- Historic Sites
Spoon River Revisited
An artist recalls his Midwestern home town and the poet who made it famous
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
Papa Smoot’s great goodness hadn’t been difficult to achieve; he had always had everything going for him. He had inherited a lot of rich, Illinois farm land; he was intelligent and educated; above all, he was perfectly beautiful. It was no wonder that his goodness was marred by self-righteousness. Petersburg, Illinois, was a very selfrighteous community, and Papa was very much a part of Petersburg—in many ways, in fact, its leading citizen. His grandfather had come to Illinois when it was virgin prairie and had acquired a big tract of government land. Abe Lincoln had settled in the locality about the same time and had worked for Papa’s grandfather as a hired hand (and borrowed two hundred dollars from him for clothes and travelling expenses to get to Vandalia when he was elected to the legislature). But Lincoln was an ambitious politician, and he moved on to Springfield and Washington, and Petersburg never liked him very much. The Smoots stayed put and lived comfortably off the fat of the land and were satisfied with themselves.
I always liked to go and sit in Papa Smoot’s law office on the courthouse square. When I was a boy, he practiced law in partnership with my father, and the office was a busy place. Papa didn’t need to make money from his profession and never tried to. There were endless questions of property rights, and everyone in the county trusted him, and his law practice was an exercise in civic virtue. When now and then someone came to him about a divorce, he would order him out of the office. He didn’t believe in divorce. In his last, lonely years, when I would return from New York to visit him, I found him alone there more often than not. His law business had declined along with the town during the Depression. He would look out of the window in long silent meditation on the empty square. Then he would say, as much to himself as to me, “I wonder if these towns will ever come back.” We both knew they never would.
My Grandfather Laning, who died when I was twelve, was very different—almost as bad a man as Papa Smoot was good. He spent most of his time far away in Oklahoma on his “plantation,” and I saw him only on his annual visits to Illinois, when he came back to open the house. He fascinated me, but it was an evil fascination. I was proud of him because he was reputed to be rich, but I always dreaded it a little when he called me to him in the square, because his talk frightened me. I might hear him say to some admiring crony, “When you’ve got an enemy, don’t attack him directly. Put your arm around him—and drive a knife in his back—and twist it!” Once he told me and my companions how, when he was our age, he used to sneak into the Menard House, a tavern that then stood on the south side of the square, to listen to the men’s talk. Usually the proprietor ignored him, but sometimes he would chase him away, saying, “Ed, you run along. Abe Lincoln’s here, and I don’t want you to hear the stories he’s got to tell.” Sometimes he would invite me to bring my friends up to the house, where he would show us his hunting trophies, the hides and mounted heads of big game he had brought back from his expeditions to the Rocky Mountains, and I would feel very important. By the time I went to high school, I already knew by heart the poem about Grandfather Laning from the Spoon River Anthology: