Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Spoon River Anthology encourages and almost demands the rereadings of epitaphs, because almost all these poems make references to characters and events mentioned in other poems. The reader soon comes to appreciate that each inhabitant of Spoon River expresses a partial and very personal perception of reality. The speakers, who are all now dead, will never understand that their views of themselves differ greatly from the opinions held by their fellow villagers. Each rereading of epitaphs helps one to see beyond appearances in order to discover the hidden and complex emotional and social realities in this village.
Spoon River Anthology is certainly not merely a work of historical interest about life in small American towns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These 246 epitaphs express a microcosm of almost any town—be it in the United States or elsewhere—from any century. Successive generations of readers have discovered many different levels of meaning in these poems.
Masters began this book with a powerful poem titled “The Hill.” As its title suggests, this poem is spoken by the cemetery itself, which is located on a hill overlooking the town. The cemetery asks repeatedly “where” certain villagers now are; the answer is not that they are in Heaven. The cemetery repeatedly answers its own question by responding: “All, all are sleeping on the hill.” This eternal “sleep” has brought little...
(The entire section is 1398 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Edgar Lee Masters is a rarity among writers: He established his reputation on the basis of one work, Spoon River Anthology. Masters was a prolific writer, producing many volumes of verse, several plays, an autobiography, several biographies, essays, novels, and an attempt to recapture his great success in a sequel, The New Spoon River. Except for a handful of individual poems from the other volumes, however, he will be remembered as the re-creator of a small midwestern town that he calls Spoon River. Spoon River is probably Lewiston, Illinois, where he studied law in his father’s office and practiced for a year before moving on to Chicago.
In form and style, Spoon River Anthology is not a work that sprang wholly out of Masters’s imagination; it is modeled on The Greek Anthology (dating from the seventh century b.c.e.), and the style of the character sketches owes a considerable debt to the English poet Robert Browning. Masters wrote his book with such an effortless brilliance and freshness that nearly a century after its first publication it retains a startling inevitability, as if this were the best and the only way to present people in poetry. From their graveyard on the hill, Masters lets more than two hundred of the dead citizens of Spoon River tell the truth about themselves, each person writing what might be his or her own epitaph. The secrets they reveal are sometimes...
(The entire section is 1318 words.)