During his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis told an audience of American bishops that the Catholic Church should seek to fuse the “epic struggle” of the pioneers with the “homely wisdom” of the settlers. “As one of your poets has put it,” the pontiff explained, the church required “‘strong and tireless wings’ combined with the wisdom of one who ‘knows the mountains.’” How many of the bishops, literate as they might be, recognized that Francis was quoting a gnomic (and faintly Nietzschean) poem from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, a book that happened to be celebrating its centennial that year?

In youth my wings were strong and tireless,
But I did not know the mountains.
In age I knew the mountains
But my weary wings could not follow my vision—
Genius is wisdom and youth.

A whiff of quaintness, of simpler days gone by, surrounds the popular impression of Spoon River Anthology. For many readers, it inhabits the same nostalgic region as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, both of which drew inspiration from it. First published in 1915 and never out of print, Spoon River remains a staple of high school English classes, the first poems (and maybe the last) that many students encounter. Approximating the sonnet in length, without rhyme or regular meter, easy to understand, and with the added gothic frisson of being spoken by the dead in a rural Illinois graveyard, the poems have proved, as Jason Stacy notes in his historical study Spoon River America, “a convenient introduction to modern poetry for recalcitrant students.” Spoon River is often performed in an aw-shucks dramatic version with straw hats and string ties, which was first mounted on Broadway in 1963 and later taken up by student troupes and regional theaters.

But Spoon River Anthology is a more impressive work—“durable, fascinating, and moving,” in the judgment of John Hollander—than such glancing encounters might suggest. These anguished dramatic monologues are not meant to be read in isolation (the inevitable impression when a disjointed handful are included in an anthology) but rather as a complex, interwoven nexus, a novel composed of fragments in free verse, more like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Jean Toomer’s Cane than anything that had come before in American poetry. One way to put this, in Randall Jarrell’s negative appraisal, is that “its whole is more effective than any of its parts.”

Dramas unfold across interlocking lyrical clusters of poems, which Masters called “garlands.” Minerva Jones, “the village poetess,” sums up the grim record of her life. “Jeered at by the Yahoos of the street” for her heavy body and rolling walk, she is “captured”—presumably raped—by “Butch” Weldy and dies at the hands of Doctor Meyers, the abortionist: “And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up,/Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice.” In later poems, we hear from a remorseless Weldy, a defensive Doctor Meyers (indicted for murder), and Meyers’s pious and unforgiving wife: “Poor soul so sunk in sin he could not see/That even trying to help her, as he called it,/He had broken the law human and divine.” There are precious few happy marriages in the town of Spoon River and many suicides. The biting reversals that so often clinch the endings of individual poems can recall Cavafy or Szymborska.

Read in this broader perspective, Masters’s bitter critique of small-town American life—its sexual prudishness, its bigotry, its hypocrisy, its habitual cruelty toward those on the margins—comes to the fore. We can see why advanced writers felt its publication was a major event. “At last the American West has produced a poet strong enough to weather the climate,” wrote Ezra Pound (born in Hailey, Idaho), “capable of dealing with life directly, without circumlocution, without resonant meaningless phrases.” Instinctively championing the underdogs, Masters harbors a special venom for the Spoon River elite, who seem to have stepped out of Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 hit song “Harper Valley PTA.” A doctor murders his pregnant lover, since “to let the child be born/Would not do,” while a church deacon active in “the party of prohibition” dies of cirrhosis of the liver. “For every noon for thirty years,” he confesses, “I slipped behind the prescription partition/In Trainor’s drug store/And poured a generous drink/From the bottle marked/‘Spiritus frumenti.’”

