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Every character in Spoon River Anthology is dead. And the dead speak. Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915–1916) is a volume of poetry in which each small poem is an epitaph spoken from the grave. The speakers lie together in a hillside graveyard in a small rural community in central Illinois. They are characters who lived and died in the second half of the nineteenth century, and as they molder in their earthen tombs, they spill forth their secrets to the living. Their revelations are not quaint and antiquated: the Spoon River dead speak for all of us, and their secrets are the hidden things that prick at the hearts of each of us.
If ever one book shaped and defined a writer’s life, Spoon River Anthology shaped and defined the life of Edgar Lee Masters (1868–1950). A prolific author who penned more than fifty books—including nearly thirty volumes of verse, multiple novels and plays, biographies, essays, as well as an autobiography, appropriately titled Across Spoon River (1936)—Masters is remembered today as the author of one book published when he was in his mid-forties: Spoon River Anthology. Despite his own claims that he believed some of his later writings surpassed Spoon River Anthology in quality, even Masters seemed to know that this was the work that defined him, and he returned to its subject matter again and again in essays, in a sequel called The New Spoon River (1924), and in his autobiography. As Masters described it in his autobiographical accounts, much of his life prior to writing the poems that comprise the Spoon River Anthology was preparation for their writing, and, although he might not be pleased with the assertion, much of his life afterwards became a matter of coming to terms with its successes, its controversies, and its impact on his career. From its first appearance (in serial form) in the pages of William Marion Reedy’s Mirror in 1914, the American literary world had not seen anything quite like Spoon River Anthology, and the world has yet to see its true successor, despite its influence and imitators.
Spoon River Anthology was not merely written by Edgar Lee Masters; it was a true product of his life, both an outpouring of Masters’ interior dreams, torments, desires, and a recollection of exterior life experiences—an amalgam of his life and the lives of those he grew up with, interacted with, heard tales about, befriended, loathed, and lamented. It is an artifact of those who impacted his life and the life of the small central Illinois communities on the banks of the Spoon and Sangamon Rivers he knew intimately during his formative years. Masters was born—the eldest of four siblings—in 1868 in Kansas, to Hardin and Emma Masters. The following year, his family moved to a farm near Petersburg, Illinois. Masters would live in and around Petersburg, a small, agricultural community, for the next ten years. Petersburg didn’t offer much in the way of educational or cultural opportunities at the time, but Masters learned a great deal during those early years about life in the rural Midwest, about agricultural lifestyles and agrarian values, about close family relationships, but also about small-town gossip, and about the problems that all people struggle with, wherever they might live and however they might make a living. During the summers he heard the local fiddlers, attended horse races, and went to the festivals and county fairs, but he also saw the men get drunk and fight, watched children die of accident and disease (including his five-year-old brother, Alex, who died of diphtheria in 1878), and saw the adults around him waver between deeply felt religious convictions and vulgar worldliness.
In 1880, at age eleven, the Masters family moved forty miles north, across the Illinois River, to Lewiston. Lewiston was still small-town America, but it represented a major change for Masters, for it boasted educational and cultural benefits absent from Petersburg, including a high school, which Masters began attending soon after moving there. Unlike Petersburg, which was populated primarily (but not entirely) by people of Southern stock, Lewiston’s culture was more Northern in some aspects, and reflected the influence of a stricter New England Calvinistic morality in ways Petersburg had not. Thus, as Masters claimed, Lewiston was a culturally divided community. The issue that became the focal point for this cultural antagonism was prohibition. Masters once observed that in Lewiston “New England and Calvinism waged a death struggle on the matter of Prohibition and the church with the Virginians and free livers.” Unlike the Northern, “Calvinistic,” prohibitionists, those of Southern stock—the Virginians—took a more liberal attitude toward alcohol, and the “free livers” were willing to live and let live, free from moralistic hostility.
While watching the political and moral struggles of the small town, Masters began to read widely, finding particular enjoyment in the lives and careers of great authors. By his late teens he was contributing small news items, stories, and poems to the Chicago Daily News and other local newspapers. Encouraged by his father, a lawyer, Masters began to read in the law, and, after a year at an academy run by Knox College, Masters was admitted to the bar in Illinois in 1891. The following year, Masters moved to Chicago, where he soon settled in to practice law. In his spare time, however, he continued to write, and in 1898 his first book of verse was published. Marriage—to Helen Jenkins, with whom he would have three children—soon followed, and both his family and law practice grew. Over the next dozen years, Masters published numerous plays, more volumes of poetry, and a collection of essays. During this period, he struggled at times with his family obligations, as he would through much of his adult life. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1923; he remarried a much younger woman, Ellen Coyne, in 1926, and she bore him a fourth child. But, in the midst of these two marriages, Masters had multiple affairs—highlighted by a lengthy and involved affair with the sculptor Tennessee Mitchell from 1909 to 1911 (who not long after became the second wife of the novelist Sherwood Anderson).
