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 consolation to those whose lives were filled with unhappiness. The solitude and loneliness of those “whom life had crushed” have become permanent.
Although the dead speakers in the Spoon River Anthology are extremely diverse in their social backgrounds and personalities, Masters included several similar sets of poems that are spoken by spouses and by other members of the same family. These series of poems show clearly that personality conflicts or an unwillingness to communicate can doom a marriage to failure. Some critics have suggested that Masters was thinking about his own unhappy first marriage or of the profound incompatibility of his parents.
Among the most effective epitaphs spoken by spouses are those by Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Painter. He was a successful but vain lawyer who would have the reader believe that he was the innocent victim of an insensitive wife who forced him to leave their house and to live “in a room back of a dingy office.” Such an explanation, however, is not plausible. Despite divorce or separation, a wealthy lawyer would rarely have to live in such unbecoming quarters. Readers sense that Benjamin Painter is concealing an important fact.
Masters describes Mrs. Painter as a lady “with delicate tastes” who could not stand his alcoholism or crude behavior. Separation was essential for her emotional well-being. Despite their wealth, the Painters were bitterly unhappy and lonely people. Benjamin felt so alienated that he asked to be buried not near other family members but with his dog, Nig, whom he describes as his “constant companion, bed-fellow, comrade in drink.” This lawyer whom most people in Spoon River admired so highly was, in fact, a psychologically unstable man with a serious drinking problem.
Readers come to empathize with his wife, whom the townspeople considered to be a snob. The druggist Trainor expresses a curious assessment of the Painters. He affirms...
(The entire section is 1398 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Spoon River Anthology Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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 shocking—stories of intrigue, corruption, frustration, adultery. On the other hand, the speakers tell their stories with a calmness and a simplicity that induce a sense of calmness and simplicity in the reader. As a result of its frankness, Spoon River Anthology provoked protest from readers who felt that the book presents too sordid a picture of American small-town life. While many of the poems are interrelated and a certain amount of suspense is created by having one character mention a person or incident to be further developed, the anthology is not centered on a unifying theme. About the closest approach to such a theme is the tragic failure of the town’s bank, chiefly attributed to Thomas Rhodes, its president, and his son Ralph, who confesses from the grave:
All they said was true:I wrecked my father’s bank with my loansTo dabble in wheat; but this was true—I was buying wheat for him as well,Who couldn’t margin the deal in his nameBecause of his church relationship.
Many people suffer from the bank’s collapse, including the cashier, who has the blame placed on him and serves a term in prison; but a far more corroding effect is the cynicism generated in the citizens when they find that their leaders, the “stalwarts,” are weak and culpable.
Masters pictures many vivid characters in Spoon River Anthology. They range from Daisy Fraser, the town harlot, who “Never was taken before Justice Arnett/ Without contributing ten dollars and costs/ To the school fund of Spoon River!”
(The entire section is 1318 words.)