Edgar Lee Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas, on August 23, 1868. During the first ten years of his life, both a brother and a best friend died, which influenced the young Masters and stimulated his interest in how death affects the living, who are left behind.
In 1880, he and the rest of the family moved to Lewistown, Illinois, near the actual Spoon River.
He married Helen M. Jenkins in 1898, and Masters began to practice law, which he did for nearly thirty years. Intermittently, though, Masters wrote poems, a play, a few novels, and essays. None however achieved nearly the fame of his most popular work, Spoon River Anthology, the collection of epitaphs in free verse for which he is most famous. This collection of the secret lives of seemingly ordinary citizens instantly placed Masters in the company of Whitman and other great American poets, at least in the minds of the reading public and some critics. His rightful place among the literary greats, however, is debated, even today.
Later in his life, Masters wrote biographies of Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Abe Lincoln. After a bitter divorce and a long fight against pneumonia, Masters married again and moved to New York, where he retired from the law.
Masters died in 1950. He is remembered as a transitional poet, one whose work laid the groundwork for many of the poets of the mid-twentieth century.