In 1914, Masters sent a few newly drafted poems to his friend William Marion Reedy, the editor of the Mirror, who published them with much enthusiasm in May 1914. The Spoon River Anthology was underway. Nothing Masters had written before truly anticipated its achievement, and nothing he would write afterward—until his death in 1950—would match its success as a literary achievement. The poems appeared (initially under the pseudonym Webster Ford) in installments in Reedy’s Mirror between May 1914 and January 1915. They were collected together in the Spoon River Anthology in 1915, and in 1916 the book was republished in an expanded, definitive edition. In creating this volume, Masters took inspiration from a number of sources, and the lyrics reflect the influence of several philosophers and authors, including Spinoza, Goethe, Whitman, Sandburg, and Masters’ friend the novelist Theodore Dreiser, whom Masters would insert into the world of the Anthology under the name and title of “Theodore the Poet.” But, influence aside, the subject matter of the poems came from Masters’ own life and from the lives of the residents of Petersburg and Lewiston and other Illinois communities. The form of the volume was directly inspired by The Greek Anthology, a collection of brief poems written by many different authors over several hundred years, in which first-person speakers sum up key aspects of their lives in epigrams. In his variation on this idea, Masters has 244 characters speak their own epitaphs from a hillside graveyard in the fictional community of Spoon River (an amalgam of Petersburg and Lewiston). These 243 brief poems (none of them longer than forty-five lines, and most of them half that length) are preceded by an introductory poem, “The Hill,” written in the ubi sunt tradition (that is to say, a poem written as a reflection on the transience of life that begins by posing the question, Where are those who have gone before us?). The Spoon River Anthology concludes with two slightly longer poems: “The Spooniad,” composed in the mock-heroic tradition (and presented as penned by one of the epitaph speakers, Jonathan Swift Somers), and the allegorical—and often confusing—“Epilogue,” written partly in imitation of the Walpurgis Night section of Goethe’s Faust.
In an essay published in the January 1933 issue of The American Mercury, “The Genesis of Spoon River,” Masters indicates that among the epitaphs are “nineteen stories developed by interrelated portraits.” Unfortunately, Masters did not follow that statement with a tidy list of the stories he had in mind, but what is notable is that the epitaphs do not exist in isolation any more than the lives of those who share a small community exist in isolation. Narrative lines ripple through the epitaphs, creating overlapping circles of varying sizes, and even those characters who seem most isolated and least connected to the other voices still take stock of their lives, at least in part, in relation to the community of Spoon River. Stories take shape as each voice adds a new detail, a new perspective, to the previous speaker. In one episode, we learn of poor Minerva Jones, the homely village poet, seduced by “Butch” Weldy, and done in by a botched abortion by Doctor Meyers. We hear from Minerva’s father, “Indignation” Jones, brought low by the buffetings of life and left wretched despite his proud heritage, and we hear how his daughter, Minerva, was tormented by the callous and shallow villagers. We hear from the good hearted Doctor Meyers, indicted and disgraced for trying to help Minerva with her “trouble,” but suspected by the townsfolk of being the one who had brought Minerva to her trouble in the first place. His wife, Mrs. Meyers, we hear, lies smug in her knowledge that even if her husband was innocent—as he claimed—of having prompted the fall of Minerva, he was no innocent, for in offering Minerva an abortion he had broken the laws of God and man. And what of the man who really did bring Minerva to ruin? “Butch” Weldy got religion and gave up his wild ways, only to lose his eyesight in an industrial accident. Was Weldy, at least, compensated for his loss by the company? No, for the company was run by Ralph Rhodes, the son of Thomas Rhodes. And thus one circle intersects with another.
If anyone deserves the epithet of villain in Spoon Riverit is Thomas Rhodes, as many critics have noted. No single character makes more direct and indirect appearances than Rhodes, who not only speaks his own epitaph, but also is referred to in nearly twenty others. As one reads the Anthology, it becomes increasingly evident that the community of Spoon River is divided politically and culturally between the ruthless and deceitful conservatives (typically capitalists and prohibitionists) such as Thomas Rhodes and allies of his like A. D. Blood, Reverend Abner Peet, Editor Whedon, Judge Somers, and others, and the more liberal, even radical, progressives in town, highlighted by such figures as John Cabanis, Kinsey Keene, and Jefferson Howard. Prohibition is what they frequently fight about, but this disagreement is just the outward and visible sign of the more substantial cultural rift that divides the community. Spoon River is a small community, but it is a microcosm for the whole. Spoon River is America, and like America, Spoon River is torn between competing definitions of freedom, of responsibility, of the value of the free market, of the ethical implications of capitalist enterprise. Its citizens are often good, often sincere, but just as often shallow and self-centered, engaged in all manner of stealth, secrecy, and immorality. In death, Thomas Rhodes remains smug in the conviction that he served his own interests well. Meanwhile, the radical John Cabanis sets fire to that emblem of the cultural status quo—the courthouse—hoping a new, more progressive, culture would spring from its ashes.
