Homepage of "Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, & Other Highlights of Lincoln, IL"

Site Map


A Long-Range Plan to Brand the First Lincoln Namesake City as the Second City of Abraham Lincoln Statues

The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration in Lincoln, Illinois

Abraham Lincoln and the Historic Postville Courthouse,
including a William Maxwell connection to the Postville Courthouse

About Henry Ford and the Postville Courthouse, the Story of the Postville Courthouse Replica,
Tantivy, & the Postville Park Neighborhood in the
Route 66 Era


The Rise of Abraham Lincoln and His History and Heritage in His First Namesake Town,
also the founding of Lincoln College, the plot to steal Lincoln's body, and memories of Lincoln College and the Rustic Tavern-Inn

Introduction to the Social & Economic History of Lincoln, Illinois,
including poetry by William Childress & commentary by Federal Judge Bob Goebel & Illinois Appellate Court Judge Jim Knecht

"Social Consciousness in William Maxwell's Writings Based on Lincoln, Illinois" (an article published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, winter 2005-06

Peeking Behind the Wizard's Screen: William Maxwell's Literary Art as Revealed by a Study of the Black Characters in Billie Dyer and Other Stories

Introduction to the Railroad & Route 66 Heritage of Lincoln, Illinois

The Living Railroad Heritage of Lincoln, Illinois: on Track as a Symbol of the "Usable Past"


Route 66 Overview Map of Lincoln with 42 Sites, Descriptions, & Photos

The Hensons of Business Route 66

The Wilsons of Business
Route 66
including the Wilson Grocery & Shell Station

Route 66 Map & Photos Showing Lincoln Memorial Park
(former Chautauqua site),
the Historic Cemeteries, & Nearby Sites

Route 66 Map & Photos Showing Salt Creek & Cemetery Hill,
the highway bridges, GM&O bridge, Madigan State Park, the old dam (with photos & Leigh's memoir of "shooting the rapids" over the old dam), & the Ernie Edwards' Pig-Hip Restaurant Museum in Broadwell

The Historic Logan County Courthouse, Past & Present

Route 66 Map with 51 Sites in the Business & Courthouse Square Historic District,
including locations of historical markers
(on the National Register of Historic Places)

Vintage Scenes of the Business & Courthouse Square Historic District

The Foley House:  A Monument to Civic Leadership
(on the National Register of Historic Places)

Agriculture in
the Route 66 Era

Arts & Entertainment Heritage,
including the Lincoln Theatre Roy Rogers' Riders Club of the 1950s

Business Heritage

Cars, Trucks & Gas Stations of the Route 66 Era

including the hometown churches of Author William Maxwell & Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr

Factories, Past and Present

Food Stores of
the Route 66 Era


Hospitals, Past and Present

Hotels & Restaurants of the Railroad & Route 66 Eras

Lincoln Developmental Center
(Lincoln State School & Colony in the Route 66 era), plus
debunking the myth of Lincoln, Illinois, choosing the Asylum over the University of Illinois

Mining Coal, Limestone, & Sand & Gravel; Lincoln Lakes; & Utilities


Museums & Parks, including the Lincoln College Museum and its Abraham Lincoln Collection, plus the Heritage-in-Flight Museum

with Distinction

News Media in the Route 66 Era

The Odd Fellows' Children's Home


Memories of the 1900 Lincoln Community High School,
including Fred Blanford's dramatic account of the lost marble fountain of youth

A Tribute to the Historians and Advocates of Lincoln, Illinois

Watering Holes of the Route 66 Era

The Historic 1953 Centennial Celebration of Lincoln, Illinois

The Festive 2003 Sesqui-centennial Celebration of Lincoln, Illinois,
including photos of LCHS Class of 1960 dignitaries & the Blanfords

Why Did the State Police Raid Lincoln, Illinois, on October 11, 1950?

The Gambling Raids in Lincoln and Logan County, Illinois,
During the Late Route 66 Era (1950-1960)


Pages in this section tell about Leigh Henson's Lincoln years, moving away, revisits, and career:

About Lincoln, Illinois;
This Web Site; & Me

A Tribute to Lincolnite Edward Darold Henson: World War II U.S. Army Veteran of the Battles for Normandy and the Hedgerows; Brittany and Brest; and the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge)

For Remembrance, Understanding, & Fun: Lincoln Community High School Mid-20th-Century Alums' Internet Community
(a Web site and email exchange devoted to collaborative memoir and the sharing of photos related to Lincoln, Illinois)

Leigh Henson's Pilgrimage to Lincoln, Illinois, on
July 12, 2001

Leigh Henson's Review of Dr. Burkhardt's William Maxwell Biography

Leigh Henson's Review of Ernie Edwards' biography, Pig-Hips on Route 66, by William Kaszynski

Leigh Henson's Review of Jan Schumacher's Glimpses of Lincoln, Illinois

Teach Local Authors: Considering the Literature of Lincoln, Illinois

Web Site About
Leigh Henson's Professional Life


Pages in this section are about the writing, memorabilia, and Web sites of other Lincolnites:

A Tribute to Bill and Phyllis Stigall:
Exemplary Faculty of Lincoln College at Mid-Twentieth Century

A Tribute to the Krotzes of Lincoln, Illinois

A Tribute to Robert Wilson (LCHS '46): Author of Young in Illinois, Movies Editor of December Magazine, Friend and Colleague of December Press Publisher Curt Johnson, and Correspondent with William Maxwell

Brad Dye (LCHS '60): His Lincoln, Illinois, Web Site,
including photos of many churches

Dave Armbrust's Memorabilia of Lincoln, Illinois

J. Richard
(JR) Fikuart
(LCHS '65):
he Fikuarts of Lincoln, Illinois, including their connections to the William Maxwell family and three generations of family fun at Lincoln Lakes

Jerry Gibson (LCHS '60): Lincoln, Illinois, Memoirs & Other Stories

Dave Johnson (LCHS '56): His Web Site for the Lincoln Community High School Class of 1956

Sportswriter David Kindred: Memoir of His Grandmother Lena & Her West Side Tavern on Sangamon Street in the Route 66 Era

Judge Jim Knecht
(LCHS '62): Memoir and Short Story, "Other People's Money," Set in Hickey's Billiards on Chicago Street in the Route 66 Era

William A. "Bill" Krueger (LCHS '52): Information for His Books About Murders in Lincoln

Norm Schroeder (LCHS '60): Short Stories

Stan Stringer Writes About His Family, Mark Holland, and Lincoln, Illinois

Thomas Walsh: Anecdotes Relating to This Legendary Attorney from Lincoln by Attorney Fred Blanford & Judge Jim Knecht

Leon Zeter (LCHS '53): His Web Site for the
Lincoln Community High School Class of 1953
including announcements of LCHS class reunions

(Post yours there.)


Highway Sign of
the Times:

The Route 66
Association of Illinois

The Illinois State Historical Society

Illinois Tourism Site:
Enjoy Illinois



     Email a link to this page to someone who might be interested. Internet Explorer is the only browser that shows this page the way it was designed.  Your computer's settings may alter the display.)

April 24, 2004: Awarded "Best Web Site of the Year" by the Illinois State Historical Society "superior achievement: serves as a model for the profession and reaches a greater public"

Marquee Lights of the Lincoln Theatre, est. 1923, Lincoln, Illinois

 You can go home again. Email Leigh Henson at DLHenson@missouristate.edu.

Peeking Behind the Wizard's Screen:
William Maxwell's Literary Art as Revealed by a Study of
the Black Characters in Billie Dyer and Other Stories

      "The view after seventy is breathtaking. What is lacking is someone, anyone, of the older generation to whom you can turn when you want to satisfy your curiosity about some detail of the landscape of the past. There is no longer any older generation. You have become it, while your mind was mostly on other matters" (William Maxwell, "The Man in the Moon," in Billie Dyer and Other Stories, p. 56). Note: At 65 (2007), I'm not quite at that point, but close enough to appreciate the observation.

     The following discussion complements my article titled "Social Consciousness in William Maxwell's Writing Based on Lincoln, Illinois," and another page in this site titled "Introduction to the Economic and Social History of Lincoln, Illinois." (Note: In this essay, I typically spell Brummell with two l's because that spelling is used on the headstone of Hattie Dyer Brummell, and that is the way her granddaughter, Ms. Priscilla Florence, tells me she spells it. In Mrs. Whitfield's letter to William Maxwell later on this page, I spell it with one l because she does.)


