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Edgar Lee Masters is best remembered for Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of over two hundred free-verse epitaphs—brief statements commemorating the lives of the deceased—spoken from the Spoon River town cemetery. Revealing the secret lives of Spoon River s dead citizens, the volume caused a great sensation because of its frank treatment of sex, moral decay, and hypocrisy. Nevertheless, Masters s treatment of small-town American life paved the way for psychological character studies in literature, influencing generations of writers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born on August 23, 1869, in Garnett, Kansas, Masters was firmly rooted in the Midwestern society he both praises and criticizes in Spoon River Anthology. In 1870 his father’s law practice failed, and the family moved to his grandfather’s Illinois farm, where they lived until his father was appointed a state s attorney in Petersburg, Illinois. When Masters was eleven, his family moved to Lewistown, Illinois, near the Spoon River, the place that would be immortalized in his poetic masterpiece. Growing up, Masters wrote poetry and read the works of poets James Cullen Bryant, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Burns, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. After attending Knox College from 1889 to 1890, Masters began studying law while working in his father’s law office. During this time, he submitted poems to magazines and newspapers.
Lawyer and Writer
Admitted to the Illinois bar in 1891, Masters soon moved to Chicago, where he joined a law partnership with Clarence Darrow, the attorney famous for serving as the counsel for the defense in the 1925 Scopes evolution trial. Using various pseudonyms to avoid possible damage to his law practice, Masters continued to contribute poems to various journals, and his first collection, A Book of Verses, appeared in 1898, the year of his marriage to Helen Jenkins. However, that volume, as well as his second one, The Blood of the Prophets (1905), attracted little attention. For the next five years, Masters concentrated on writing dramas, none of which were produced.
Small-Town Life Revealed
Masters’s private life was seldom tranquil: he was involved in an affair with the sculptor Tennessee Mitchell (who later married author Sherwood Anderson), tried to obtain a divorce from his wife, and dissolved his partnership with Darrow in a bitter dispute over the division of legal fees, all about the same time he began writing Spoon River Anthology. Masters originally intended to present a history of the Spoon River area by describing the interconnected lives of its inhabitants in a novel. Following the advice of William Marion Reedy, publisher of the journal Reedy’s Mirror, Masters began to experiment with poetic forms, bringing to life the sort of people he had known in his boyhood. The resulting poems appeared initially under the pseudonym Webster Ford, but within a year Reedy had revealed Masters’s identity, and the poems were gathered and published as Spoon River Anthology, a collection that exploded romantic myths about the serenity of small-town life. The book was immediately controversial.
After completing Spoon River Anthology, Masters nearly died from a severe bout with pneumonia; when he returned to his law office months later, he was so weak that he could work only a few hours a day. Meanwhile, the number of people seeking legal assistance from him had greatly declined, both because of his enforced absence and because of the notoriety caused by Spoon River Anthology. From 1916 to 1922, Masters published seven collections of poetry and the first two of his seven novels. Also during this period, he separated from his wife, and the publicity surrounding their bitter divorce ended what remained of his law practice. In 1923 Masters left Chicago for New York, his property and finances lost in the divorce settlement.
Although Masters continued to write for the rest of his life, the quality of his work never equaled that of Spoon River Anthology. Even The New Spoon River (1924), a sequel to his masterpiece, was unsuccessful in its attempt to capture urban life. Part of the reason his later efforts failed lay in his tendency to expound his political views in his work. Overwhelmingly, though, Masters harmed his literary reputation with his injudicious approach to his publications, as he seldom revised his new efforts and often added early and inferior writings to his newer works.
Masters remarried in 1926 and published the first of a series of historical verse plays. In the 1930s, he turned to biography and history, writing about Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Vachel Lindsay. His autobiography, Across Spoon River, appeared in 1936, followed by eight more works—fiction and nonfiction in addition to poetry. In his later years, Masters was the recipient of several literary prizes, among them an award from the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters (1942). Masters died in his sleep far from Spoon River in a Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, nursing home in March of 1950.
Works in Literary Context
From late adolescence, Masters had dreamed of making his mark as a writer, and much of his success can be attributed to his own drive and desire. Shortly after the publication of Spoon River Anthology, Masters publicly acknowledged the importance of editor William Marion Reedy, for it was Reedy who had encouraged him to write epitaphs. With the publication of Spoon River Anthology, Masters established himself as a leader of the Chicago Renaissance, a group of American writers, including Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Carl Sandburg, who disproved the commonly held notion that great literature came from only East Coast writers. Indeed, from 1912 to around 1925, Chicago was on its way to becoming the literary capital of the United States.
Inspired by Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, a collection of some forty-five hundred Greek poems written between about 500 BCE and 1000 CE, Spoon River Anthology combines classical forms with innovative ones. Many of the poems in the Greek anthology, like those in Spoon River Anthology, are expressed as confessional epitaphs in which the dead comment on their lives. Unlike the ancient Greeks, however, Masters makes his dead recite their speeches in free verse, poetry characterized by short lines of irregular length and meter lacking a set rhythm. Although pioneered by Walt Whitman many years before, free verse still had not gained popular acceptance, and readers often debated whether to consider Spoon River Anthology prose or poetry because of its form.
