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Wind from the Prairie

An academic study of Edgar Lee Masters* has chapter titles that run: “Masters, Goethe, and the Greeks; “The Natural Child of Walt Whitman”; “Shelley and Masters.” That’s the way things go, these wondrous, inflationary assignations coming about from the list of Masters’s readings. The peculiar deformities of the scholars’ trade, at least of those with a provincial aspect to their orderings, are indeed the disabilities of the lover, freshly enthralled. And as the multiculturalists assume their posts in the academy, we may see more loving resurrections from the dust, rising to drape their togas in the Pantheon. Masters himself can speak, as a throw-away, of Vachel Lindsay’s “very Platonic sense of shadows” and find him “more Greek than German.”

Edgar Lee Masters was born in 1869 and his major work, Spoon River Anthology, did not appear until 1915, although a few of the portraits had been published earlier under a pseudonym. He entered his father’s profession of law and practiced in Chicago for almost thirty years. He was unhappily married and wrote in his autobiography: “Somehow little by little I got the feeling that my wife in spite of her almost meek compliance was enervating me and cutting off my hair and putting out my eyes.” A bitter divorce quite naturally finally came about and Masters moved to New York with his very young bride and settled into the Chelsea Hotel, his wife going back and forth to teach in Pennsylvania.

In many ways a companionable man, friend of Mencken, Dreiser, and others who liked their cigars and schnapps, member of the Players Club, somehow Masters seemed to drift into reclusion. We may notice that although he was in partnership for almost eight years with Clarence Darrow in Chicago, the well-known lawyer does not appear in the autobiography. Masters’s son, by the first wife, in a memoir attributes this gap to the scandal of the divorce and the appearance on the scene of her replacement, some thirty years younger. Perhaps, he suggests, Darrow took at best a neutral attitude and the estrangement followed. Also the son tells of his difficulties in getting through to his father at the Chelsea and when they did meet, Ellen Masters, now his stepmother, did not seem to be on hand. On hand, however, was another young woman, Alice Davis, who lived in the hotel and helped with manuscripts and whatever else she helped with.

In 1944 The New York Times printed a story telling that Masters had been taken to Bellevue Hospital suffering from pneumonia and malnutrition. The Authors League and the American Academy came to his rescue, the wife packed him off to a Pennsylvania nursing home, near to where she was teaching, and there he died at the age of eighty-one. Not a happy roundup, even if there is a hint of self-willed recoil and collapse when one remembers the great industry Masters showed throughout his life in the production of works in many forms, verse, plays, novels, biography, and autobiography.

Spoon River Anthology (1915)—a book could scarcely be more of a success. Said to have sold more copies than any previous work of American poetry, it was translated in all the European languages as well as into Arabic, Korean, and Chinese; also transformed for the stage and used as the libretto for an opera, performed at La Scala. The book is an “anthology” of the gravestones around Spoon River, an area near to Lewistown, Illinois, where Masters grew up. The dead come forth to speak the epitaphs of their lives, each one a short free-verse recollection, a sort of conte, very often remembering injuries or spoken with a surly ruefulness. The unquiet graves, some 214 of them, “all, all, are sleeping on the hill,” were thought to be somewhat cynical and degrading to the quality of life lived in the Illinois villages of Masters’s youth and from which he drew his ruminating characters.

The first one is “Hod Putt,” who died by hanging for a robbery in his days of poverty after a life of toil. Seeing an opportunity for the last word, he notes with satisfaction that he lies next to a crook who prospered from clever uses of the possibilities of bankruptcy. “Now we who took the bankrupt law in our respective ways, / Sleep peacefully side by side.” The verses today strike one not as acerb so much as generally soulful, “filled with longing” poems; good, simple people seeking transcendence. “Of what use is it / To rid one’s self of the world, / When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life?”

The public appeal of the work must have been in the framing: first the lachrymal country churchyard with the darkening granite of the tombstones lying in random placement as in village life; then the brief, anecdotal summations, many of them reading like those civil court cases that scrape the skins of the litigants into eternity. To this must be added the candid moral framing of the little stories, the accent on the scorned, the unlucky, the eccentric from whom the smothering “hypocrisy” of the village would exact its punishments.

The “valiant” departed one, “Jefferson Howard,” is “Foe of the church with its charnel darkness, / Friend of the human touch of the tavern” and hounded by the “dominating forces”—Republicans, Calvinists, merchants, bankers. In Spoon River fate deals out repetitive cards. like the equalizing aspect of death itself. The aesthetic default of the work, pressing upon the mind as one name after another approaches its declaration, is that it could go on forever, the flat proseness of the language contributing, as the rocks in the sod are turned over again and again. There was indeed a second collection of Spoon River tales, a replication and consequent deflation of the original invention. (Another monologueportrait was published during these years, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”)

A biography, Lincoln: The Man, appeared in 1931. Hara-Kiri, blood on the floor, Masters’s as well as Lincoln’s an insult to the prairie, to Illinois, and perhaps to Carl Sandburg, or so Vachel Lindsay thought. Sandburg’s Lincoln book, Volume I, The Prairie Years, had been out for six years and if its success embittered Masters, the emotion had its source in the picture of Lincoln rather than in the author’s success in the market.

