Ghost writers

Dead poets are better remembered in books than buildings

click to enlarge Ghost writers
Home of Edgar Lee Masters in Petersburg.
Home of Edgar Lee Masters in Petersburg.
The only class of people less happy to confront dead writers than high school sophomores are probably mayors. Dead writers cause more trouble in their hometowns than even the most factious of them ever do when they are alive. Over in Petersburg, I hear, there’s a fuss about what to do about the boyhood home of Edgar Lee Masters, whose Spoon River Anthology made him famous and Petersburg and Lewistown notorious. The town owns the house, but few tourists come to see it and the mayor doesn’t see why the town ought to spend money to make a few tourists happy that could be spent making voters happy. In the meantime, the house is closed to the public during this, the 100th anniversary of the publication of Masters’ most famous book.

The Masters house in Petersburg is only one of the buildings associated with the lives of mid-Illinois’ literati that have been preserved. Almost all were once threatened with demolition or neglect; almost all were saved because a zealot mobilized townspeople to preserve them. Springfield’s Vachel Lindsay house had Elizabeth Graham, for example, just as Carl Sandburg’s birthplace in Galesburg had Mrs. Adda George. Such people don’t just care – they care a lot. When her research revealed the location of Sandburg’s birthplace, Mrs. George installed a boulder on the lawn and a plaque by the door; she did these things without the permission of the Italian woman who owned and lived in the house. “The woman sometimes hid the plaque and often tried to roll away the boulder,” wrote George. Imagine.

Illinois continues to rely on local volunteers to wage these fights against oblivion. This is not wise, especially in the case of artists. In an Illinois town, the constituency for dead poets is only slightly larger than the one for live poets. The only time the math works out is when a public official can claim – usually by resort to dubious math – that the town will earn back in tourism what it spends on preservation.

This rather haphazard approach to preservation means we risk losing things that arguably ought to be saved. Floyd Dell is a more consequential figure than Masters as both a writer and editor, but as far as I know there is no historic site associated with Floyd Dell in either Barry or Quincy, the communities in Pike and Adams counties, respectively, where he spent much of his youth. Worse from a financial perspective, we also risk spending what little money we have on things that don’t deserve to be saved.

Because of the way that the present so inconveniently keeps becoming the past, we will continue to confront these controversies. The house in Lincoln that figured prominently in the novels and family history by William Maxwell still stands because it is still lived in; the present owners in 2002 consented to the installation in their front yard of a plaque explaining its significance, which I call civilized, but enlightened homeowners don’t live forever either. Nor is it likely to be long before some jobs creator will propose to turn one of the houses in Champaign and Urbana and Bloomington lived in by David Foster Wallace into a Taco Bell.

If one accepts that the sites attached to the lives of major writers, architects, musicians and thinkers ought to be preserved for the public’s edification, who decides who is major? At the local level, such decisions are the result of enthusiasts arguing with aldermen; such discussions seldom remind one of Socrates. At the state level, as Petersburg learned in 2001, the legislature or governor decided which sites merited saving, not the professionals of the IHPA. At every level, the crucial criteria are fame in a given field – celebrity, in other words – and potential as a tourism draw.

As a sort-of writer I inclined to be generous toward memorializations of other poor wretches in the trade, but I sympathize with mayors in these matters. A town can’t afford to keep every old house standing because someone who used to be famous lived in it. (Although how many towns have more than one or two?) And I have to admit that I’m not sure what visitors can learn from their childhood homes, which are seldom distinct from others of their period and class. The best thing that Petersburg could do to remember Masters would be to ensure that the schoolchildren of Petersburg learn about their famous compatriot. Better that writers live in the heads of their townspeople than that their ghosts be housed in museums.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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