Illinois Authors on the Library Frieze

Construction on the new State Library building proceeded with remarkable ease and few setbacks. A total of $36 million was spent on the structure. Of that amount, $24 million was expended in construction and related costs, including architectural fees. The remainder went for the purchase of the land, demolition of existing structures, and rerouting of utility and sewer lines.882

By the spring of 1990, the building was nearly complete. Remarkably, the final product was under budget by around $1 million. “I can’t think of any other public buildings you could say that about,” reflected Lamont, with obvious pride. “Everything just went so well with nearly every aspect of it.”883

However, one element stirred up a mild controversy. Edgar and Lamont, in their quest to honor the literary heritage of Illinois, extended that idea to the exterior of the library building. They suggested that the names of great Illinois authors be engraved in the frieze of the new structure. Lamont’s inspiration came from the famous names of Illinois history etched in the exterior of the Centennial Building, and she wanted to see the same honor accorded to state authors at the new library building. A committee of four, including Lamont, Illinois Wesleyan University professor Robert Bray, University of Illinois-Chicago professor and writer Michael Anania, and Kristina Valaitis, senior editor of the Illinois Humanities Council, was chosen in June 1988 to select the most deserving Illinois authors for engraving on the building’s frieze. Opinions of other literary experts were also solicited.884

The process proved insightful – and controversial. Lamont summarized the selection process as “great intellectual discussion.” But there were many names to choose from, and the architects said there would be space for only 225 letters or spaces on the building. Three names – historian Carl Sandburg and poets Edgar Lee Masters and Vachel Lindsay – were first on everyone’s list. From there, such writers as Richard Wright, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell, were also considered easy choices. Notable literary figures such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, and Ray Bradbury were quickly selected. Some of the selections were not always thought of as authors, such as Abraham Lincoln and Black Hawk, the Indian warrior.885

The engraving of Gwendolyn Brooks’ name on the State Library, one of 35 Illinois authors honored on the library’s exterior frieze.

The engraving of Gwendolyn Brooks’ name on the State Library, one of 35 Illinois authors honored on the library’s exterior frieze.

The inclusion of living authors was hotly discussed among the committee. Critical reputation and their tendency to “go up and down” with time were also considered. “What constituted an Illinois author” was another question that had to be answered. Did an Illinois author mean a native of the state, or just a former resident? What of authors who wrote about Illinois? Ernest Hemingway proved to be a puzzling case. Although a native of Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway is rarely associated with Illinois and did not write about his home state. But to exclude Hemingway, in the words of one reporter, would have “invited a scholarly Armageddon.” Hemingway, as a result, made the list.886

Recognizing that their choices were subject to public debate, the committee also asked for nominees from 18 other experts statewide, who were asked to submit 25 names each. In the end, a total of 35 authors were given the honor of having their names chiseled in stone.887

The final list of 35 authors was announced by Secretary Edgar at the seventh annual Illinois Literary Heritage Conference in October 1989. Almost immediately, the second-guessing began. Studs Terkel – a Pulitzer Prize winner whose name was included – remarked, “not to be falsely modest, I wonder if I merit it. I’m not sure I belong there.” Others took up the cause for those passed over. The omission of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of 25 Tarzan books that sold 36 million copies, drew the most ire, as did Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas. Newspaper columnist and author Mike Royko’s omission was also criticized.888

However, the controversy over the selections proved tepid. Valaitis actually embraced the debate, noting that, “people don’t talk about Illinois literature. This may help get people talking about it.” Edgar reminded that it was not an attempt to identify the 35 “best” writers of Illinois. “We consider this a monument to all great writers who have called Illinois home. If this generates debate about which writers deserve such an honor most, we welcome the discussion.”889

In 1996, Sandra Olivetti Martin romanticized the chosen Illinois authors in her essay on the honored names of the State Library.

“Read the great writers from anywhere; take your pick. No doubt you’d be wowed at the literary achievement of New York, Texas, or even Alaska. But Illinois, I can tell you, is special.

Illinois is the state of divine inspiration. Our writers are life-struck lovers … street-corner preachers … somber realists…anguished existentialists … conscientious reformers … and thrilled lyricists. Regardless of color, creed, or sex, of national origin, of outlook pessimistic or optimistic, Illinois writers sing as irrepressibly as canaries, pouring out their faith in a world perfectible. If only they can find the right word.”890