     Prior to William Maxwell's masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), which was also his next-to-last book, the central characters of his Lincoln-related work are based on his family because those were the people he knew best and whose experiences he could most readily write about. In So Long, Maxwell uses an introspective, autobiographical first-person narrator and a character based on his brief, late-childhood friendship with a white farm boy, fictionally named Cletus Smith. In writing about the Smiths, Maxwell was expanding the scope of his material to include those he knew only marginally. Maxwell confides that he did a lot of reading to try to understand Midwestern farm life in preparation for writing about the Smiths.

     In his last book, Billie Dyer and Other Stories (1992), Maxwell continues to write about his family, himself, and people who had been in the margins of his experience in Lincoln. The central figure of "The Man in the Moon" is Maxwell's Uncle Ted Blinn. The central figures of "My Father's Friends" are Aaron McGivor and John Dean Gillett Hill, a Lincoln attorney from a distinguished, upper-middle-class family. The Gillett family was independently wealthy from owning thousands of acres of rich farmland in Logan County around Elkhart, south of Lincoln. The central figure of "The Holy Terror" is Maxwell's older brother, Edward ("Happy" or "Hap").

     The two longest narratives of Billie Dyer and Other Stories are the title piece, "Billie Dyer" (34 pages), and "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" (14 pages). The central figures of these stories are blacks. Maxwell opens the book with "Billie Dyer," and "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" is the next-to-last story. The central figure of "Billie Dyer" is William Dyer, M.D., a native of Lincoln and graduate of Lincoln College who became prominent as one of this nation's first black physicians. The central figures of "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" are the autobiographical narrator and Hattie Dyer Brummell, a sister of Dr. Dyer who had been employed as a cook and housekeeper by Maxwell's parents, Maxwell's maternal grandparents, and his Aunt Annette (Blinn) Bates. Members of the Dyer-Brummell black family of Lincoln lived on Elm Street just a half block from Maxwell's parents and his maternal grandparents, the Edward Dunallen Blinns.

     Dyer-Brummell family ancestors were former slaves. William and Hattie's paternal grandfather was Aaron Dyer, who had lived in Springfield, Illinois, and who had been active in the Underground Railroad. The Dyer-Brummell family also helped to found and build the 1868 Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) that still stands at the corner of Broadway and Sherman Streets. 

     The history of blacks in Lincoln, Illinois, is an important part of its social history. This black history, however, has not been very thoroughly written and is reported in only a few sources. Two sources of significance to Lincoln's social history for their black characters are Maxwell's novel titled Time Will Darken It (1948) and his last publication, Billie Dyer and Other Stories (1992).

     Knowing the Dyer-Brummell family members only from childhood experience, Maxwell had limited involvement with them and, of course, limited powers of observation and memory of them. In writing about these blacks, Maxwell did not rely on memory alone, but conducted research, and he mentions that research in his stories. During 2007, I investigated Maxwell's research into this black family and discovered that his stories mention only a small part of the research he did.

     This essay examines Maxwell's research on the Dyer-Brummell families and describes my own corresponding research findings. My research has involved communication with Ms. Debbie Ross, the adopted daughter of John A. Ross. As explained in this essay, he was a grade school black classmate of Maxwell, and Maxwell corresponded with him in the 1980s, attempting to learn more about the Dyer-Brummell family. Maxwell was seeking information to help him write about Dr. Dyer and his sister, Hattie Dyer Brummell. Ms. Priscilla Florence is a granddaughter of Hattie Dyer Brummell, and this essay greatly benefits from Ms. Florence's insightful remembrances of Lincoln, Illinois, and details of her family's history and its connections to William Maxwell. This essay quotes previously unpublished letters to and from Maxwell generously provided by Debbie Ross and Priscilla Florence. This essay also discusses Maxwell's portrayal of blacks in his final stories and draws some conclusions about his literary art based on those black characters.

Discussion of "Billie Dyer"

     The title figure in "Billie Dyer" was the son of Alfred and Laura Ward Dyer. Although both Mr. and Mrs. Dyer worked for the Maxwell family, Maxwell writes that "as far as I knew I had never laid eyes on William Dyer" ("Billie Dyer," p. 5). In his effort to gain information about William Dyer, M.D., Maxwell talked to one of his brothers. I assume this was the younger brother, Blinn, not the older one, Edward, who died in 1985, perhaps before Maxwell began work on "Billie Dyer." Maxwell also talked to the President of Lincoln College, who had been a childhood friend of Maxwell in Bloomington, Illinois, where Maxwell's Aunt Edith lived with her medical doctor husband. Maxwell does not name this man, but my research shows that he was Raymond Dooley. William Dyer had attended Lincoln College, which gave him an award in approximately 1955, and most likely Raymond Dooley was responsible for that recognition.

     A central primary source Maxwell uses and summarizes is Dr. Dyer's World War I diary. Other primary sources cited by Maxwell in "Billie Dyer" are a few letters "written between 1955 and 1957" by Dr. Dyer to Maxwell's cousin, Hugh Davis. "Billie Dyer" also identifies several secondary sources: the Logan County histories of 1878, 1911, and 1982; editions of the Lincoln Evening Courier; and The Namesake Town: A Centennial History of Lincoln, Illinois (1953).

     "Billie Dyer" describes the 1975 discovery of William Dyer's WW I dairy in Dallas, Texas, by Jim Wood, a real estate agent. Curious to learn more about Dr. Dyer and his diary, Wood eventually wrote the Lincoln Public Library of Lincoln, Illinois. Maxwell does not explain how he accessed this diary, but implies that did so through the Lincoln Public Library.

     Maxwell describes the diary as "a lined eight-by-twelve-inch copybook [photocopy] with snapshots and portrait photographs and postcards pasted in wherever they were appropriate. That it escaped the bonfire is remarkable; that it fell into the hands of so conscientious a man is also to be wondered at" ("Billie Dyer," p. 17).

     In an email message to me in October, 2007, Richard Sumrall, Director of the Lincoln Public Library, explained that the Library had received a photocopy of the typescript of this diary, but the sender and date of submission are presently unknown. This document was apparently the source that Maxwell worked from, and his language in describing the diary suggests that he believed there was only one copy.

     In a phone conversation I had with Dr. Dyer's great niece, Priscilla Florence, in September, 2007, she explained that Dr. Dyer had self-published his diary and had given copies to family members, but she knows of only one or two surviving copies. In a later email to me, Ms. Florence mentioned that her first cousin, Foster Whitfield, says he has the original manuscript of Dr. Dyer's diary.

     In October of 2007, I was pleasantly surprised to see a copy of Dr. Dyer's WW I diary for sale on eBay, and I purchased it. This copy is a typeset, printed version measuring approximately five inches by eight inches with a gold-colored cover and 63 glossy pages. The copy I have is titled "A Soldiers' [sic] Diary" by First Lieutenant Wm. H. Dyer, M.D. This copy has no date or place of publication, and these copies are rare: in several years of exploring used bookstores in central Illinois and monitoring eBay for items relating to Lincoln, Illinois, I have never seen such a copy.

    The seller I purchased this copy from was living in Cleveland, Ohio, and he wrote me that "I bought it from an old friend who is now deceased. I believe he bought it at a book store in Akron, Ohio, in the 1970's." Dr. Dyer's brother, Clarence, had lived in Ohio, so perhaps there is a connection. Inside the front cover is the inscription and signature: "To Mr. and Mrs. Horace Brown from Wm. H. Dyer M.D." I have found no information about the Horace Browns.

     Pasted inside the back cover of my copy of Dr. Dyer's diary are two newspaper articles. The newspaper(s) is/are unidentified, but the text indicates the publisher(s) is/are not The Lincoln Evening Courier. One of the articles is an obituary of Dr. Dyer, and the text implies that the source is a Kansas City newspaper. The other article dates to the 1953 centennial celebration of Lincoln, Illinois, and reports that the town was honoring Dr. Dyer as one its "25 citizens of Lincoln, Ill., who have made successful places in life."

     The foreword below proves that Dr. Dyer had privately published his diary:

The following passage from Dr. Dyer's diary describes his departure from Lincoln for Army service:

     "It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, September 24, 1917, that I left my home, for what fate I knew not, but to proceed at my country's call."

     "When I arrived at the railway station, some three hundred or so of my friends and neighbors had gathered to say to me farewell and to bid me God-speed on my journey."

     "Many photographs, too, were taken of me to be the monuments of the first colored officer of our town and the first one of my race from Lincoln to be offered up."