The unfortunate victims are given their posthumous say and accorded a dignity denied them in life. A Chinese immigrant is beaten to death for refusing “to drop Confucius for Jesus.” An African American blacksmith, Shack Dye, complains about the endless jokes white people have played on him. One day he is terrified to see horseshoes crawling across the floor in his shop, the work of a hidden magnet. But the blacksmith, addressing his tormentors from the grave, has the last word: “You didn’t know any more than the horse-shoes did/What moved you about Spoon River.”1

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One might say that Masters’s prevailing aim is to show what moved the citizens of Spoon River, greed and lust above all. He bestows authority on those detached observers who are able to discern larger patterns in the cycles of hope, scandal, and suicide that swirl around the town. As one of those clear-eyed witnesses, Trainor the druggist, puts it:

Only the chemist can tell, and not always the chemist,
What will result from compounding
Fluids or solids.
And who can tell
How men and women will interact
On each other, or what children will result?

Having seen so many combinations gone awry, he concludes, “I Trainor, the druggist, a mixer of chemicals,/Killed while making an experiment,/Lived unwedded.” Here the stilted diction that mars some of Masters’s poems—“will interact on each other,” “lived unwedded”—fits the pontificating pharmacist.

Seeking to write “the history of a book and its impact” rather than a work of literary criticism, Stacy, a professor of history at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville who has previously written on Walt Whitman’s involvement in labor reform, argues that Spoon River helped overturn old notions of the virtuous New England village, imagined in poems like Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith,” as the prototype of American life. Shifting the locale to the Midwest, Masters substituted a new version of the American small town, one torn between cynical elites and downtrodden workers—“a place where,” as Stacy puts it, “a pleasant surface fostered a hypocritical underbelly.” His book seeks to trace “how a collection of epitaphs by fictional Midwesterners became part of America’s conception of itself.”

Along with books like Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, Spoon River was widely viewed, Stacy notes, as initiating the “village revolt” that introduced what Lewis Mumford described as “deserted villages, bleak cities, depleted soils,” and Masters’s own “sick and exhausted souls.” The Depression merely confirmed the bad news. A Depression-inspired film like It’s a Wonderful Life, as Stacy points out, has striking parallels with Spoon River; the movie’s archvillain, Henry Potter, is a virtual clone of Masters’s predatory banker Thomas Rhodes.

Stacy explores the curious resilience of the small-town myth and notes persistent types (he names them populists, elites, and exiles) that one finds throughout its strange evolution. Enshrined in 1955 as “Main Street, USA,” a simulacrum of the midwestern small town at Disneyland, the myth was exoticized in Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion (which Stacy suggests is indebted to the dramatic version of Spoon River) and took a darker turn in David Lynch’s surreal Twin Peaks. Stacy quotes Keith Richards on the origins of the album Exile on Main Street: “When we first came up with the title it worked in American terms because everybody’s got a Main Street.”

It’s a myth still very much with us, in films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (and pretty much anything starring Frances McDormand) and in Barack Obama’s opposition of Wall Street and Main Street, where Main Street is a synecdoche for the “real” America. Of course, the precise contribution of Spoon River to this emerging myth is difficult to quantify; other disaffected westerners, like Willa Cather (for example, in “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” 1905) and Hamlin Garland (in Main-Travelled Roads, 1891), cast a cold eye on small-town life. One might also qualify Stacy’s view of idyllic portrayals of New England villages; in tales like “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Hawthorne (whom Masters admired) can be as sardonic as the poet concerning the supposed virtues of their citizenry.

Masters knew his cramped milieu firsthand. Born in 1868, he grew up in two small towns, Petersburg (near the actual Spoon River, where he liked to swim) and Lewistown, thirty miles apart in central Illinois. The combustible marriage of Masters’s parents reflected the demographic divide of the region, split between people of southern and New England descent. His mother was the straitlaced daughter of a Methodist minister from Massachusetts. His father, whose family originally came from Virginia, was a fun-loving lawyer who had come of age in the same rough-and-tumble backwoods that produced Abraham Lincoln. (The town of New Salem, where Lincoln lived from 1831 to 1837, was later absorbed into Petersburg.) After a haphazard schooling, Masters felt humiliated when Knox College informed him that he would have to spend a year brushing up his Latin and Greek to gain admission. He did so, but his father refused to pay the Knox tuition anyway, pushing Lee, as he was known, to study law instead of literature and join him in a partnership.

