John E. Hallwas: Biographical Overview

            A writer, speaker, and adult-education leader, John E. Hallwas is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Western Illinois University. Well-known for his many books about Illinois and the Midwest, he has also written scores of journal articles and hundreds of newspaper and magazine essays, as well as several plays. The recipient of more than thirty awards for his teaching, scholarship, books, and educational service, Hallwas has also spoken in well over one hundred Midwestern communities, at colleges, universities, conferences, and organizational events. At WIU, an annual event named for him and inspired by his commitment to broadly focused higher education, the John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture, occurs in September.

            Born in 1945 and raised primarily in Antioch, Illinois, Hallwas received his Bachelor of Science in Education degree (with honors) in 1967 and his Master of Arts degree in 1968. Both were from Western Illinois University. He was an NDEA Fellow at the University of Florida in the late 1960s and received his Ph.D. there in 1972. Hired by his alma mater, Hallwas taught English at WIU for 34 years.

            The most widely published author in the history of Western, Hallwas has written or edited more than two dozen books and monographs. In 1994 Spoon River Anthology: An Annotated Edition was selected by Choice Magazine as one of the Outstanding Academic Books in America, and in 1996 Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois, co-authored by Roger Launius, won the John Whitmer Historical Association’s “Best Book of the Year Award” and the Mormon History Association’s “Best Documentary of the Year Award.” In 1998 The Bootlegger: A Story of Small-Town America, which combines true crime narrative and biography, was nominated for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. Another noted book is Dime Novel Desperadoes: The Notorious Maxwell Brothers, which won the 2009 Midland Award for “Best Biography from the Midwest.” Among the most recent Hallwas books are Here to Stay: Reflections on the Dead in a Small-Town Cemetery (2012), which offers an innovative approach to local history through biographical commentaries that focus on crucial themes in the human experience, including self-realization, community, belonging, spirituality, and death; and On Community:  A Crucial Issue, a Small Town, and a Writer's Experience (2015), which presents compelling short writings that both discuss this issue and examine the relationship between people and meaningful place.  Some of the On Community writings relate directly to the author's hometown, Macomb, Illinois.  

            An expert on the literature of Illinois, Hallwas is the editor of Illinois Literature: The Nineteenth Century (1986) and Studies in Illinois Poetry (1989). He has also written introductions to modern editions of works by half a dozen Illinois authors, including Eliza Farnham’s Life in Prairie Land (1988) and Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems (1992). He recently co-edited, with Kathy Nichols, Memory and Community: The Life and Writings of W. H. Hainline (2018). He has also written about one hundred journal and magazine articles on Illinois authors, and he currently writes a series called "Forgotten Voices from Illinois History" for Illinois Heritage magazine. 

            Hallwas has written plays based on Illinois history, too, including Four on the Frontier (1982),The Paper Town (with Gene Kozlowski, 1985),The Conflict: A Soldier’s Memories of the Civil War (2011), and The Mysterious Bard of Sangamo (2021). 

            While teaching at Western, Hallwas was the founder and editor of a scholarly journal, Essays in Literature, during the 1970s, and he was the editor of another journal, Western Illinois Regional Studies, from 1980 to 1991.

            At WIU Hallwas taught courses in medieval literature, world literature, American literature, and nonfictional creative writing for the English Department, and courses on cultural and intellectual topics for the Centennial Honors College. Among his many classes: “The American Naturalistic Novel,” “The American Autobiography,” “American Nature Writing,” “The Literature of American Violence,” “World Masterpieces,” and “Myth and Worldview.” He was also an archivist at Western’s Malpass Library from 1979 to 2004.

For more than thirty years Hallwas has also functioned as a public intellectual, bringing historical and cultural insights to the people of Illinois and adjacent states through a wide range of publications, lectures, and workshops focused on literature, history, community life, and creative nonfiction. During the 1980s he wrote columns of commentary for several Illinois newspapers, and in the 1990s his weekly radio program, “Prairie State Journal,” focused on the history and literature of Illinois, was heard over several National Public Radio stations. Also, he has been interviewed on many radio programs, from “The Book Guys” in Washington, D.C. to “The Donna Seebo Show” in Seattle. Very active in retirement, Hallwas continues to deliver talks. In recent years, for example, he was a featured speaker at the Carl Sandburg Festival in Galesburg, Illinois, and he spoke at the largest book event in the Midwest, the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago.

            Hallwas has taught non-credit, adult-education courses for various agencies, including the WIU School of Continuing Education, the national Elderhostel Program (in three states), and the Illinois Humanities Council. He is the past president of the Macomb-area LIFE Adult-Education Program, which develops and offers some seventy classes each year, in everything from computer operation and watercolor painting to great books and world religions. His own adult-education classes combine readings with cultural discussion, and often emphasize the issue of spiritual growth. Among them are “Mortality and the Quest for a Meaningful Life,” “Spirituality for Skeptics,” and “American Literature and the Issue of Community.”

            The author of local history books on his home area, as well as the writer and host for local history television programs, Hallwas currently writes a weekly newspaper column titled “On Community” for Macomb’s newspaper, the McDonough County Voice. Selected articles from that column are posted on this website, and his book On Community includes ninety of those articles, along with other writings. 

            Hallwas has been discussed in more than a dozen articles and reference books, including Twentieth-Century Authors, The Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, and Who’s Who in America. Among his two dozen awards and honors are the MidAmerica Award (for distinguished scholarship) from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award (for decades of work as a lecturer) from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Faculty Service Award (for contributions to adult education) from the National University Continuing Education Association and the Lifetime Achievement Award (for writing, speaking, and cultural leadership) from the Illinois State Historical Society. 

                 Hundreds of the Hallwas articles and lectures are available in the John Hallwas Collection at the Archives of Malpass Library, Western Illinois University. Click on the “The Hallwas Collection” page for a description of the contents of that collection.

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