     "When my train arrived, the crowd had grown quite dense and I was kept busy shaking hands with those who promised me remembrances in their prayers."

     Mother and Father standing there with tears in their eyes were too full to speak when I kissed them and bade them farewell."

     "I still had not realized the gravity of my mission, yet impressed by the sadness which hovered over the countenances of my parents, my eyes too filled with tears, my throat became full and for miles as the train sped on, I was unable to speak or to fix my mind upon a single thought" (pp. 7-8).

First Lt. William H. Dyer, M.D.

Bessie L. (Bradley) Dyer, His Wife

     The preceding material is from Dr. Dyer's privately published WW I diary, courtesy of Leigh Henson. Maxwell's "Billie Dyer" says that Bessie Dyer was a painter, and that gives rise to the question of whether her image above is a self-portrait.

     In an email communication with me in the fall of 2007, Priscilla Florence says that while she was viewing this community history Web site of Lincoln, Illinois, she recognized a picture postcard image of the lake in Brainerd Park (Chautauqua site) as a painting similar to one painted by Bessie Dyer. Ms. Florence mentioned that boys from Lincoln, including her Great Uncle William Dyer, used to swim in this lake. Ms. Florence writes, "As a matter of fact, her picture looks like the same angle with boys added in. She called it a swimming hole." Access the picture postcard of painting of the Chautauqua site lake that resembles that of Bessie Dyer.

     Access the newspaper article about Dr. Dyer's honor as one of the top citizens of Lincoln, Illinois: the "Hall of Fame" during the town's 1953 centennial celebration. Access more information about the centennial celebration (its parades, pageant, etc.), including the identities of all members of the Hall of Fame. Access the 1958 Kansas City newspaper obituary of Dr. Dyer.

     Photo of Dr. William Dyer from the newspaper article about his participation in the 1953 centennial celebration of Lincoln, Illinois.

Discussion of "The Front and the Back Parts of the House"

     In "The Front and the Back Parts of the House," Maxwell says that his puzzling encounter with Hattie Dyer took place during a visit he made to Lincoln to see his family when he said he was in his early forties (p. 83), but it is difficult to reconcile this estimate of his age at the time of the visit with other facts. The visit during which Maxwell experienced Hattie's snub would have had to be after 1948, when Time Will Darken It was published (the novel whose black character offended Hattie), and before 1958, when his father died. Maxwell says he was living in the country when his father requested the visit (p. 83). According to Christopher Carduff's chronology, Maxwell and Emily lived in a New York City brownstone apartment on East 36th Street at Lexington Avenue from 1949 to 1955, with weekends and holidays spent at their country Yorktown Heights "small, sturdy house" (William Maxwell: Later Novels and Stories, p. 953).  In 1955, Maxwell and his wife took up full-time residency in Yorktown Heights (p. 955). Did the visit to Lincoln during which he experienced Hattie's snub occur in 1955+? If so, Maxwell would have been in his late forties, not his early forties. Whenever the visit occurred, Maxwell would have been married, but the narrator of "House" does not indicate that both his wife and he made that visit to Lincoln.

     The encounter with Hattie occurred in the home of his Aunt Annette Blinn Bates on Lincoln Avenue. Maxwell writes that "years passed without my thinking about Hattie Dyer at all, then suddenly there I was backing away from her in confusion" (p. 92). As indicated on her headstone (pictured later on this page), Hattie Dyer Brummell passed away in 1963. Perhaps Maxwell did not begin to seek information about her until the mid 1980s, after he had published his major work, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) and began to concentrate on the material of Billie Dyer and Other Stories (1992).

     In "Billie Dyer," Maxwell does not indicate that he attempted to go beyond the sources named or suggested in the story in order to gain more information about the Dyer-Brummell families, but he does make such a revelation in "The Front and the Back Parts of the House." As Maxwell considered how he could find out more about Hattie Dyer Brummell, he writes that "I could have asked my aunt [Annette Blinn Bates] and she would have told me all that a white person would be likely to know, but I didn't. More years passed. I found that I had a nagging curiosity about Hattie--about what her life had been like. Finally it occurred to me that my Cousin Tom Perry, who lives in Lincoln, might be able to learn about her" (Billie Dyer and Other Stories, p. 99).

      "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" includes a quote from the second letter Maxwell's step-cousin, Tom Perry, wrote to him on this matter: "'I don't understand it. . . . The colored people of Lincoln have always been very open. If you asked one of them a question you got the answer. This is different. They don't seem to want to talk about Hattie Dyer.'" Maxwell continues, "In a P.S. he added that the elderly black man who took care of his yard was reading one of his books. Miss Lucy Jane Purrington, whose yard he also looked after, had lent it to him, and in a flash I realized what the unforgivable thing was and who had done it" (p. 102).

     Maxwell's epiphany is that he is the one who had offended Hattie. He realizes that she must have discovered the unsympathetic black characters in his 1948 novel, Time Will Darken It, that correspond to her husband and her: "If Hattie did indeed read my book then what could she think but that I had portrayed her as a loose woman and her husband as a monster of evil? And people in Lincoln, colored people and white, would wonder if I knew things about Fred Brummell that they didn't, and if he was not the person they took him for. I had exposed their married life and blackened his character in order to make a fortune from my writing" (p. 107).

     Prior to the preceding passage, Maxwell writes, "When I was working on the novel about the Kings, it did not occur to me that Hattie would read it or even know it existed. A few women who had known me as a child would put their names on the waiting list at the Lincoln Public Library, one or two at the most might buy it, is what I thought. Men didn't read books. The Evening Courier and the Chicago Tribune supplied them with all the reading matter they required" (p. 106).

William Maxwell and John A. Ross

     "The elderly black man" who took care of Tom Perry's yard plays a key role in Maxwell's self-discovery. Most likely, the real-life counterpart of this elderly black man was John A. Ross, a life-long resident of Lincoln, Illinois. Early in 2007, my friend Bobby Olson of Springfield, Illinois, told me that he had known John A. Ross and that Mr. Ross had a daughter in Springfield, Illinois. I found her name and email address on the Internet. After several email exchanges and phone conversations with her, I interviewed Ms. Ross on August 17, 2007, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. At that time, she confirmed that her father had done yard work for Tom Perry and others in his family. 

     (Note: Ms. Ross is the founder and lead singer of the blues band named The Debbie Ross Band of Springfield, Illinois. She sang The Star-Spangled Banner at the old State Capitol in Springfield when Barack Obama announced his Presidential candidacy there. In Sources Cited below, see link to The Debbie Ross Band Web site and to a YouTube video of Ms. Ross singing the national anthem at the Obama announcement.)

     Curiously, Maxwell does not identify the "elderly black man," let alone reveal that he was Maxwell's classmate and friend. Nor does Maxwell explain that he had corresponded with Mr. Ross in an effort to learn more about Hattie and her family. Maxwell perhaps does not identify "the elderly black man" because Mr. Ross was a personal acquaintance of Maxwell, and Maxwell did not want to seem to exploit him as Hattie apparently thought Maxwell had done with his portrayal of her husband.

     According to an article in the Bloomington Pantagraph of 1993 by Elaine Graybill, John A. Ross and Lincoln author William Maxwell attended Lincoln High School in the same freshman class of 1922. Maxwell's family then moved to Chicago, so the freshman year was the last time that Ross and Maxwell saw one another, although they corresponded over the years.

     Ross says Maxwell encouraged him to read: "He [Maxwell] introduced me to reading. He loaned me a copy of The Wizard of Oz. That was the first book I ever read" [in the eighth grade].

     Ross says he then began to visit the Lincoln Public Library: "I learned to read all stuff. I read some of everything." Ross said he read all of Maxwell's books and has read novels by other authors.

     The Pantagraph article says that "after graduating from Lincoln High School, Ross attended Lincoln University, now Lincoln College, about six months, until he ran out of money."

     "Ross's career consisted of farm and janitorial work, and 29 years at Caterpillar's foundry. He worked for Maxwell's aunt, Annette Bates. 'I worked around the Maxwell family all my life.'"

     Photographer unknown, but perhaps Ann Klose. Access memoir about John A. Ross from his adopted daughter, Debbie Ross, and other Lincolnites who knew him. Debbie Ross enjoys returning to Lincoln to visit family and friends.

