Off the Shelf

by Lynn McKeown

Another Galesburg novelist

Clark E. Carr, The Illini; A Story of the Prairies. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1904.

Illinois produced some of the most outstanding figures of 19th Century U.S. history, and Galesburg’s most prominent politician of the time, Clark E. Carr, was friends or at least acquainted with most of them. December of this year will be the 100th anniversary of the publication of Carr’s historical novel The Illini, which includes his fictionalized portraits of these illustrious men.

Carr was a lawyer, businessman, postmaster, orator, minister to Denmark during the Harrison presidency, and an influential Republican in the Midwest of his time. Also the "most roly-poly fat man in town," as Carl Sandburg called him. He was well-educated, a newspaper editor for a few years, an amateur Shakespeare scholar, and author of a number of books. These include one describing his witnessing of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a biography of Stephen Douglas, a book of memoirs called My Day and Generation, and The Illini, which seems to have been his only work of fiction.

I wouldn’t want to argue that The Illini is a great, lost masterpiece, but it is an intriguing book for anyone with an interest in Illinois history. The title comes from a quote from Father Hennepin used as a motto, which says the word "Illini" was used by Indians as "signifying a complete, finished and perfect Man." The novel’s setting is Illinois in the time just before the Civil War through its early years, and Carr’s theme is that Illinois produced an unusually large number of men of historic importance — especially the famous names of Lincoln, Douglas and Grant — but also lesser but still admirable men such as Owen Lovejoy, Jonathan Blanchard, David Davis and John A. Logan.

Carr’ s novel is a fictional, romantic 19th century story of love and adventure interspersed with vignettes, often humorous, featuring these famous men of the state’s history. Here’s his description of Lincoln: "My first impression was that he was the homeliest man I had ever seen; but as he moved and spoke, this impression was gradually changed. He was awkward and ungainly, bony and angular.... His neck was long, and seemed to be intended especially to lift his head high enough to survey every object about him.... He had dark gray eyes, well set in his head, heavy eyebrows, a large expressive mouth, and dark complexion."

A number of anecdotes illustrate Lincoln’s intelligence and love of humor. One of the humorous stories (by standards of the day) has him telling about an instance when a dark-complexioned Knox County man in the state legislature was mistaken for African-American. These anecdotes and other historical vignettes are interesting, though you might wish they had been presented in non-fictional form so it was clear what was actual observation and what was the author’s imagination — a professional historian would probably be exasperated.

For those interested in Galesburg and Knox College history, Carr also has an account of the debate between Knox College President Jonathan Blanchard and Stephen Douglas in Knoxville on the subject of slavery, an actual event that paralleled the more famous, later Lincoln-Douglas debate in Galesburg. Carr doesn’t deal, however, with the famous "schism" in the town and college which resulted in Blanchard being forced out as president. Douglas appears in several scenes in the book. Photographs of Lincoln, Blanchard, Douglas and other notable Illinoisians are interspersed throughout the volume.

The novel is written as a first–person memoir of a young man much like Carr himself, describing his experiences coming, as did Carr and his family, from New York state to the Illinois frontier. The narrator makes the acquaintance of the (fictional) Silverton family, falls in love with the daughter and is involved in a complicated and somewhat improbable story of estrangement and eventual reconciliation between the elder Silverton and his illegitimate son. This part of the book is perhaps rather typical of romantic, nineteenth century novels, but it is pleasant enough in its way.

The novel’s greatest interest for this reader was the picture it gave of the political upheaval of the time, and especially the attitudes of citizens toward abolitionism. Being a politician himself and someone with a great interest in history (He was president of the Illinois Historical Society for a time), Carr has obvious insight into nineteenth-century Illinois politics and depicts vividly the contrasting attitudes toward abolitionism of Illinoisians of the time.

Interestingly, for a novel concerned with this topic, there isn’t much direct consideration of African-Americans. One of the main characters is a former slave, but it turns out his supposed African origin was a mistake. Of the other characters, only one minor one is African-American, perhaps reflecting the fact that this group had been pushed to the back of public awareness at the time of this book’s publication or were considered subhuman by the contemporary (but now rejected) form of Darwinian theory.

Of the book’s fictional characters, probably the most interesting is one named Hobbs, a sort of Dickensian character who in modern times would be called a "redneck." He starts out as an opponent of abolitionism and appears likely to be the villain of the story but undergoes a change of heart.

The central fictional story is one of loss or estrangement of a son. With only a little psychologizing, one could suspect this theme had special meaning to Carr, whose only son died at a young age in a drowning accident. (The book’s dedication: "To the memory of his lamented son Clark Mills Carr this work is affectionately dedicated by the author.")

The Illini is rather long (468 pages) and written in the formal, leisurely style typical of the late nineteenth century. It is definitely not a page-turner but is well-written and enjoyable in its way. It is a view of turbulent pre-Civil War Illinois by an observer who lived through the period and is looking back from the vantage point of age and the different world of the early twentieth century.

A large number of copies of this book are available at low prices from book-dealers on the Internet. A couple of conclusions could be drawn from this. One the one hand, the book was apparently rather popular and widely purchased in its time (It went through a number of editions or printings between 1904 and 1906). On the other, it has now been largely forgotten. I would argue that, if not a great book, it is still an interesting view of nineteenth century Illinois by a keen observer. Clark Carr should probably be included in the list of notable writers associated with Galesburg.