Masters’s character is a puzzle and it is hard to understand why this attractive and intelligent man, successful as a lawyer and a writer, should be such a sorehead. He is the village iconoclast, atheist, free-lover, and more than a bit paranoid in the matter of local and national forces. He has ideas as some have freckles, and the book on Lincoln puts many of them on display with a good deal of eloquence, however alienating. The notion of the book is that the Civil War should not have been fought and that the aftermath, the domination of plutocrats, merchants, bankers, and the later imperial adventurism, was a disastrous drift. “Hebraic-Puritanism” is Masters’s phrase for the moral insufficiency of the country. By this he does not appear to indicate anti-Semitism; instead he felt a corrosive resentment of the Bible, Old Testament and New, and its power to shape the ethical climate of the nation. After the Civil War,

as if in sublime malice, the choking weeds of Hebraic-Puritanism were sown; and thus the evils of empire and ancient privileges began to thrive, scarcely before the new wheat was started. Ages may be required for creative vision to stand externally in this field and its epos….

The overwhelming offense of the biography was its picture of the character of Lincoln, who is seen as a creature of swamp-bred shrewdness, a sort of wary, calculating Snopes, retaining in the midst of certain superficial refinements the qualities of his father, Thomas Lincoln, who out of shiftlessness had sunk into the fetid habits of the “poor white” class. Masters stresses the fact that Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, was illegitimate, and in the enveloping mist of parental uncertainty had discovered or imagined her supposed father to be a wellbred Virginia planter. Lincoln claimed the presence of his more promising qualities to have come from the absent grandfather. “Lincoln was profoundly ashamed of the poverty of his youth, and of the sordid surroundings in which he grew up.” Thus his life was ruled by the determination to rise above his beginnings, “unlike the more honest Andrew Jackson and Walt Whitman.”

The distinction and beauty of Lincoln’s prose and of his platform style must be conceded—and also reduced. For Masters this accomplishment and talent are suffused and diseased with the poison of the Bible: “Lincoln, whose only literacy was out of the Bible, and who developed an oratory from it, inspired by its artifice of emotional reiteration, and equipped with its sacred curses and its dreadful prophecies, its appeal to moralities where there was no thought, no real integrity…” The Gettysburg Address is unfavorably compared to Pericles’ funeral oration and subjected to a textual analysis on the matter of truth: “It was not true that our fathers in 1776 had brought forth a new nation; for in that year our fathers brought forth thirteen new nations, each of which was a sovereign state.” Lincoln as a statesman and a thinker is accused of the “Hebraic-Puritan principal of assuming to act as one’s brother’s keeper, when the real motive was to become one’s brother’s jailer.”

Out of indignation and obsession, Masters dug his own grave and sadly inscribed his own tombstone with the acid of the Spoon River meters. The resentment of the Civil War soldier, “Knowlt Hoheimer,” killed in battle and lying up on the hill might be his epitaph:

Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, “Pro Patria.”
What do they mean, anyway?

Carl Sandburg lived to be eighty-nine years old and he spent those years going here and yon, a hardy tumbleweed of a populist, blown by the wind across the plains. More than forty books to his credit and what for some would have been a burdensome accretion of honors, each one to be accepted and attended like the duties on the Court Calendar. Of course he was sustained by the old pioneer energy and as an early pop-art king his act, writing free-verse poems, collecting and performing The American Songbag, was inexhaustible. The seven volumes on the life of Lincoln, “a folk biography” some critic was happy to describe it, spread over more than ten years but of course he was on the hoof a good deal of that time.

These reflections come about from the strenuous busyness of Penelope Niven’s new biography of Sandburg: over seven hundred pages, followed by another hundred of notes. The effort is a sort of rival to Sandburg’s Lincoln: Prairie Years, Chicago Years, National Hero Years. Professor Niven says in her preface that her previous scholarship was of the sort to exclude the claims of this bygone figure, fallen from eminence, but “a decade after his death, I went to his Carolina mountain home” and then it appears that she fell into the corn crib, so to speak. That is, the vast Sandburg papers in libraries, in possession of the family, lying about in cartons. After this great haystack, the fodder of the book, was pulled apart, she began the Carl Sandburg Oral History Project of more than 150 interviews.

Having gone through the heap, settled into the poet and each member of the family, reliving their nights and days with an intrusive intimacy, the biographer will want to put each scrap down. The index cards or data sheets come to have a claim of their own and the affirmation, the yes, yes, of Sandburg’s scurry through life is her own affirming journey. The book is tedious and sentimental and long, long, four score and ten years long. She likes participial descriptions such as “hearty and vigorous,” or “erect and vigorous”—and who can doubt that’s exactly what the wily old campaigner was, even though the biographer had never encountered him in life. The scholar of the papers, of the life of, knows, like some celestial Xerox machine, details that consciousness erases overnight.