The arrangement of the epitaphs is not random, though early in the Anthology the principles governing their order is not intuitively obvious. Yet, by the time one has read through to the end, one notices a subtle shift over the course of the work. Masters describes this shift in his essay “The Genesis of Spoon River”: when “the book was put together in its definitive order . . . the fools, the drunkards, and the failures came first, the people of one-birth minds got second place, and the heroes and the enlightened spirits came last, a sort of Divine Comedy, which some critics were acute enough to point out at once.” But this seemingly straightforward statement by Masters can be misleading, for it is difficult to divide the poems neatly into these three camps, just as it is difficult sometimes to distinguish between the fools and the heroes. Still, as a guiding generalization, Masters’ claim has some truth to it, for many of the unquestionably low characters appear early in the volume, and the majority of the “enlightened spirits”—such as they are—are huddled together in the very last pages of the work. In the wide space between, however, we find all manner of humankind, the hopeful and the morose, the enchanted and the disillusioned, the victims and the victimizers. Here we find poets, priests, and prostitutes all lying side by side on the hill.
Indeed, it was in part Masters’ attempt—much like that of Walt Whitman before him—to capture the full range of humanity in his work that led to some of the more spirited reactions to it when it was first published. In ways that may seem quaint to current readers, some early critics of the volume charged it with immorality in its depiction of so many debased characters. Of particular concern to these critics was Masters’ frank treatment of human sexuality and his apparent lack of regard for traditional religion in many of the epitaphs. Yet, as a whole, the immediate response of most readers to the work was overwhelmingly positive. It was a great success for Masters—although in some quarters a succès de scandale—and the work went through numerous editions in a very short period. There were occasional early critics who decried the epitaphs as mere prose—prose disguised as verse—but these few critics, aside from overlooking Masters’ adept use of a wide variety of poetic schemes and tropes in his free verse epitaphs and devaluing the simple and direct manner in which the characters are presented in the volume, are counterbalanced by the strong endorsements given Masters by some of the finest critics and fellow poets of his day, including Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, and Amy Lowell.
Masters once wrote that Spoon River Anthology was about the “secret things that form and fate” our lives. Only within their epitaphs—from a position outside of the scrutiny of the living—do the characters reveal their “secret things.” Often, we discover that the controlling forces in our lives are sex and money, and, if we aren’t careful, our actions have the power to leave us filled with shame, loss, and regret. However, we are just as often driven by the quest for enlightenment, by spiritual longings and human compassion. And sometimes we live our lives behind a veil of ignorance, unaware of both the love and hatred of our fellow travelers. We are rooted in places—and Spoon River is, in a sense, every place—and though we may leave our roots and seek for experiences far and wide, it is place that defines us still: the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual places that we seek and stumble into. Each of the characters in Spoon River Anthology has a message to deliver—a secret thing to reveal—but if there is one message that governs all the others it is that death levels all of humanity: the one true democracy is that of the village graveyard. It is there that Thomas Jefferson’s egalitarian principles about the equality of all reaches its ultimate conclusion.
Given Spoon River Anthology’s success and the critical acclaim that quickly followed its publication, it may seem puzzling that Masters is not held in the same regard today as some of the modernist poets who were his contemporaries and who praised his work so highly. The straightforward and direct lyrics of Spoon River Anthology were published at a time when other poets, such as Ezra Pound and H. D., were beginning to write increasingly complex poetry; T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) is the example par excellence, with erudite—sometimes excruciatingly so—themes and patterns of allusion. These modernist poets wrote brilliant verse, but they did so, whether intentionally or not, for a narrow audience of intellectually sophisticated readers well versed in myth, history, and world culture. Much critical attention over the past century has been devoted to unraveling the intellectual mysteries of these complex modernist works. Spoon River Anthology, by contrast, is not the poetry of the academe, to be read and appreciated only by scholars and captive (if not captivated) college students. To be sure, Masters’ work is filled with philosophy and reflects the culture of its time: there are symbols here enough for the academe to wrestle with. But, they are our symbols, the symbols of humanity itself: they are the rusting farm tools that remind us of our own mortality, the burning of a public building as a political gesture, and fiddling as a philosophical statement. Spoon River Anthology is not about a rural community in Illinois that has faded into history; rather, it is about each of our communities, large and small, and is as relevant today as it was a century ago.
Eric Carl Link is the author of The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century and is the co-author of Neutral Ground: New Traditionalism and the American Romance Controversy. He is the Hugh Shott Professor of English at North Georgia College & State University where he teaches American literature.