     Debbie Ross provided me with copies of four letters that her father had received from Maxwell from November, 1986, to December, 1991. Maxwell's letter to John A. Ross of January 7, 1987, mentions that Mr. Ross had also done yard work for Maxwell's Aunt Annette's husband [William Bates], and this letter explicitly asks John A. Ross for information about the Dyer-Brummell families:

     "Right now I am trying to write a story about the family of Alfred Dyer [father of Dr. William and Hattie] and I waited too long to ask people about them. They lived on Elm Street between 8th and 9th Street, and his daughter Hattie cooked for my mother when I was a child. His son William was chosen in 1953 as one of the 10 most distinguished figures in the history of Lincoln. Like you, they were part Indian, part white and part Negro. I know that Alfred Dyer had 5 children, but I cannot even find out what the names of all of them were, let alone what happened to them. And after the story is published you don't, of course, have a second chance. Did you know any of them? They would be perhaps 20 or 30 years older than you. Is there anybody that you know in Lincoln besides yourself who can remember things that far back? I would be so grateful for anything you can tell me."

     Apparently John A. Ross was unable to provide Maxwell with much, if any, information about Hattie and her family. In Maxwell's letter to Ross of October 24, 1987, Maxwell writes,

    "It was kind of you to remember my interest in Hattie Dyer. I don't suppose now I will ever find out what I was hoping to, and will just have to put the story aside. She worked for my mother when I was a small child, and I met her again once thirty years later, in my Aunt's house on Lincoln Avenue. I should have asked her then what her life had been like, but you don't know at one time in your life what you will want to know at another. She was a very nice, quiet, capable woman, and my mother thought the world of her."

     When Maxwell lacked as much factual information as he wanted, he sometimes used his imagination to create scenes built on the facts he did have. One example of Maxwell's use of his imagination for this purpose occurs in "Billie Dyer," in which Maxwell invents an account of William Dyer's childhood friendship with John Harts and how it could have led John's father, David H. Harts, Sr., to provide financial support for William's education. (Access more information about Civil War Captain David H. Harts, Sr., as William Dyer's benefactor.)

     Maxwell's letter to John A. Ross of October 24, 1987, includes a most interesting passage in which Maxwell imagines what he does not actually know about Hattie Dyer Brummell's life:

     "Storytellers are like fortunetellers, in reverse, because they peer at the past instead of at the future. What I think is that in 1918, reluctantly (because she didn't want to leave her father and mother, who were old) she moved to Chicago because her husband thought he could do better for himself there. And it turned out that he was right. They both worked. She had had enough of housekeeping and so she went to an employment agency and ended up with a job as a cleaning woman in a hospital or office building. The work was hard but the pay was much better than she had been used to. And life in Chicago more expensive than it had been in Lincoln, but also more full of variety. Between them, she and her husband had enough and they lived comfortably in a walkup on the South Side, and she got to be friends with the woman whose back porch adjoined hers. When the Depression came he was laid off, but she still made enough at the hospital for them to scrimp by, and he kept hoping to find work but didn't, and so when old Mrs. Dyer took sick they decided to give up and go back to Lincoln so Hattie could take care of her. I have made all of this up. Do you think any of it is likely to be true?"

     The preceding passage was composed four years before the publication of "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" in The New Yorker. The appearance of "Billie Dyer" in The New Yorker was the first publication of that story before it appeared in Billie Dyer and Other Stories the following year, but surprisingly the "storytellers are like fortunetellers" passage is not included in the published story.

     In reading Maxwell's letters to John A. Ross, I wondered whether Maxwell's papers at the University of Illinois might include Ross's letters. Maxwell's letter to Ross of January 7, 1987, indicates that Ross had written to tell of his life, and I wanted to see that autobiographical information. In an email to me of September 5, 2007, I received the following statement from Professor Alvan Bregman, Rare Book Collections Librarian at the U of I: "Dear Professor Henson: I am sorry to disappoint you, but there do not seem to be any letters from John A. Ross in our Maxwell correspondence. I've checked not only the databases, but also the correspondence files themselves. If I do ever happen to come across such letters, I will let you know."

     I have also attempted to gain more information about the Dyer-Brummell families through my own research, and thanks to the Internet, I discovered information that was unavailable to Mr. Maxwell. Early in 2007 I emailed [Lincoln] Courier reporter Nancy Rollings Saul because I knew she was interested in the black history of Lincoln, Illinois, especially in Aaron Dyer's involvement in the Underground Railroad. As a long shot, I asked Ms. Saul if she might have a photo of Hattie Dyer Brummell so I might add it to this community history Web site.

     Ms. Saul sent me the remarkable Dyer-Brummell family photo that appears below, and she also sent me additional information that she obtained when she attended a Dyer-Brummelll family reunion in Decatur, Illinois, in August of 2002. That information included the names of Hattie Brummell's children in attendance; a photo of one her daughters, Mrs. Marian Louis Clay; some biographical details about Mrs. Clay; and the names of Mrs. Clay's children.

     Alfred and Laura Ward Dyer family portrait. The box identifies Hattie Dyer Brummell and her husband, George. Helen Brummell, daughter of George and Hattie, sits on her grandmother's lap (the "H" printed on Helen's shoulder by some unknown member of the family to identify her, perhaps years later). The little girl on her grandfather's lap is unidentified. Even though she has an "M" printed on her shoulder, Ms. Florence tells me that at the time of the photo her mother, Marian Brummell, had not yet been born to Hattie and George. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rollings Saul. Photo is undated but probably the 1910s.

     Using Internet searching with one of those names, I located and phoned Ms. Frankye Clay Parham, who later told her older sister, Ms. Priscilla Florence, about my interest in their family. Ms. Florence phoned me, and during conversation with me in early September, 2007, we discussed the separation of Hattie and her husband, George. Priscilla Florence said that Hattie's husband, George Brummell, was somewhat rootless.

     In emails of January, 2008, Ms. Florence explained that George had left his family in Lincoln and had gone to Chicago. Ms. Florence is unsure why he did. Her mother (Hattie's daughter, Marian) believes that George had abandoned his family, but Ms. Florence adds her mother "was a very young girl then, and anyone who would know has been dead for decades. Gramma Hattie left her kids with her mother [Laura Ward Dyer] at the home on Elm Street to get her husband in Chicago. My mother only remembers missing her very much at that time. She [Hattie] came back with him. They stayed together until he died (in the Lincoln house on Elm Street, according to cousin Harold, who was there at the time). George was very ill with a weak heart for years and only able to shine shoes in Lincoln when he felt well. I think that Gramma Hattie was the main wage earner." George Brummell is buried at his hometown of Decatur.

     Ms. Florence has graciously provided me with additional information about her family and its connections to Maxwell and Lincoln, Illinois. I am most grateful to Nancy Rollings Saul for making it possible for me to have found Ms. Florence and thus to obtain more information about this remarkable family. Amazingly, many in this family like Dr. Dyer left Lincoln for better opportunities, yet quite a few continue to be somewhat close-knit. Ms. Florence communicates extensively with family members, and many of them have offered insights and details that she has shared with me.

     Ms. Florence told me about her Aunt Helen Brummell Whitfield, one of Hattie's daughters (as previously noted, Helen is sitting on the lap of her grandmother in the Brummell family photo above). Mrs. Whitfield had written William Maxwell about his portrayal of Hattie and her husband. Priscilla Florence kindly provided me with a copy of that typewritten letter and of Maxwell's letter of reply. Mrs. Whitfield's letter is undated, but probably was sent in the first half of 1992 because Maxwell's response letter is dated July 10, 1992.

     Below is the full text of Mrs. Whitfield's letter, and I have done some minor editing of spelling and punctuation, but I retain Mrs. Whitfield's spelling of Brummel with one l. This letter is the only known written primary source that confirms Maxwell's literary testimony that his portrayal of Hattie's husband had upset her:

Mr. William Maxwell
c/o New Yorker Magazine, Inc.
New York, New York 10036

Re: Harriet Bell Dyer Brummel (known to you as Hattie)

Dear Mr. Maxwell:

By way of introduction I am one of Hattie Dyer's daughters.

After reading your book "Bill Dyer and Other Stories," I became lost in many memories growing up in Lincoln, Illinois.

Your misconception of my father, Fredrick Brummel, was apparent, after reading your description of him in your book, "They Came like Swallows.' [Note: Maxwell's novel with characters as counterparts of Mrs. Whitfield's parents is Time Will Darken It.] Yes, it angered and surprised my mother. This book shocked many of the Lincoln residents. They sought to destroy all copies [Note: This is not true of Swallows, but perhaps of So Long.], I never had the pleasure of reading it. You see, my mother was not the only Lincolnite who identified with the characters in your book.

