The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
Spoon River Anthology is a book-length collection of 243 free verse epitaphs, in which the citizens buried in the graveyard of a fictional Midwestern town (Spoon River) talk about their lives, their failures, their loves, their philosophies, their triumphs, their conflicts, their secrets, and their crimes. Edgar Lee Masters published many of these pieces in Reedy’s Mirror under the pseudonym Webster Ford (for whom Masters composed the epitaph that concludes Spoon River Anthology) during 1914; with encouragement, however, Masters collected his pieces, introduced them with the lyric “The Hill,” concluded them with “The Spooniad,” and published them as a book under his own name in 1915. The epitaphs, most of which are spoken in the first person by those buried in the Spoon River graveyard, range from five lines in length (“Alexander Throckmorton”) to forty-five lines (“Caroline Branson”). Many of the lives and stories in the collection are related and intertwined, and to read the entire Spoon River Anthology is to experience a panoramic view of human existence and experience, a view filtered through the perspective of a small American town.
Masters’ choice of title reveals much about his attitude toward his subject and about his stylistic approach to that subject. The word “anthology” is from the Greek, meaning a collection of epigrams. Masters knew Greek, and in selecting this title, he calls our attention to the epigrammatic form—a style of poetry that traditionally is pointed, brief, focused, sometimes a bit cynical, and always enlightening and wise. Even when the inhabitants of Spoon River do not display deep insight, these epigrams still cause the reader to think over what has been said, to reflect on it, and to come away enlightened.
The collection begins with a table of contents, which lists the poems in alphabetical order. Since most titles are simply the names of the persons under consideration, the table of contents has the effect of reducing the inhabitants of the Spoon River graveyard to a list of meaningless names. Reading the list—“Ballard, John; Barker, Amanda; Barrett, Pauline; Bartlett, Ezra; Bateson, Marie”—is like encountering a faceless crowd. The artistry of the Spoon River Anthology becomes clear when one begins reading the epigrams themselves, for each person emerges as a unique individual, a strong personality.
The first poem in the collection, “The Hill,” is not one of the epitaphs but rather represents an example of the ubi sunt theme in poetry, through which the lost things of the past are lamented. Ubi sunt is Latin for “where are,” and in this poem, Masters asks “Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,/ Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith?” His answer is that all “are sleeping on the hill” in the graveyard. “The Hill” sets the tone for the rest of the volume, for—despite some moments of satisfaction, pleasure,...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
Spoon River Anthology had a heavy impact on the reading public of early twentieth century America; it provoked anger, wonder, disgust, puzzlement, and admiration. The work was translated into many other languages, performed as an opera, and enjoyed a long popularity; it has, moreover, been adapted for many theatrical presentations over the years. What compelled the early readers of this work, though, was the question of its genre—was it poetry, fiction, drama, essay? The pieces in Spoon River Anthology did not look or sound like poems. They were written in free verse, having no rhymes or metrical patterns. They did not even seem to use imagery or metaphor heavily. In fact, the language was considered by some to be simply flat, careless, ugly, and uninteresting—certainly unpoetic.
The strength and poetry of these pieces derive from another source; it is their psychological insight, their social awareness, their range in perspective, and their philosophical questioning that make them great. These short monologues, presented in the natural speech of small-town Americans, reveal human passions with such openness and honesty that they were like a splash of cold water in the face of American propriety. Each is quick and pointed, but each is deadly accurate in its rendering of human emotions, human tragedy, human conflict, and human yearnings.
The organization of Spoon River Anthology conveys a sense of modernity and fragmentation that one...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Spoon River. Imaginary midwestern town that is probably loosely based on Lewiston, Illinois, where Masters studied law in his father’s office and practiced for a year before moving to Chicago. Masters’s book is a collection of 243 free verse epitaphs, in which the citizens buried in the Spoon River Cemetery talk about their lives, their failures, their loves, philosophies, triumphs, conflicts, secrets, and crimes. Many of the stories in the collection are related and intertwined, and to read the entire anthology is to experience a panoramic view of human existence and experience, a view filtered through the perspective of a small American town.
Because these people are no longer members of the living community, in which they would have had to preserve facades, please relatives, or impress employers, they have nothing to lose by being honest. Death frees them to show the reader the reality of their lives and their emotions. With this freedom, the audience is granted a visceral and moving portrait of how members of the human family can and do treat one another, how they really behave, what truly motivates them. The secrets Spoon River’s dead inhabitants reveal are sometimes shocking—stories of intrigue, corruption, frustration, adultery. On the other hand, the speakers tell their stories with a calmness and simplicity that induce a similar sense in the reader. Because of its very frankness, the anthology provoked protest from some readers who felt that it presented too sordid a picture of American small-town life.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Flanagan, John T. Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and His Critics. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974. Examines critical reaction over several decades and discusses attitudes toward Spoon River Anthology. Evaluates subject matter and poetic form. Includes descriptions of theatrical presentations.
Hallwas, John E., ed. Introduction and annotations to Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992. An excellent starting point. Introduction evaluates style, rhythm, meter, and literary influences. Discusses social attitudes, focusing on the influence of American myths and democratic ideals on characterization. Notes and annotations include textual variations and provide real life counterparts and explanations of period names and information. Annotated bibliography.
Masters, Edgar Lee. Across Spoon River: An Autobiography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1936. Autobiography of Edgar Lee Masters, beginning with his early years in Petersburg and Lewiston, Illinois. Reveals incidents that are recreated in Spoon River Anthology. Compares and contrasts legal and writing careers and discusses literary influences and Masters’ relationships with writers such as Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser.
Primeau, Ronald. Beyond Spoon River: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Detailed exploration of literary influences, from classical literature to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Analyzes style, comparing Masters’ poems with those of earlier writers. Discusses unusual blend of regionalism and unsentimental realism.
Wrenn, John H., and Margaret M. Wrenn. Edgar Lee Masters. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A good critical source, providing biographical information and tracing literary influences. Discusses organization, style, and language. Explores relationships between characters, stressing realistic portrayals of social repression and sexuality.