Because this blog touches on larger topics—Midwestern literature in general, and to some degree the literature of the upper South and Appalachia—I’ve decided to occasionally venture beyond the geographical boundaries of the Ohio Valley region. Today is such an occasion. August 23 is the birthday of poet, novelist, and biographer Edgar Lee Masters, who was born in 1868 in Garnett, Kansas, but later moved with his family to Illinois. Masters is best known for his book Spoon River Anthology, which is a series of verse epitaphs. The characters in Spoon River speak from beyond the grave about their lives, and the book contains a number of intertwined narratives. Characters comment on each other, or a character mentioned earlier by someone else gives their own account of an event or relationship. Masters grew up in the towns of Petersburg and Lewistown in Illinois, which are not far from the actual Spoon River.
Masters became a lawyer in Chicago following some time at Knox College and reading law in his father’s law office. Two important experiences led Masters to compose Spoon River Anthology. Conversations with his mother about the people they knew in small town Illinois helped trigger the book, along with his reading of Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, edited by J.W. Mackail. The Greek Anthology is a collection of epigrams spanning thousands of years of Greek history. Masters found in these compressed poems a model for his brief and poignant accounts of lives, many of them marred by bad marriages, failed love affairs, social pressures and constraints, poverty, illness, and injustice.
The Spoon River Anthology was a lightning bolt in its time, part of the wave of literature that emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century that exposed the bucolic myths of the rural village and booming small town. It aroused controversy and sold well. Masters published a sequel, The New Spoon River, in 1924. It was less successful, but still has many powerful portraits. I’m reading it right now and feel it has been underrated. At some point down the road I’ll do a short post on the second volume. Spoon River Anthology will get its own treatment next year as 2015 marks the book’s centennial.
Masters stopped practicing law after thirty years in 1921 to write full-time. He continued to publish verse, along with fiction, plays, and biographical works on Whitman, Twain, Lincoln, and Vachel Lindsay. He also published an interesting autobiography: Across Spoon River: An Autobiography (1936). He never again had the kind of success he experienced with Spoon River Anthology in 1915.
Edgar Lee Masters died in 1950.
Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, 1991.
Spoon River Anthology: An Annotated Edition. Edited with an Introduction and Annotations by John E. Hallwas. University of Illinois Press, 1992.