Born August 23, 1868: Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

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.

The Spoon River in Illinois.

The Spoon River in Illinois.

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.

Annotated edition of Spoon River Anthology edited by John E. Hallwas. (Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Press).

Annotated edition of Spoon River Anthology edited by John E. Hallwas. (Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Press).

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.

Edgar Lee Masters home in Petersburg, Illinois (photo courtesy of PetersburgIL.com).

Edgar Lee Masters home in Petersburg, Illinois (photo courtesy of PetersburgIL.com).

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.

 

Patrick Kerin

 

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.

5 Comments

  1. Bob on August 23, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read Spoon River Anthology despite having a degree in English. Though in the 60s there was a lot of talk about it, it wasn’t on the reading list and I never got around to reading it in my spare time. Must do so, obviously. So many fine works, so little time. Thanks for the post.

    Bob K.

    • buckeyemuse on August 24, 2014 at 12:22 am

      Couldn’t agree more–the ol’ bookshelves here are bulging with unread books, even though I make a valiant effort! I think you will enjoy Spoon River.

      • Joe Taylor on April 11, 2015 at 3:22 pm

        Thanks for acknowledging centennial of Spoon River Anthology. I see Playbill.com notes a new stage production is taking place this weekend (April 10-12) in CA. Grand Illinois Trail and Parks (GITAP) bicycle ride visits Spoon River Country June 14-20.

        • buckeyemuse on April 11, 2015 at 3:28 pm

          Thanks for your comment! Later this year I’m going to do an in-depth look at Spoon River Anthology. Great to hear about these events too. Thanks again!

          • Joe Taylor on April 11, 2015 at 3:47 pm

            Thanks for the response. Let me know when you post your in-depth comments on Spoon River Anthology.



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