Reading American authors, and appreciating their impact

click to enlarge Reading American authors, and appreciating their impact
Sydney J. Harris

November 1 was National Authors' Day, so this month is a particularly good time to remember a favorite author, or book, that has had an impact on you. And here in Illinois, we should especially be aware of this reading-focused, author-celebrating observance – because it originated in our state, which has such a wonderful literary tradition.

Back in 1928, Nellie Verne Burt McPherson, the President of the Woman's Club at Bement, Illinois – a small town east of Decatur – came up with the idea of a National Authors' Day. She was a teacher who was a committed reader. In May 1929, her idea was approved by the General Federation of Women's Clubs, who then championed the annual celebration. Finally, 20 years later, in 1949, the U. S. Department of Commerce made it an official national holiday.

So, early November is an especially good time to buy a new book to read, or visit your local library to acquire one, or find out about an author that you admire. And in our present time, when so many internet sites are shallow, it is good to remember how engaging books can be and what a positive impact they can make on someone's inner growth.

I've been actively writing and speaking about authors and their books for decades, and my special interest has been American authors associated with our state. Since the 1970s I've written books, chapters, articles and introductions to works by others that have focused on well over 100 Illinois authors – from famous figures like Abraham Lincoln, U. S. Grant, Jane Addams, Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks to a host of now-obscure writers who, in my view, still deserve to have modern readers.

Indeed, since 2016 I've been writing a series titled "Forgotten Voices from Illinois History," which appears in every issue of Illinois Heritage magazine, published in Springfield by the Illinois State Historical Society. In those articles, it's been a pleasure to bring modern attention to talented memoir writers such as Albert Britt, Rebecca Burlend, Eliza Farnham, Ruby Berkley Goodwin, Maud Rittenhouse Mayne and Carl Van Doren; engaging fiction writers like Margaret Ayer Barnes, Cyrus Colter, John Dos Passos, Frazier Hunt, Louise Jordan Miln, Elia Peattie, William Maxwell and Willard Motley; insightful poets such as Dave Etter, John Hancock, John Hay, Harriet Monroe and Mark Van Doren; committed journalists and social crusaders like Preston Bradley, Baker Brownell, Fanny Butcher, Milton Haney and C. T. Vivian, as well as once-popular nature writers like Virginia Eifert and Donald Culross Peattie.

The most recent issue of Illinois Heritage carries my overview of the life and writing of Clara Bayliss, a now-forgotten woman who lived in Sterling, Streator, Springfield and Macomb. She was the wife of Western Illinois University's second president, Alfred Bayliss, and so she lived in Macomb from 1906 until several years after her husband's death in 1911. And she is buried there, alongside her husband, in Oakwood Cemetery.

Aside from her groundbreaking books for young readers, which were focused on native Americans, she was also known for her child-centered social activism – advocating better home life, safe playgrounds, school libraries and, of course, the importance of reading for the growth and development of children. She was an originator of the famous PTA movement, which had such an impact on promoting good schools through parent-teacher interaction.

The next issue of Illinois Heritage magazine will carry an article I just completed on a once-famous newspaperman, Sydney J. Harris. He was a childhood immigrant from London, and after graduating from the University of Chicago, he became a columnist for the Chicago Daily News (1944-1978) and, later, for the Chicago Sun-Times, until his death in 1986.

But unlike so many newspaper columnists, he was not a commentator on current, specific aspects of American culture and politics. He was a kind of philosophical essayist who focused on "the human condition." Or as Harris put it in an article titled "Greatest Task – to Discover Self," which was reprinted in his fine collection, Last Things First (1961), our most important lifelong effort should be "rising above the accidental prison of our personalities and trying to discover what a human being should really be like." And he helped countless people do that.

So, Harris wrote about various challenging and crucial matters, which gave his essays a timeless quality. No wonder they have wide-ranging, generalized titles like "The Arrogance of Ignorance," "The Awesomeness of Reality," "Masks Can't Hide the Real Self," "Responsibility Requires Knowledge" and "Virtue Needs to be Cultivated." Superbly insightful, the essays for his syndicated column were eventually carried in some 200 American and Canadian newspapers.

(By the way, anyone interested in reading Illinois Heritage, a fine magazine that should be carried in all of our state's public and school libraries, and read by anyone who wants to belong here, can obtain a subscription by joining our excellent Illinois State Historical Society. Call 217-525-2781.)

As the Sydney J. Harris career so clearly reveals, the positive impact that authors can have on the inner growth of individuals is enormous, and we do, indeed, owe much to the efforts of so many of them. More communities should celebrate National Authors' Day, especially here in Illinois, where that fine national purpose originated.

Writer and speaker John Hallwas is a columnist for the McDonough County Voice.

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