One of the amusements of this biography is that it is a kind of informal history of the radio and television shows of the period, not unlike listening to the “golden oldies.” Sandburg hit them all: the George Jessel Show, the Milton Berle Show, the Dave Garroway Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Bell Telephone Hour. Ed Murrow comes in more than once, and with Norman Corwin, the prince of radio Americana, Sandburg had a “fruitful” relationship. At the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles he was introduced by Edgar Bergen (sold out, standing ovation); the publication of the Second American Songbag had an introduction by Bing Crosby. Penelope Niven again and again calls Sandburg the “eternal hobo,” but as his fame grows he is usually on his way to the studio or to the auditorium.

For a number of years, or for a good part of them, the prairie poet was in Hollywood under contract. Two producers from MGM sought his services for an “epic film about the USA,” an undertaking not designed to be a mere motion picture, but a “great, ringing message to the people.” Sandburg was to write a novel, following in shape a scenario written by Sidney Franklin. The novel would be published and then made into a film. For this he was given $100,000, and the project was a “challenge Sandburg could not resist.” The end of it all, after story conferences, residence in the film colony, after years and years, was that the novel appeared under the name of Remembrance Rock, 1,067 pages of the American Dream, never made into a film, a critical failure, but in no way a money loss for the author. The second Hollywood adventure was a year and a half of work with George Stevens on The Greatest Story Ever Told. “HE was not only a pioneer, but an adventurer and an explorer, in his own words a Seeker,” the biographer writes, her words ever echoing those of her subject.

Sandburg made a bold identification between his own career and the history of the great country itself. Roosevelt wanted him to run for Congress we are told. He collected Harvard and Yale honorary degrees, among many others, Pulitzer Prizes for history and poetry, invitations to address a session of Congress—a lot of this adulation arising from his assuming the mantle of Lincoln as a friend of the Family of Man, and so on. He missed out on a few things such as the Nobel Prize and felt a certain annoyance when President Kennedy, whom he had supported, invited Robert Frost to read a poem at the Inaugural rather than himself.

Oscar Wilde called the prairies “blotting paper” and if they are so looked at, Carl Sandburg can be said to have sucked up all the nutrients in the soil. His beginning voice in Chicago Poems (1916), celebrating the “City of the Big Shoulders,” and lamenting the lot of the dispossessed, would sustain him, it seems, into the Depression period, and the years of the New Deal. As a child of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg was part of the Social-Democratic movement in the Middle Western states and that marked the rhythm of his life: the little man, the striker, the dreamer, the immigrant toiler, friend of all mankind. His particular politics were New Deal and the Democratic party. On and on he goes, each of his affirmations self-affirming.

The People, Yes is 179 pages long, with 107 sections—a statistical plenitude as typical of the prairie poets as of the wheat acreage of the region. In his notes, Sandburg writes of the work as coming out of “Piers Plowman, seven hundred years ago, a far better handbook and manual of democracy than either Dante or Donne,”—a statement of such historical incongruity it raises questions of familiarity with the last two and maybe also the first of the antecedents named. No matter, the sprawl of the work is a “modern epic” and an “odyssey deep into the American Experience,” in the reading by the biographer. In some ways her spacious accommodations arouse sympathy since an attempt to analyze Sandburg’s lines flowing down the pages would be profitless. His people, yes or no, are actually just indentured servants and they did his work, sunup to sundown. The poet’s acres and the house in the Carolinas are “open to the public as a National Park and National Historic Site.” And that’s it.

Spending time with the metered, or unmetered, minstrels of the Middle West is to invite a special melancholy, one not only aesthetic, although that defect predominates since they come into history as poets, not as preachers, philosophers, politicians, or entertainers. Birth or youth in Illinois marked them, a tattoo appropriate enough as experience, the turf of the imagination. Still they were not ordinary citizens, state proud, but ones making a claim for what were, for the most part, hasty, repetitive, and formless verses, unlike, for instance, the inspirations of Hart Crane of Ohio.

Elitism, which is merely the existence of exceptional talents, will here be scorned as a threat to the demotic voices of the prairie. Of course they too, by publication, must make their entrance into the long tradition, an inescapable transition in the arts, like the onset of puberty. As outlandishly successful as these poets were, this happy circumstance was, as usual, not sufficient, because of the wish for a higher validation that haunts the dreams of the popular in the manner of a concealed felony.

We note that the three have a proprietary feeling about the country, a longing to transform its restless genetic material into a folk, to fashion the inchoate strains into a hardy stock with the name “American” on it, like a packet of sunflower seeds. A futile parochialism for a nation that has ever been, to expropriate a phrase from Kafka, “a cage seeking a bird.”


Mastering Masters November 21, 1991

  1. *

    Ronald Primeau, Beyond Spoon River’: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters (University of Texas Press, 1981).

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