Let me tell you about George Brummel, Fred as you called him. He was a gentle man, dignified, bright and was never exposed to the horror of slavery. He is buried in Decatur, Illinois (his home) not Lincoln. Your description of my father was not pleasing to me.

My parents were very proud people, even though their backgrounds varied. The Brummels settled in Decatur, Illinois from Europe. My granduncle Robert Brummel lived in Indianapolis, and he claimed to be third cousin to Beau Brummel, even had some proof.

I am to this day, sorry I did not learn more about the Brummel family other than that their bloodline was Cherokee, French, English, and small amount of African American. Cherokee is prominent in both sides of the family. Grandma Dyer's mother was full blooded Cherokee Indian.

Let's go back to Mamma. My father died when I was 13 years of age. Mamma was left with five children (at home) to raise. Do you know, we had a meeting (called by Mamma) to decide how she would manage to feed, cloth, etc., us, her very different children. Would we become recipients of ADC? No, was echoed throughout the conversation. My mother decided electric lights would be turned off and to be turned on when I finished high school. I was beginning my freshman year, so for four years we had kerosene lamps. The day I graduated the electric lights were turned on (How wise my mother was).

My mother often told us we were of aristocracy (smile), and we really believed her. You see, I believed that we were the only family in Lincoln that didn't have electricity for those four years, along with no car, or any other luxury.

Many years passed but at some of our family gatherings we asked Mamma why we had no lights as well as why she instilled the fact we were aristocratic (rich in heritage, poor financially). We her children had many blessed thoughts of Hattie and Fred Brummel.

I recall learning many times about the Harts, Maxwells, Bliss [Blinns], and Harris. I often see the name William Blinn on TV. Is he related to the Blinn of Lincoln, IL?

I could go on and on but I do not want to tire you. So, please inform me where you obtained the history of my family. I have a granddaughter and a niece who are interested.

My kindest regards to Mrs. Maxwell.


Ms. Helen Brummel Whitfield
Osseo, WI 54758

       Below is the entire text of Mr. Maxwell's letter of reply to Mrs. Whitfield, dated July 10, 1992. Not surprisingly, the publishing-savvy Maxwell opens with a conventional libel dodge of denying that his characters are based on actual people.

Dear Helen Brummel:

     In that novel I wasn't really writing about your father at all, or your mother either. But because of surrounding circumstances it seemed I might be. If I had it to do over again, I would make sure this didn't happen. But it is a relief to me to know that my guess about why your mother was not more friendly to me was correct. I tried to put my arms around her because she represented the world I had lost when my mother died, but I didn't manage to tell her this, and she didn't manage to tell me why she was angry. Too bad. But also a long time ago, and one must let go of things that happen.

     When I was writing "The Front and Back Parts of the House" in Billie Dyer and Other Stories, I tried hard, for years, to find out what your mother's life had been like but by that time she had passed away and there didn't seem to be any people in Lincoln who remembered her. [Note: Contrast this language with that of "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" in which Maxwell quotes his cousin Tom Perry: "They [black Lincolnites] don't seem to want to talk about Hattie Dyer."] I expect I just didn't know the right people to ask.

     After the book was published I had a letter from a member of the family on 8th Street that your mother worked for when she moved back to Lincoln from Chicago. They said that one morning she came to work in tears because your brother, who was, as I am sure you don't need to be told, a remarkable athlete, wasn't allowed to eat in a cafe with the other boys who were celebrating their victory but had to take his plate and go outside and eat, sitting on the curbing. In some ways the world gets better. But so slowly. Anyway it couldn't happen now, in Lincoln, or most places.

     During part of my growing up I lived on a farm in Wisconsin where there was no electricity, so I know that coal oil lamps can be cosy [sic], though electricity is more convenient.

     The Dyer family always interested me. Some of the things about them I remembered, some I learned from the widow of Dr. William Dyer's friend Hugh Davis, who was my cousin once removed. Your mother was quite right. They were, and are, aristocrats.

Yours sincerely,

     In her letter above, Mrs. Whitfield does not so much complain about the way Maxwell depicts her mother, Hattie Dyer Brummell, as Rachel, Fred Brummell's wife. Maxwell denies that connection: "Austin King's house [a setting in Time Will Darken It, the novel presenting the Fred Brummell character] was clearly our house, to anyone who had ever been in it. In 1912 Hattie was across the street at my Grandmother Blinn's. But during the visit of my Great-Aunt Ina and her family Hattie was working in our kitchen. However, I never had it in mind to write about her. Rachel, the colored woman who worked in the Kings' kitchen, was imaginary ("The Front and the Back Parts of the House," pp. 104-105).

     Maxwell's denial that he was writing about Hattie in Time Will Darken It would appear to be contradicted by "the rest of the story" of "The Front and the Back Parts of the House." "If Hattie did indeed read my book then what could she think but that I had portrayed her as a loose woman and her husband as a monster of evil? . . . Any regret for what I may have made Hattie feel is nowhere near enough to have appeased her anger. She was perfectly right not to look at me, not to respond at all, when I put my arms around her" ("House, p. 107).

     When I received Mrs. Whitfield's letter, I wondered whether she was related to Foster Whitfield, my black friend from Lincoln during my last year of high school and freshman year at Lincoln College (1960-61). Priscilla Florence said that Foster was Helen Brummell Whitfield's only child. He had attended Central School with others my age while I attended Jefferson School, so he and I did not meet till high school years.

     In later grade school years, Foster had moved from Lincoln for several years till he moved back to Lincoln to finish high school, when he lived with his Grandmother Hattie. During my freshman year at Lincoln College, Foster invited me to see where he lived. I recall he had several candles in his bedroom, and his bedroom window gave him the freedom to come and go at night as he pleased.

     Unfortunately I did not meet his Grandmother Hattie. Of course, even if I had met her, I would have known nothing about her family's significance in the town's history or probably would not have cared even if I had. I am reminded of Maxwell's observation: "You don't know at one time in your life what you will want to know at another."

    Below is a photo of Foster's third-grade class at Central School in 1951:

     Third Grade Class at Central School of Lincoln, Illinois (1951). Photo courtesy of Janet Kerpan, LCHS noble Class of 1960. This photo is most appropriate for closing a very wide circle. Foster Whitfield is in the second row from the left, second seat. Bob Goebel, my high school classmate who spurred my interest in William Maxwell and who has contributed several remembrances to this community history, is in the left row, fourth from the front. Jerry Gibson, my best first cousin once removed, is in the third row from the left,  fourth from the front. Jerry has contributed much material to this community history and invaluable encouragement to me on many occasions. Two seats behind Jerry is Janet Kerpan, who provided this photo and much encouragement for this project.

     The above photo was also published in the Lincoln Courier because the lady who owned the Courier, Mrs. Nugent, liked to publish photos of classes. In the photo captions, she quoted selected students' responses to leading questions whose answers demanded didactic testimony for good behavior. I discovered this photo from the Courier on microfilm years ago in my early research of Lincoln social history.

     The title of photo in the Courier is "Picking up Clothes, Keeping Room Tidy, Topic for Third Grade Class." Foster is not one of the half dozen students whose responses are given to the question, "Why should you always hang up your clothes and keep your room tidy?" Bob Goebel's answer is, "Your room would look a lot nicer. You could trip on something and hurt yourself. . . [illegible] save a lot of work. It saves a lot of time."

     In September 2014 Priscilla Florence wrote to tell me of her Cousin Foster Whitfield's passing and enclosed a copy of a celebration of life in his honor. Foster's moving from Lincoln and later return delayed his graduation from Lincoln Community High School. Without that interruption, he would have graduated with the LCHS Class of 1960. Internet searching led me to his online obituary in the Minneapolis StarTribune: "Whitfield, Foster L., Jr., age 71, of Mpls. passed away June 8, 2014. Preceded in death by parents, Foster L. Whitfield and Helen (Brummel) Whitfield. Survived by beloved daughter, Kris Tina Whitfield and many relatives and friends. A gathering will be held on Monday, June 16th from 4 PM to 8 PM, in the Community Room, Summercrest Condominiums, 3800 85th Ave., N; Brooklyn Park, MN. Interment Chicago, IL":


Priscilla Florence, CFP, Writes About Her Family, William Maxwell, and Lincoln, Illinois

     As indicated previously on this page, Priscilla Florence is a granddaughter of Hattie Dyer Brummell and first cousin of Foster Whitfield. In several email exchanges between Priscilla and me in the fall of 2007, she provided family history and remembrances of Lincoln, Illinois. She has generously allowed me to analyze them and present them here. Also, with the help of her sister, Ms. Florence provided the following wonderful painting of Hattie Dyer Brummell owned by their mother, Mrs. Marian Clay.

