context. Our understanding of midwestern literature will be changed by both Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry and Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume One: The Authors, even though they are very different in size, purpose, and scope.
Anyone who has wanted to redraw the boundaries of midwestern literature will welcome these two books. "[T]he whole town knows/ the sangamon is a living current/ that does not abide still water," poet John Knoepfle writes (IV 74), and literary history must change as our relationship to the past is altered by the present. The demands of scholarship itself necessitate new emphases. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor of Dictionary, writes, "Students seeking avenues for primary literary research and publication should consider the opportunity afforded by" the forgotten authors and young writers included in the volume (8).
In addition to their main business of being an anthology or a dictionary, both books provide a short literary history. The brief introduction to Illinois Voices cannot offer great depth but for the same reason invites a nonacademic audience to read it. Much like the poetry the anthology includes, this overview captures key moments: the founding of Poetry magazine, the passing of the state's poet laureateship from Carl Sandburg to Gwendolyn Brooks, and the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to immigrant Lisel Mueller. Dictionary's introduction covers midwestern history, literature, and life in significant depth. Occasionally, when the editors must meet readers on familiar ground, they resort to well known images of the Midwest as mainly rural and white with a few horrible cities, and that occasional note of midwestern defensiveness creeps in. For the most part, though, the editors avoid cliches about the region and present a complex literary history for our times.
Each volume delineates reasonable criteria for selecting authors. Both Illinois Voices and Dictionary exclude what the latter refers to as "[a]ccidents of birth or residence" (7). Having carved out a larger territory to cover, Dictionary also limits inclusion to authors who have written about the Midwest and have had some influence on other midwestern writers.
Due to its smaller size, Illinois Voices is the more selective. The editors explain that they hope to "surprise and confirm" our sense of Illinois poetry (xxiii), and they succeed admirably. Most readers will no doubt be disappointed to find some of their favorite Illinoisans excluded, especially for the early part of the century. Once again, however, the editors have picked representative moments. Moreover, the twentieth century's first two decades have been the most studied period in Illinois's literary history, so the emphasis on the later period is overdue.
Illinois Voices represents various segments of the state, from silos to skyscrapers to Starved Rock. The anthology includes poems about Lincoln and Illinois history, including "American Apocalypse" by Edward Hirsch about the 1871 Chicago fire. The volume also contains poems about other places, including Angela Jackson's "Miz Rosa Rides the Bus" and David Wojahn's "`It's Only Rock and Roll but I Like It': The Fall of Saigon, 1975. …