Small-Town Secrets and Broken Dreams
Late nineteenth-century literary fashion saw the small town as a mainstay of American values, but Masters shatters this illusion with his portrayals of the deceased citizens of Spoon River as fornicators, adulterers, prostitutes, thieves, and victims of botched abortions. In Spoon River Anthology, Masters reveals the spiritual impoverishment of the small Midwestern town as its dead speak of their repressed, hypocritical, stoical, and generally unfulfilled lives. Each person reveals the circumstances of his or her death and, usually, a concealed fact about his or her life as well. Accordingly, a crusading prohibitionist reveals that he died of cirrhosis of the liver caused by drinking; the heir to a fortune confesses that he killed to inherit it; husbands and wives admit that they despised their spouses. The citizens themselves are types rather than historical portraits, which contributes to their universality. For example, the soliloquy of ”Lucinda Matlock,” although based on Masters’s pioneering grandmother, provides a picture of the common experience of the frontier wife and mother rather than outlining the life of a particular person. Above all, what connects readers to the residents of Spoon River is the pathos of their loneliness, alienation, and unrealized hopes.
Works in Critical Context
Despite a prolific writing career, Masters never matched the achievement of Spoon River Anthology. Because he feared being dismissed as a writer limited in scope and ability, Masters did not want to produce a similar book; however, in his desire to produce something distinct, critics contend that he never again wrote anything as good. Very few contemporary reviewers acknowledged Masters’s other works, and even those assessments are altogether dismissed by critics today.
Spoon River Anthology
Many of Masters’s contemporaries welcomed a new voice in their midst. Proclaiming Masters the first American poet since Walt Whitman to remain in his country and to treat themes unique to America in innovative poetry, fellow poet Ezra Pound rejoiced, ”At last. At last America has discovered a poet.” Later critics also recognized the volume’s importance. ”It is safe to say,” affirms scholar Ernest Earnest, ”that no other volume of poetry except The Waste Land (1922) [by T. S. Eliot] made such an impact during the first quarter” of the twentieth century. The ”value of the Spoon River volume lies in its originality of design, its uniqueness, its effect upon its times,” declares Frank Lewis Partee, who emphasizes that the volume’s success ”started a choir of young poets.” ”Whether we condemn or praise,” says Partee, ”we must accept it as a major episode in the history of the poetic movement in the second decade of the new century.”
Spoon River Anthology appeared at a time when literary traditionalists were questioning the value of the free verse and imagist movements in modern poetry, along with the realistic and naturalistic tendencies in prose fiction. William Dean Howells, who disparaged many of these trends, declared that what Masters had written in Spoon River Anthology was not poetry at all, but ”shredded prose.” A few years after the volume appeared, T. S. Eliot referred to Masters as a distinguished talent, but he expressed regret that Masters had ”not perceived the simple truth that some artificial limitation is necessary” to poetry.
Those commentators who did not object to the free-verse form of the Spoon River Anthology epitaphs complained instead of the overwhelmingly negative picture that Masters presents of small-town American life. Here, writes Robert Narveson, ”came Masters’s ghosts, avowing the presence of vice, corruption, greed, and pettiness” in the American small town, and these revelations made the collection a scandal. Although the uproar over the volume’s blunt approach to sex contributed to the popular success of Spoon River Anthology, many literary figures were offended. Poet Amy Lowell, for instance, proclaimed that ”Spoon River is one long chronicle of rapes, seductions, liaisons, and perversions” and wonders, ”If life in our little Western cities is as bad as this, why everyone does not commit suicide.”
- Eliot, T. S. To Criticize the Critic. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965.
- Flanagan, John T. Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and His Critics. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974.
- Kramer, Dale. Chicago Renaissance: The Literary Life in the Midwest, 1900-1930. New York: Appleton-Century, 1966.
- Masters, Hardin W. Edgar Lee Masters: A Biographical Sketchbook about a Famous American Author. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.
- Pattee, Fred Lewis. The New American Literature: 1800-1930. New York: Appleton-Century, 1930.
- Wrenn, John H., and Margaret H. Wrenn. Edgar Lee Masters. Boston: Twayne, 1983
- Earnest, Ernest. ”Spoon River Revisited.” Western Humanities Review (Winter 1967): 63.
- Howells, William Dean. ”Somebody’s Mother.” Harper’s (September 1915): 523-526.
- Pound, Ezra. ”Webster Ford [the pseudonym of Edgar Lee Masters].” Egoist (January 1, 1915): 11-15.
- Sandburg, Carl. ”Notes for a Review of the Spoon River Anthology.” Little Review 2 (May 3, 1915): 42.
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