     Painting of Hattie Dyer Brummell at about the age of 70. This painting was done from a photograph and is courtesy of Priscilla Florence.

Dear Leigh,

     What you say about my family flows very well into Lincoln's history and I am impressed that you bothered to pursue the history of African Americans in Lincoln.  We are so often left out or just ancillary to other stories.

     It is a large and noble task that you pursue.  It goes in many directions, but you have managed to keep it organized.  Isn't it amazing how many links you find? I grew up wondering how my family ended up in the small towns of Lincoln, Decatur and Springfield.  William Maxwell and now, your research explain a lot. 

     To answer one of your questions, different family members spell Brummell different ways.  My mother [Mrs. Marian Clay] spells it as I do. Others spell it with one l, but all seem to spell it with two m's.

     The two oldest Dyers, Leon Dyer and Frances Dyer Edwards died within the past 2 years.  Leon's father, Edward, and Alfred, my great-grandfather, were brothers.  My cousin, Frances, was the daughter of Uncle Clarence and died Dec. 22, 2006.  What is interesting about her is that she was encouraged by Uncle Will to come to Kansas City to study nursing.  She graduated from an all-black nursing school in K.C., Mo. in 1940 and entered the Army Nurse Corps. serving in WWII taking care of German prisoners housed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.  Was she following Uncle Will's steps? 

 [Ms. Florence provides the following photo of one of her native-American ancestors.]

Undated photo of Martha Brummell

     Regarding the Gorens, yes, my family was married to the Gorens family. Harold tells me that one ancestor helped Alfred Dyer build the A.M.E. Church. Everyone in my family who has ever been to Lincoln remembers the A.M.E. Church.  It played a key role in the lives of all blacks in Lincoln.  I remember spending many hours there as a child. Gramma Hattie would frequently invite the then current minister over for Sunday dinner (who, of course, always took the best pieces of the fried chicken).

     The place on Elm Street was by every definition a "homeplace."  It was where all 6 [Maxwell thought there were 5] of Gramma Hattie's children went with and without their kids during crises.  Almost all of them have landed there for various reasons, staying for a few months or years, then launching back out. For instance, my sister and I lived there with my mother when she divorced my father. My cousin Harold said that 7 to 8 of his brothers and sisters stayed there when his father died. At the same time, Aunt Thelma and her husband were there with their 3 kids.

     [Note: Maxwell refers to the Dyers' house in a couple of places: "The Dyers' house was just around the corner on Elm Street [second house from the southwest corner]. It was shaped like a shoebox and covered with green roofing paper" ("Billie Dyer," p. 9). As a child, Maxwell accompanied his father when he visited the elderly Mrs. Dyer, and these visits afforded a recollection of the house interior: "I was not expected to take part in the conversation; only to be there. And so my eyes were free to roam around the front room we sat in. The iron potbellied stove, the threadbare carpet, the darkened wallpaper. The calendar, courtesy of the local lumber company [where Alfred Dyer worked]. The hard wooden chairs we sat on" (The Front and the Back Parts of the House," p. 96).

     He says they slept everywhere.  It's hard to imagine there is no sign of this place in Lincoln now, but it was a very small house, built by my great grandparents, so it was a privilege to have a place they owned.

     [Note: Priscilla's following comment is a response to my mentioning that in "The Front and the Back Parts of the House," Maxwell writes, ". . . Alfred Dyer owned his own house and the houses on either side of it. This surprised me. He did not look like a property owner. All three homes were torn down recently, Tom said (Maxwell's step-cousin Tom Perry), and the site has not been built on."]

     Forgot to say that neither Harold, Gertrude nor I remember any ownership by the family of homes other than the Elm Street house, built by Alfred Dyer. That was my purpose of the call to Gertrude and Harold.  We all find it hard to believe, but none of us would rule anything out completely.

     [Note: The notion that all three houses torn down were on contiguous lots is hard to believe because as of October, 2007, there are houses on either side of the lot where Alfred Dyer's house was located that appear to have been there many decades. If Alfred Dyer did own other houses, they must have been at some other location(s).]

     My sister, Beverly, and I spent a lot of time playing with the kids next door and were in and out of one of the houses all the time. Gramma Hattie never referred to it as having been owned by our family.

      Historic house on black section of Elm Street (left) surviving from the Dyer-Brummell family eras. The Dyer-Brummell family home was located immediately to the right of the white house at right. Photo courtesy of Leigh Henson.

     [The following photos show Florence's second and third grade classes at Central School in the early 1950s.]

     [Note: I mentioned, also, to Priscilla Florence that I am only four years older than she. I was riding my bike all over west Lincoln, including Elm Street, when she was visiting her Grandmother Hattie and playing with neighborhood kids--small world.]

     The copy of the diary you described is the one I remember seeing in my home growing up, given to my mother by Uncle Will.  Her sisters and brothers also received copies.  My cousin, Gertrude, in Decatur says she has a copy.  Foster says he has the original manuscript.  I was also told that  someone else had the original manuscript.  Have no idea who has what, but Foster says he will send me what he has.  The beautiful Lincoln Presidential Library would be a great place to house the diary.  Are they interested in such things?  I visited the Lincoln museum in Springfield last year and found it fascinating.  Had no time to go next door to the Library.

     Speaking of libraries, Gertrude, the daughter of Ethel, one of my mother's sisters, tells me that the library at Lincoln College has a memorial in the form of a picture, statue or something similar in honor of Aaron's work in the Underground Railroad.  The family was invited to a dedication for it shortly after our family reunion, but no one could go at the time.

     Aunt Bess and Uncle Will had a great fondness for my mother and later, my sister and I.  We spent much time at their home in Kansas City.  Aunt Bess was indeed a painter.  She gave paintings to the family.  These paintings hung in the Lincoln home and in our home in Jacksonville.  Sadly, they are now destroyed over time by mistreatment and through various moves.

     My Great Uncle Clarence, Gramma Hattie's brother, lived in Columbus, Ohio.  It is interesting how you came upon the diary on e-bay.  Again, someone, thought it would have some value to someone else - and it did.  Thanks for recognizing its significance.  I regret that I didn't place more value on it when first seeing it.  I don't think Uncle Will wrote anything else, but no one really knows.  He seemed to have an awareness of his own place in history having created a diary in the first place. 

     My family would not share some of the romantic musings you referred to in  some of your writing. Foster has another story of trying to swim in a lake in Lincoln [Lincoln Lakes] with his white friends, but being told he couldn't go in because he was black. That incident is burned in his memory. My mother talks often of her family and others needing to see a dentist, but all dentists but one refused to see black people. The one would see them only after hours, at dark, and required that none of them use the front entrance. They almost never saw a doctor and my family was fortunate in that Uncle Will would do short examinations and make recommendations when he came to visit, which he did as often as possible.

     Of course, you and Maxwell covered many of the attitudes reflected in the town's behavior towards black people. It hurt families a lot, but was no different than other towns in the Midwest. Black people had to leave those towns to get ahead. That is why Uncle Will was so heroic in his reaching back to help when he could.

     Maxwell mentioned that perhaps Uncle Will's siblings resented him for what was done for him by his donor [benefactor].  No one is around to verify a resentment per se, but there were some sacrifices on everyone's part in the family to help Uncle Will through college and Medical School. The donor paid for a very small part, but the seed was planted. I am learning that Uncle Clarence, his brother, wanted also to go to school, but the family had no extra resources to help him. All extra resources were directed to Uncle Will.

     My mother was also encouraged by Uncle Will to come to Kansas City, Kansas, after graduating from Lincoln High, also to pursue a greater future than what was available in Lincoln.  He paid her way through a year or two of junior college. She met my father after he left the army; they married and I was born in the first year of the boomers. My friends think it is amazing that Uncle Will bothered to reach back to women in an age when it was not commonly done.

     Because of him, my mother saw black people accomplishing things as teachers, doctors, etc. Once she saw what could be accomplished in Kansas City, when she lived with Uncle Will, she became determined to see that she and her future children would be part of that. 

