We close 2018 with three fascinating articles that illuminate the social and cultural history of Illinois in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In “Charles Dickens, Cairo, and the Panic of 1837,” Peter Pellizzari analyzes the mix of truth and myth that drove western land speculation in the lead up to the Panic of 1837. At the center of Pellizzari’s story is Darius Blake Holbrook, Cairo’s chief promoter and financier in the 1830s. The town of Cairo, and Americans like Holbrook, also served as source material for parts of Charles Dickens’ novel, The Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, first published serially in 1842–44. Pellizzari unpacks Holbrook’s career as Cairo’s preeminent booster—artfully blending truth and fiction, Holbrook induced investors to drop huge sums into Cairo land and other ventures. Holbrook’s financial schemes, of course, like castles made of sand, disintegrated in the wake of the Panic of 1837. In this way Holbrook was a real life version of Zephaniah Scudder, Dickens’ fictional land agent who dazzles Chuzzlewit with alluring images of Eden, a fictional American river town unmistakably inspired by real life Cairo, which Dickens had seen during his travels to America in 1842. Dickens’ critical relationship to antebellum American society emerges here as one important source of the British novelist’s ouvre. Also striking is Pellizzari’s convincing account of how fiction and fact—myth and reality—were deployed by boosters like Holbrook in the service of western land speculation. While the macroeconomic forces that fueled the Panic of 1837 have received much scholarly attention (and rightfully so), Pellizzari’s tale of greed, hope, allure, and illusion points to an equally important aspect of antebellum economic history: The cultural mores that sustained market transactions (and a market bubble in western land) in the years running up to the panic.
It is a commonplace that Irish labor built the Illinois & Michigan Canal. Yet few scholars have bothered to study the Irish immigrant experience in the antebellum period outside of urban contexts like Chicago or New York City, or the coal fields of Pennsylvania. What sustained Irish communities in the many small, rural towns that grew along the I&M Canal Corridor in the decades before the Civil War? In “Canal Diggers, Church Builders: Dispelling Stereotypes of the Irish on the Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor,” Eileen McMahon examines Irish immigrant agency downstate, in towns that dot the prairie. Central to Irish immigrant life was the Catholic Church. The parish served as the focal point of a rich immigrant experience in a foreign land; as a force for communitybuilding, ethnic pride and identity, and eventual assimilation. McMahon’s study of small-town Irish community formation and the efforts to establish parishes across the Canal Corridor enlarges our understanding of the antebellum Irish experience.
Finally, we close with a study of the Depression-era collaboration between two Illinois-born artists. In “Doris and Russell Lee: A Marriage of Art,” Mary Jane Appel traces the mutually creative practices that shaped both Doris’s American Scene paintings and Russell’s work as a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration. As Appel demonstrates, the married couple shared a “reciprocal relationship with a fluid exchange of ideas and artistic visions.” The rural imagery that suffused the Lees’ work, of course, trace back to their Midwest and specifically Illinois roots. But Appel’s larger contribution is to establish the artists’ collaborative working methods, their creative partnership and influence upon one another.
"Charles Dickens, Cairo, and the Panic of 1837"
"Canal Diggers, Church Builders: Dispelling Stereotypes of the Irish on the Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor"
Eileen M. McMahon
"Doris and Russell Lee: A Marriage of Art"
Mary Jane Appel
Lincoln before Lincoln: Early Cinematic Adaptations of the Life of America's Greatest President. By Brian J. Snee.
Reviewed by George S. Dekle, Sr.
Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class. By Mark A. Lause.
Reviewed by James Illingworth
The Last Hurrah: Sterling Price's Missouri Expedition of 1864. By Kyle S. Sinisi.
Reviewed by Wallace Dean Draper
Chicago Transformed: World War I and the Windy City. By Joseph Gustaitis.
Reviewed by Roland J. Guyotte
The Pew and the Pickett Line: Christianity and the American Working Class. Edited by Christopher Cantrell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake.
Reviewed by Danny Russell
Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen. By Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann.
Reviewed by Patricia Ann Owens
Illinois River Town, c. 1938, oil on canvas by Doris Lee. The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1939. © The Estate of Doris Lee, courtesy D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc.