Back on the debate trail

Charleston (left) and Galesburg, Illinois, debate sites. (Sharon’s photos)

A couple of months ago, after I finally took a few photos of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate site in Ottawa, Illinois, and the second one in Freeport, I said I was going to put the seven sites on my “to visit” list. Well, I ticked off two more this month on the way home from a southern road trip.

(Sharon’s photo)

I stopped at Charleston, site of the fourth debate, and Galesburg, site of the fifth debate. No, I’m not taking them in the order they happened. This was the order that worked for my route back home to northern Illinois. I figure I’ll try to do three, six and seven on my next trek south.

And I don’t expect to log as many miles as Lincoln did while he was on the debate circuit. There’s a map of the whole route, including details about how many miles Lincoln covered via train, boat and wagon at the Charleston museum. (Apparently Douglas didn’t keep track as closely.)

My only advance research for the sites was finding them on my GPS. I was expecting small parks, like the surroundings of the two sites I’d already seen. Each of those has some relatively new signs explaining what went on back in 1858. But neither of these sites is in a park.

Charleston’s debate site is at the Coles County Fairgrounds, and its statues of the debaters are the most accessible of the ones I’ve seen so far. They stand at the corner of a little museum that features some hands-on exhibits, as well as a little theater that shows a short film at the press of a button.

(Sharon’s photo)

The political nature of the debates is clear, with red white and blue bunting and colors throughout the room. But the location was considered especially friendly to Lincoln, where his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, and other family members still lived. The local hospital bears her name.

(Sharon’s photo)

In Galesburg (also the home of Carl Sandburg, but that’s another story), the debate was held outside Old Main, a building that was finished in the summer of 1857 on the campus of Knox College. There are no statues to commemorate the debate, but on the east side of the building large, bronze plaques of each candidate frame doorways into the building. (The handicapped entrance is on the west side of the building.)

Inside along the hall, several signs and photos illustrate the history of the college, as well as the significance of the debate. And in a small room on the left from the debate doorway is the Lincoln Chair room. The chair is the one Lincoln sat in while waiting for the debate to begin.

(Sharon’s photo)

The room also houses a collection of memorabilia from the debate, as well as from the life of the 16th president. Across from the doorway sits a detailed miniature of the law office Lincoln shared with William H. Herndon in Springfield, Illinois. There are also a variety of images — posters, photos– and a small statue of Lincoln on a bookshelf.

Historical note: One of Knox College’s graduates was Hiram Rhodes Revels, who would become the first African-American U.S. Senator and the president of Alcorn University in Mississippi.

To the left of the miniature, is the window Lincoln and Douglas climbed through to reach a platform that was built for their debate. It blocked the door between the plaques, making the window the only access for the debaters. The effort, according to a small sign near the window, led to Lincoln’s remark, “At last, I have gone through college.”

À bientôt!


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Lessons from the dust of Beautiful Ruins

brcover   Last month most of the members of our In Print Writers as Readers book discussion group said they had no trouble finishing our selection – The Language of Flowers. This month several writers admitted they kept reading Beautiful Ruins just because it was our selection of the month. For several, it was a chore, not a treat.

And yet, when we started talking about it, we realized author Jess Walter had shown us much worth discussing.

Walter’s novel about the intersections of several lives during and after the making of the movie “Cleopatra” was less than straightforward in its style. Its constant structural changes sometimes amused and sometimes annoyed members of the group.

The novel opens in 1962 like this:

The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly – in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.

We agreed that the Walter’s prose style immediately brought to mind the era in which the opening scene was set. And that’s where some of the group took a deep breath and settled in for a nice long read with descriptions and pace that evoked the people and places of half a century ago. Others, though, just slogged along, determined to get through what seemed destined to be a conventional, literary novel.

In the rest of the chapter, we learned a bit about the actress Dee Moray and more about Pasquale Tursi, who “watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite: a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.”

But when we got to chapter two, our readers seemed to move to the opposite sides of the appreciation/toleration coin.  Here’s a sample of that chapter:

Claire wakes jonesing for data; she fumbles on the crowded bedside table for her BlackBerry, takes a digital hit. Fourteen e-mails, six tweets, five friend requests, three texts, and her calendar – life in a palm. General stuff too: Friday, sixty-six degrees on the way to seventy-four. Five phone calls scheduled today. Six pitch meetings. Then, amid the info-dump, she sees a life-changing e-mail. From  She opens it.

Walter takes us instantly into the 21st century. The changes – from old-school, almost languid prose to rat-a-tat delivery, from sleepy Italy to speedy Hollywood, from past tense to present – jarred nearly everyone. And these weren’t the only sudden changes in the novel’s style and structure.

I picked this novel for us to dissect specifically because I was interested in how Walter handled the long time frame. We agreed that his approach was unexpected and, for some of us, less than enjoyable, but it was effective. There was no question that we knew where we were in the timeline between 1962 and 20-something in most chapters.

We also agreed that Walter was able to paint distinct pictures of most of the main characters.  And there were lots of them in different places and times. One of us, among our visual thinkers, created color-coded charts to help her keep track of people and places.


Another launched a short discussion when she mentioned how much she disliked Michael Deane, a Hollywood producer today and a “fixer” in the 1960s. We agreed quickly that our dislike was an indication of Walter’s success in describing Deane physically – “The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed.” – and psychologically – he agrees to promote a script he knows the studio will reject just so he can use the rejection as a way to get out of his contract.

The book is billed as humorous, but the humor escaped several of us. And when we saw it, it was generally of an ironic or sarcastic nature. Some drew parallels with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Carl Hiaasen or Christopher Moore.

There are several love stories – or lack-of-love stories – in the novel. So, was love a theme of the book, we wondered. We concluded there are certainly examples of familial love and responsible love, as well as “it’s depressing and people suck” love and time- and obstacle-conquering love.

We had mixed feelings about whether we would recommend the book. Despite agreeing that Walter has a gift for description and character development, we also agreed that the jarring format he used to “travel” through time and space just wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

Are we glad we finished it? Yes.

And we think we’d like to see the movie.