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“Foe of the church with its charnel dankness,/Friend of the human touch of the tavern,” Masters wrote of his father in the Jefferson Howard poem in Spoon River. Hardin Masters was active in Democratic politics; father and son were drawn to the Populist movement of William Jennings Bryan and attended the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where Bryan delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, decrying plutocrats for destroying the lives of farmers.

When Masters moved to Chicago to practice law, he formed a partnership with Clarence Darrow, who defended Eugene Debs after the Pullman Strike. (Darrow and Bryan ended up on opposite sides of the Scopes “monkey trial” many years later.) Among other progressive causes, Masters defended the right of waitresses to form a union and strike. He and Darrow appeared before the US Supreme Court in 1904, unsuccessfully defending against deportation, on free speech grounds, a British citizen with alleged anarchist views. He married an heiress who, in his words, had “many virtues, too many for me”; aggressively unfaithful, he had, as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in these pages, “nearly as many female loves as Goethe.”2

Despite his success, Masters felt stifled by the law and wrote poems on the side as a means of escape. His own ethereal, pre–Spoon River lyrics, inspired by Poe and Shelley, failed to interest editors drawn to the emerging hard-edged realism of Masters’s close friend Theodore Dreiser. “You’re not Doric, you’re American,” he was admonished by one editor.

Oak Hill Cemetery, which provided the inspiration for a number of characters in Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology

Amanda Woodruff

Oak Hill Cemetery, which provided the inspiration for a number of characters in Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, Lewistown, Illinois, 2016

Stacy points out that Spoon River originated as a parody of sorts, with Masters (who drew names and stories from those buried in cemeteries in Petersburg and Lewistown) writing his “rampant yokelisms,” as he called them, “in pure self derision, buffoonery.” One thinks of Flaubert writing Madame Bovary as a cure imposed by friends for his habitually romantic temperament. In Spoon River, Masters honored his literary models even as he gently deflated them. A character named Percy Bysshe Shelley dies, like his namesake, in a boating accident; he’s out hunting for snipe when “the trigger of my gun/Caught in the side of the boat/And a great hole was shot through my heart.” Theodore the Poet, modeled after Dreiser, spends long hours as a child “staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow,” but later his “vision watched for men and women/Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,/Looking for the souls of them to come out.”

Spoon River Anthology—“the most preposterous title known to the world of books,” Masters proudly remarked—was meant to recall the short, translated epitaphs in J.W. Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1890), sent to Masters by an editor friend.3 The conjoining of these sources, the midwestern realism of Dreiser and ancient Greek lament, gave Masters what he wanted: down-home American experience inflected with classical grandeur, something of the same recipe that inspired Joyce’s Ulysses, published seven years after Spoon River. Masters helped to inaugurate what came to be called the Chicago Renaissance, with modernist poems by midwesterners like Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay, along with stories by Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, published in the Chicago-based Poetry magazine.

The two temptations Masters had to resist (not always successfully) in Spoon River were a high-flown treatment of conventional poetic subjects (“There where along the shaded walks/Vain sighs are heard,/And vainer dreams are dreamed…”) and a merely informational presentation in which the lines go slack. Jarrell suggested that Masters was more effective with “prosaic effects” than poetic ones, and one might argue that Spoon River ultimately had a greater influence on the American short story than on American poetry.4

Irony was Masters’s main strategy in his best poems. He gave an indignant twist to the traditional lament for dead soldiers, a major component of Mackail’s Greek epigrams. In Masters’s view, war—including the Civil War—was a fixed game in which the common man inevitably lost, whatever side he played for. Bitterness runs through the garland of poems initiated by “Knowlt Hoheimer”:

I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.
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?

Wilfred Owen invoked the same passage from Horace—“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”—to devastating effect in a poem about poison gas warfare in the Great War: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.” To my mind, Masters’s ending, with the casual, throwaway near rhyme of “patria” and “anyway,” is almost as moving. Whatever heroism occurred on Missionary Ridge, a Union victory, is deflated by those stolen hogs.

