Twenty years ago this week, I received my first copy of my first book, a history of my hometown when it was the Illinois capital. The title, echoing frontier travel writers' frequent description of the town, is High on the Okaw's Western Bank: Vandalia, Illinois, 1819-1839. Lincoln began his political career in the town, serving as state legislator beginning in 1834. Stephen Douglas also began in politics at Vandalia. In fact, the two men first met there.
The book was quite a project. I did the research during my college summers (1975-1979), and a portion became my college honors paper. After my masters degree, I wrote the manuscript (1983-1985), and submitted it to University of Illinois Press. The press was interested, but reader reviews indicated I’d have to change the manuscript to a topical rather than my original, chronological/ narrative approach. I rewrote the whole thing (1987-1990) while also writing my doctoral dissertation in religion (groan). I regretted the subsequent loss of what was to me interesting material about Illinois politics and government at Vandalia. The town hosted ten general assemblies, seven Illinois governors, and several state supreme court sessions. But I compressed five chapters about those subjects into one. My most original research, however, regarded the social dynamics and local character of Vandalia, an unusual frontier town in that it also had an official function.
After it was published, a friend fetched two copies and gave them to Clinton and Gore when they made a campaign stop in Vandalia in 1992. This photo, taken by Rich Bauer for the Vandalia Leader-Union, has hung in my office for a long time. The book is out of print but I donate copies to two local museums to sell to folks if they're interested. The book received a couple negative reviews and several positive ones, and it has been cited in articles and histories and a recent Lincoln biography.
I wrote it because of my affection for Fayette County, IL and its heritage, personal pride that my ancestors lived in town at that time, and a desire to give something back to Vandalia. I didn’t realize till later that the book qualified me to teach college history courses, which have been some of my favorite classes and students.
The moral to this story is: Don’t give up on your dreams! Find people who believe in you, be flexible, and try not to be discouraged if your goals seem difficult to achieve.