Barry McNamara  |   Published November 01, 2018

Appreciating Illinois Literature

In year of Illinois bicentennial, English class visits locations made famous by Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters.
  • Students in “Illinois Literaure,” taught by Kevin Roberts (back row, sunglasses), paid a peaceful, reflective visit Oct. 31 to Oak Hill Cemetery in Lewistown, Ill., the setting for Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – The story is familiar – college students visiting a cemetery on Halloween.

But for Monmouth College students in English professor Kevin Roberts’ “Illinois Literature” class, the Oct. 31 visit celebrated “write,” not fright.

As a gentle breeze stirred the fallen leaves on a mostly sunny afternoon, Roberts’ students paid a peaceful, reflective visit to Oak Hill Cemetery in Lewistown, Ill. The cemetery has been called “the most famous ‘fictional’ cemetery in the world,” because it is the setting for Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.

A childhood resident of Lewistown, Masters is one of several Illinois authors being studied in the class that Roberts periodically offers. His inspiration for offering it this semester was the ongoing celebration of the Illinois bicentennial. Illinois was admitted to the union on Dec. 3, 1818.

Roberts began the class studying authors and works from southern Illinois, including his native DuQuoin. He then moved to the central portion of the state, which the class is currently studying. The class will conclude with authors from northern Illinois, focusing on Sinclair Lewis and Ray Bradbury.

“We’re planning to celebrate the bicentennial with a birthday cake on Dec. 3,” said Roberts.

It won’t be the first time the class has enjoyed good food. Their Halloween day field trip also included a stop in London Mills to get an up-close view of the Spoon River and grab a full-sized lunch serving at Spoonie’s, an iconic bar and grill.

‘Poet of the people’

The first stop on the field trip was in Galesburg, where the class learned more about one of the state’s most famous authors, Carl Sandburg. They viewed a video about the multitalented poet at the Carl Sandburg State Historic Site and toured the first of his several homes in Galesburg.

“He was a man of the people and a poet of the people,” said one of the speakers in the video. “He was elegant and rough-hewn at the same time.”

Sandburg was referred to not only as a poet, but also as a journalist, activist, historian, biographer, folklorist, novelist, entertainer and children’s author.

Said another speaker in the video, “In Carl Sandburg, you can find so many answers for today’s questions.”

Wandering Oak Hill Cemetery

While the Sandburg site visit was led by a tour guide, Roberts and his students wandered on their own through the still-active Oak Hill Cemetery.

“We know that Masters was right here,” Roberts told the class at one point. “He was looking at these markers, he was finding out things.”

Celebrating Illinois’ 200th birthday with a cake and a visit to the cemetery that inspired Spoon River Anthology.

Elizabeth Gustafson ’22 of Kewanee, Ill., said she appreciated the opportunity to retrace Masters’ footsteps.

“I enjoyed going to the graves of the people who inspired the epitaphs from Spoon River Anthology,” she said. “I thought it was really interesting to connect the real people to the people on the pages.”

Masters used the stories of actual Lewistown residents in his fictional works, a fact that took the citizens of the town several decades to forgive. But now Spoon River Anthology is celebrated as much locally as it is in literary circles around the world. In 2015, the town observed the 100th anniversary of the anthology’s publication with tours, exhibitions and theatrical performances.

Gustafson said she has enjoyed learning more about Illinois authors while also gaining a better sense of the state’s history.

“I have developed a great appreciation for Illinois literature and Illinois history,” she said. “I am a huge fan of history, so I love the combination of the two in this class.”

Particularly of interest, she said, is her favorite work she’s studied so far, It’s Good to Be Black by Ruby Berkley Goodwin.

“We saw the life of a young girl growing up in southern Illinois, the diversity of her town and the personalities in it,” said Gustafson.

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