Although he was born in Kansas, Edgar Lee Masters is the quintessential Illinois poet, having moved there as an infant and remained there, first in small Sangamon valley towns and later in Chicago, until he was fifty-five years old. Masters’s mother was interested in literature, music, and the church, and his father was a successful attorney and politician, twin emphases that also served to dominate Masters throughout his life. Largely self-taught, he spent one year at Knox College, where he studied German, Greek, and law. In 1892, the year after he was admitted to the Illinois bar, he moved to Chicago, working first as a bill collector for the electric company, while attempting to get established in law, and writing verse pseudonymously for several Chicago newspapers. He spent the following twenty-five years as a successful attorney in Chicago, eight of those years in partnership with Clarence Darrow. The first of his many books appeared pseudonymously in 1898; by 1915, when Spoon River Anthology was published, he had published several other collections of poetry and unproduced plays and had come to the attention of the British critic John Cowper Powys, who cited Masters as one of three significant new American poets.
For several years, Masters had been contributing verse to the St. Louis Mirror, a weekly edited and published by William Marion Reedy. In 1913, Reedy had introduced Masters to J. W. MacKail’s translations published as Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1928), and Masters’s subsequent first-person free-verse epitaphs of ordinary small-town characters became the work known as Spoon River Anthology. The success of the book led Masters to relinquish his law practice in 1923 and move to New York City, where he spent most of the rest of his life. His life in New York was marked on one hand by ready access to the publishing world and, on the other, by numerous affairs; married twice, Masters also had many love affairs, at least fifteen of which are indexed in his autobiography. From 1931 to 1944, he lived in the Hotel Chelsea in New York, a traditional residence for writers, and then in various convalescent homes until shortly before his death in such a home in a Philadelphia suburb.
Edgar Lee Masters was the first major twentieth century writer to emphasize the psychological rather than the sociological in delineating the American character. After years of writing traditional poems on traditional themes inspired particularly by his reading of English Romantic writers, he turned in his early forties to the inhabitants of the towns where he was raised for subject matter. Using The Greek Anthology (a collection of short, epigrammatic Greek poems collated between the first and fourteenth centuries) as his model, and with the encouragement of William Marion Reedy, he produced a landmark in American poetry when his Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915. His attitude was that of the naturalists immediately preceding him; he explored the biological, political, economic, social, and sexual forces at work in a small town, centering his focus on the minds of his characters and emphasizing the sterility in village thought in a society where tradition had broken down.
Masters, born in Garnett, Kansas, on August 23, 1868, moved with his family to Illinois when he was one year old. He spent his childhood in Petersburg and his early youth in Lewistown, a small town near the Spoon River. Though his natural interest was literature, his father encouraged him to study law and work in his law office. After a year at Knox College, Masters returned home to follow his father’s wishes. He started to write, and by his middle twenties he had had verses printed in Chicago papers and had done general newspaper work. After he was admitted to the bar he moved to Chicago, where, within twenty years, he achieved financial affluence and social position as a lawyer. During this time he wrote and published undistinguished verse and verse plays....
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