Masters’s opposition to the American occupation of the Philippines in 1899—a betrayal, in his view, of everything the United States, in its championing of national independence, stood for—informs his Spoon River portrait of Harry Wilmans, who enlisted after a jingoist speech about honoring the flag. Following a description of the true face of war (“With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,/And days of loathing and nights of fear”), Wilmans arrives at the inevitable result of following the flag: “Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts./Now there’s a flag over me in Spoon River!/A flag! A flag!”

Poetry rarely pays the bills. But such was the astonishing popular success of Spoon River Anthology, which reportedly sold 80,000 copies in its first year, that Masters was able to dream. He left Chicago and the law, divorced his wife (who was represented by Darrow, after their legal partnership had foundered) for a woman thirty years younger, and, like so many writers since, moved to the Chelsea Hotel, in New York. But there was to be no second act. As Louis Untermeyer quipped, “Masters arrived—and left.” He published more than fifty books, many of them at his own expense, including twenty-nine volumes of verse. Among his best books is a loving biography of his fellow midwestern poet Vachel Lindsay, who wrote such unclassifiable masterpieces as “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” as well as a pioneering study of film, before ending his life by drinking “a teaglass full of Lysol.”

Among Masters’s more puzzling productions is his venomous Lincoln: The Man (1931). He evidently hoped (in vain) to make some money on the book, written in two feverish months in the Chelsea Hotel. In it, he blames the martyred president for the postwar excesses of the Republican Party, that “tyrannous plutocracy” and “unscrupulous imperial organization” in the pocket of northern bankers and industrialists. For Masters, Lincoln’s initially tepid opposition to slavery became the cynical pretext for invading the South, an imperialist scheme that was “no whit different,” in his view, from McKinley’s invasion of the Philippines.5 Masters soft-pedaled the horrors of slavery, comparing them to the privations of northern factory workers and farmers. Lincoln, he claimed, caused “other slaveries [that] are more powerful in America…as the result of the War.” A lifelong Democrat, Masters thought he was acting with perfect consistency when he voted for FDR in 1932.

In seeking to puncture the Lincoln myth, Masters evidently had in mind something like Lytton Strachey’s takedowns of inflated reputations in Eminent Victorians; like Strachey, he included some amateurish Freudian analysis, speculating that Lincoln was “an under sexed man.” Masters thought he had standing to bring his attack. In his youth, he had known some of Lincoln’s associates, including his law partner and memoirist, William Herndon; his own grandfather had hired Lincoln. Masters’s friend H.L. Mencken praised the book. So, predictably, did southern Lost Cause “Agrarians” like Andrew Lytle. The book sold badly, however, and was widely reviled.

Like many of the characters in Spoon River, Masters remains a conflicted figure: a gifted lawyer who hated practicing law, a defender of the downtrodden insensitive to the plight of enslaved people, a passionate lover easily bored by his conquests, a poet whose lasting achievement was his least traditionally poetic work. Remarkably, Masters wrote bad rhymed poetry on Greek themes before Spoon River and bad rhymed poetry on Greek themes after it. It is hard to believe that the author of Spoon River could have perpetrated lines like these in a follow-up volume: “Helen of Troy, Greek art/Hath made our heart thy heart,/Thy love our love/For poesy, like thee,/Must fly and wander free/As the wild dove.” Lamenting the regression, T.S. Eliot noted that Masters “must have a personage…detached from himself in order to give his particular meditative irony its opportunity.” One can see why the author of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” with his theory of the “impersonality” of the poet, admired Masters’s ability to create distinctive characters, or personae, in his dramatic monologues.

Masters died in 1950 and was buried in one of the Petersburg graveyards he had immortalized. A conventional epitaph by his own hand now graces his grave, with an exhortation to passersby to “walk and hear the lark.” More in keeping with the down-to-earth ethos of Spoon River might be lines like these:

Here under the roots of this northern-spy
To move in the chemic change and circle of life,
Into the soil and into the flesh of the tree,
And into the living epitaphs
Of redder apples!