     All four of us have advanced degrees. My brother has a law degree and the rest received our Master's. I don't want to presume that it all started with Uncle Will because Gramma Hattie was encouraging as well. She did not want to see any other family member work as housekeepers or maids. I think she thought fondly of the Maxwells, because when she no longer worked for them, the father would visit her and give her some much needed money, unasked. I remember her referring to these visits often. He would just come to say hello, more than once. She liked that he continued to think about her.


     My article titled "Social Consciousness in William Maxwell's Writings Based on Lincoln, Illinois" explains that Maxwell's work captures the social structure of his hometown in the early twentieth century, including the part played by black servants of the upper middle class. "Billie Dyer" and "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" show that toward the end of his life Maxwell developed a strong interest in the history of blacks in Lincoln, especially in the members of the Dyer-Brummell families who worked as servants in the homes of his family.

     Maxwell expresses his particular interest in Lincoln's black history by describing how the published histories of Lincoln and Logan County do or do not treat the subject. In "The Front and the Back Parts of the House," Maxwell uses a digression to describe the page in the 1953 centennial history of Lincoln (The Namesake Town, p. 33) that summarizes some of the Dyer family history as told by Hattie Dyer Brummell based on an interview with her by someone anonymous (perhaps Raymond Dooley). In that interview, Mrs. Dyer reveals that she is part white and "part Indian--her grandmother, who lived in North Carolina, was the child of a Cherokee Indian father and a white mother. This woman came in the covered wagon days first to Sparta, Illinois, and then to Springfield" (p. 33).

     The last several paragraphs of "Billie Dyer" lament the absence of black history in "the most recent" local history there: Maxwell describes this book, but does not give its title: "a large book--nine by twelve--. . . The likeness of Abraham Lincoln is on the cover, embossed in gold, as if some where in the Afterlife his tall shade had encountered King Midas" (p. 14). Maxwell is clearly referring to the History of Logan County, Illinois, 1982, edited by Paul J. Beaver--I own a copy and easily recognized it from Maxwell's description.

     Maxwell's criticism of this work is explicit: "Someone who had never lived there [Lincoln] might conclude from this book that the town had no Negroes now or ever. Except for the group pictures of the Lincoln College athletic teams, in which here and there a dark face appears among the lighter ones, there are no photographs of black men and women. And though there are many pictures of white churches of one denomination or another, there is no picture of the African Methodist Episcopal Church [the 1953 centennial history has such a photo]--only a column of text, in which the buildings it occupied and the ministers who served it are listed" ("Billie Dyer," p. 34). I note that the basketball teams of Lincoln Community High School in the 1982 history also show blacks (Beaver, p. 36), and these photos are a better indication of the presence of black families in Lincoln than the pictures of Lincoln College athletes because many students of Lincoln College come from other places, especially the Chicago area.

     Maxwell conducted research to discover information about the Dyer-Brummell families so that he could write about them in his final collection of stories. Those stories have prompted my own research on this subject, which has benefited from the Internet. That resource was not available in Mr. Maxwell's lifetime. The results of my research shed light on Maxwell's research and his use of it.

     Obviously, William Maxwell's research helped him to write about the Dyer-Brummell families in two of his last stories; but his writing, specifically "The Front and the Back Parts of the House," does not fully reveal the nature of his research or the way he used it. For example, Maxwell does not identify "the elderly black man" who worked for Tom Perry. In his story, Maxwell could have concisely reported his effort to learn more about the Dyer-Brummells through correspondence with John A. Ross. Such a brief clarification would have been of interest to readers.

     Additionally, Maxwell surely realized that Ross's life-long experience in Lincoln held much potential as material for literary composition. In his letter to Mr. Ross of January 7, 1987, Maxwell cites information that Mr. Ross had shared that shows Maxwell had an appreciation of Mr. Ross's life that would have been quite suitable for at least one good story:

Dear John,

     Your letter gave me a great deal of pleasure. I think in many ways your life has been unusual. I certainly don't know anybody who has lived for 80 years, off and on, in the house he was born in. I was born in a house on Ninth Street, but only lived there 12 years. I had two brothers--one of them is now dead [Edward]--but no sisters, and think it must have been a great advantage to be brought up in a house where there were so many children. The first job my father ever had was working as a bill poster for the Opera House [on Broadway Street and later named The Grand Theater], I think before ever you were born. I marvelled [sic] at your account of your ancestry, and particularly at your great grandfather, who actually managed, as so many men have wanted to, to have 2 wives at the same time. What adventures, what remarkable accidents, what stories the bare facts suggest. Sometime when you're in the mood I hope you will tell me more, since there is, you say, a lot more to tell. . . . Like you, they [the Dyers] were part Indian, part white and part Negro. . . ."

     Maxwell may or may not have been trying to learn more about Mr. Ross as potential material for a story. We can only speculate on the reason Maxwell does not identify "the elderly black man" or reveal the correspondence with him. The point is that Maxwell has withheld information about his research activity and details about a character that would have interested many of his readers.

     It is puzzling that Maxwell's "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" does not include the paragraph of his letter to John A. Ross of October 24, 1987, in which Maxwell imagines what he does not know about Hattie Dyer Brummell's life because that is a key technique that Maxwell likes to use to create the effect he sought: "the illusion of reality" mentioned below.

     The selections in Billie Dyer and Other Stories about the Dyer-Brummell families depend heavily upon factual information, and readers would like to think that good writing is both complete and free of irrelevancy. My research of the Dyer-Brummells and my analysis of Maxwell's stories about them reveal details that he withheld. In my view, these are not irrelevant: they hold much potential interest for readers, and Maxwell could have easily included them without excessively lengthening the stories. The informal, digressive style he uses in these stories would have easily accommodated such details. But, of course, we must remember that Maxwell is not writing strictly factual prose: he is writing autobiographical fiction.

      This kind of writing presents challenging puzzles. One of them is trying to determine whether withheld information is a function of artistic purpose or evidence of flawed writing. Another puzzle--and perhaps an equally unsolvable one--is to distinguish fact from fiction in a given work.

     The author-narrator persona of "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" is a focus of these puzzles. To what extent does this figure reflect autobiographical facts, and to what extent is he a product of the author's imagination?

      The author-narrator persona of this story does not clarify exactly when he became troubled enough over Hattie's snub to try to discover its cause. After the scene of the snub, he merely says, "Years passed without my thinking about Hattie Dyer at all, and then suddenly there I was backing away from her in confusion. When I told my wife about it she said, 'It wasn't Hattie you embraced but the idea of her.' Which was clearly true, but didn't explain Hattie's behavior" (p. 92). After several pages of digression, the author-narrator says, "I could have asked my aunt [Annette Bates] about Hattie and she would have told me all that a white person would be likely to know, but I didn't. More years passed. I found that I had a nagging curiosity about Hattie--about what her life had been like. Finally it occurred to me that my Cousin Tom Perry, who lives in Lincoln, might be able to learn about her. He wrote back that I had waited too long. Among the white people there was nobody left who knew her, and he couldn't get much information from the black people he talked to" (p. 99).

     It is curious that when the narrator persona thought about Hattie many years after the snub, he does not say his nagging curiosity was about the reason for her snub. Rather, the curiosity was about "what her life had been like." Had William Maxwell early on surmised the reason for the snub? The author-narrator says he did not realize the reason for Hattie's snub until several decades after it happened. How likely is it that Maxwell would need that much time--and a special experience to realize that some black people are literate--to surmise the reason for Hattie's snub?

     If Maxwell had not figured out the reason for the snub, why did many years pass before he thought about it enough to try to get an answer? Just how troubled about the incident was he if he did not think about it for many years? The snubbing incident happened in the early 1950s, and Hattie died in 1963 (see photo of her headstone below), so there was a period of about ten years in which Maxwell conceivably could have written to Hattie or written to others in Lincoln in an effort to reach her or learn about her. Maxwell could have written his father, who sometimes visited Hattie, until his death in 1958. I also wonder what the year was in which Maxwell was curious enough to write Tom Perry. Was this not until the 1980s when Maxwell was working on the stories of Billie Dyer and Other Stories? Maxwell's letter to John A. Ross of January 7, 1987, quoted above, shows that Maxwell was not motivated to write letters of inquiry by nagging curiosity alone, but by a desire to write about the snubbing experience and Hattie.

     Additional insight into the puzzle of fact vs. fiction in the author-narrator can, perhaps, be gained by looking at the literary principles that guided Maxwell's art. Maxwell presents his main beliefs about a writer's purpose and method in a speech delivered at Smith College on March 4, 1955; and in that speech he says that a writer's purpose is to create the illusion of reality ("The Writer as Illusionist" in A William Maxwell Portrait, pp. 208--228). Moreover, the illusion results from fooling the reader: "Writers--narrative writers--are people who perform tricks" ("The Writer as Illusionist," p. 209). "So far as I can see, there is no legitimate sleight of hand involved in practicing the arts of painting, sculpture, and music. . . . They are fundamentally serious. In writing--in all writing but especially in narrative writing--you are continually being taken in" (p. 211).

    In his discussion of literary theory, Maxwell describes "tricks of construction" that involve "the whole work" (p. 213). In "The Front and the Back Parts of the House," Maxwell's potentially greatest "trick" involving the whole work relates to the author-narrator--truly the story's main character, not Hattie--, and the problem is to know to what extent this figure captures Maxwell's actual thoughts and feelings and to what extent this figure's thoughts and feelings are the product of Maxwell using his imagination to create the illusion of reality: to trick the reader.

     Maxwell's literary theory suggests that he had been influenced by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book whose story and theme charmed Maxwell so much that he loaned his copy to his black friend and grade school classmate, John A. Ross. Maxwell's writings based on Lincoln, Illinois, resonate deeply with my personal experience in and curiosity about our mutual hometown, but this old English teacher is intrigued by--and a bit troubled by--the notion that literary art is really literary artifice. I understand the confusion Dorothy must feel when her dog, Toto, accidentally knocks down a screen that reveals the true identity of the wizard:

     The Lion thought it might be as well to frighten the Wizard, so he gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were. The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, "Who are you?"

     "I am Oz, the Great and Terrible," said the little man, in a trembling voice. "But don't strike me--please don't--and I'll do anything you want me to" (Chapter 15: "The Discovery of Oz--The Terrible," The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).

     Later, Dorothy and her needy friends are reassured by the wizard's wise advice.

     In "The Writer as Illusionist," Maxwell says that "the writer must be taken in by his own tricks" (p. 211). This concept is significant for the question of fact vs. fiction in the author-narrator of "The Front and the Back Parts of the House." The author-narrator says he did not realize the reason for Hattie's snub until several decades after it happened. If that is true--and not literary fiction--, the delayed epiphany suggests that Maxwell had been taken in by one of his own tricks.

     Maxwell's self-delusion is that no one would discover the connection between George Brummell, Hattie's husband, and the fictionalized, unsympathetic portrayal of him as Fred in Time Will Darken It.  If this connection were discovered, moreover, Maxwell believed that he stood to profit: "I had exposed their married life and blackened his character [Hattie's husband] in order to make a fortune from my writing. I was a thousand miles away, where she [Hattie] couldn't confront me with what I had done. And if she accused me to other people it would only call attention to the book and make more people read it than had already" ("Front and Back Parts of the House," p. 107).

     Maxwell's self-deception could derive from the white stereotype that black servants were illiterate, or otherwise ignorant of or uninterested in literature. Maxwell had left Lincoln, but certain upper-middle-class racial attitudes had not left him. Maxwell had deceived ("tricked") himself until his cousin in Lincoln revealed that his black lawn keeper was reading one of Maxwell's books. In that moment, Maxwell realizes that Hattie knew he had exploited her family: "And in a flash I realized what the unforgivable thing was [offense to Hattie] and who had done it" ("Front and Back Parts," p. 102). Maxwell had been forced to peek behind his own screen.

     I, too, peeked behind it by investigating Maxwell's research into the Dyer-Brummell family. I discovered that Maxwell's research was more extensive than he reveals in his writing, but that he did not gain as much information as he had wanted to.

     Maxwell's literary depiction of blacks, combined with information from other historical sources, reveals much about their identify and their role in the social history of the Great Emancipator's first namesake town. There is considerable irony that two of the best-known black families in the history of Lincoln, Illinois--those of John A. Ross and of Alfred and Laura Ward Dyer--were racially mixed and that the namesake of this town, Abraham Lincoln, like many Americans then and thereafter, was opposed to what Lincoln's contemporaries called "amalgamation." As noted above in this essay, both the Ross and Dyer-Brummell families had white, black, and Indian ancestors. In his opening speech in the fifth Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Charleston, Lincoln expressed views that his critics have often cited: "I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people. . . . I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. . . . It seems to me that it is quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes" (Holzer, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, p. 188).

     Abraham Lincoln, in addition to many of his contemporaries, had favored returning blacks to Africa ("colonization"), and he apparently did not realize that free blacks would consider the United States to be their country of choice and would want to remain here. Lincoln was also unable to foresee the social and political consequences of freedom for blacks living in a country that promised its people "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

     Social and political equality between races was not an aspect of the lives of blacks in Lincoln, Illinois, that Maxwell's stories are much concerned with. As I explain in "Social Consciousness in William Maxwell's Writings Based on Lincoln, Illinois," he only briefly describes subtle racial prejudice and does not explore racial discrimination. Maxwell's focus on family life was a logical limitation of writing based mainly on childhood memory.

    My most rewarding experience in peeking behind Maxwell's screen is my belief that he would have shared my pleasure in learning of the many present-day successes and enduring ties in the black families he wrote about: the living legacy of John A. Ross, Dr. William Dyer, and Hattie Dyer Brummell.

     The gravestones below are located in the black section of Old Union Cemetery on the southwest edge of Lincoln, Illinois. Helen Brummell Whitfield rests in this section near her mother, Hattie. Members of the John A. Ross family also rest here. Ms. Florence tells me that her great grandparents, Alfred and Laura Dyer, are buried near the old streetcar depot on the north, central part of the cemetery. Both Ms. Florence and I have looked for their headstones, but have not found them. Photos are courtesy of Leigh Henson.

Marker at the Foot of Dr. Dyer's Grave

     Bessie L. (Bradley) Dyer, 1889--1969, and Dr. William H. Dyer, 1886--1958. I placed the flag during my family visit to Lincoln in October, 2007.

      Mrs. Brummell is buried near her brother, William Dyer, M.D., and her daughter, Helen Brummell Whitfield.

Sources Cited

     Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. http://www.literature.org/authors/baum-l-frank/the-wonderful-wizard-of-oz/chapter-15.html.     

     Baxter, Charles; Michael Collier; and Edward Hirsch, eds. A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations (NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).

     Beaver, Paul, J., ed. History of Logan County, Illinois, 1982  (Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company, 1982.)

     Bregman, Alvan. Email to Leigh Henson, September 5, 2007.

     Dooley, Raymond N., and Ethel Welch, eds. The Namesake Town: A Centennial History of Lincoln, Illinois (Lincoln, IL:  Feldman Print Shop, 1953).

     Dyer, William, M.D. A Soldiers' [sic] Diary (No place or date of publication).

     Florence, Priscilla. Phone conversation and various emails to Leigh Henson, September and October, 2007.

     Graybill, Elaine. Bloomington Pantagraph, 1993.

     Holzer, Harold, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text (NY: Fordham University Press, 2004).

     Maxwell, William. "Billie Dyer," in Billie Dyer and Other Stories (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

     _______. Letter to Helen Brummell Whitfield, July 10, 1992.

     _______. Letters to John A. Ross. October 24, 1987.

     _______ . So Long, See You Tomorrow (NY: Vintage Books, 1996).

     _______. "The Front and the Back Parts of the House," in Billie Dyer and Other Stories (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

     _______ . "The Man in the Moon," in Billie Dyer and Other Stories (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

     _______ . Time Will Darken It (NY: Vintage Books, 1997).

     Ross, Debbie. Interview with Leigh Henson, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois, August 17, 2007.

     Sumrall, Richard. Email to Leigh Henson, October, 2007.

     Ms. Ross on YouTube singing The Star-Spangled Banner at Barack Obama's Presidential candidacy announcement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lUSbLsogWY.

    Whitfield, Helen Brummell. Letter to William Maxwell, undated.


  Email comments, corrections, questions, or suggestions. 
Also please email me if this Web site helps you decide to visit Lincoln, Illinois: DLHenson@missouristate.edu.

"The Past Is But the Prelude"


The founding fathers of this town asked their attorney, Abraham Lincoln, for permission to name this new community after him, and he agreed.  On the first day lots were publicly sold--August 27, 1853--, Abraham Lincoln, near the site of the train depot, used watermelon juice to christen the town as Lincoln, Illinois.  It thus became the first town named for Abraham Lincoln before he became famous.