Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1869, in Garnett, Kansas. He was the son of Emma and Hardin Masters, who hailed from Illinois. When he was still an infant, his parents returned to their home state. Masters spent his childhood and adolescence in the Sangamon Valley of central Illinois, largely in the towns of Petersburg and Lewiston.
In Petersburg, Hardin Masters developed a successful law practice and was elected several times to local political offices. In his 1936 autobiography, Across Spoon River, Edgar Lee Masters recalled that his parents had argued very frequently. He felt more loved by his grandmother than by either of his parents. Although Masters admired his mother’s refinement and interest in literature, he resented her harsh criticism. His relationship with his father was strained. He appreciated his father’s intelligence but thought that Hardin Masters was excessively concerned with law and politics and remained emotionally distant from his wife and children. The most painful event of his childhood was the death in 1878 of his five-year-old brother Alex from diphtheria. When he wrote his autobiography almost six decades after Alex’s death, Edgar Lee Masters still felt intense grief.
After his undergraduate studies at Knox College in Illinois, he moved to Chicago and studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1891, and he practiced law for four decades in Chicago. In 1898, he married Helen Jenkins, with whom he had two daughters, Marcia and Madeline, and one son, Hardin (who published in 1978 a very personal series of reflections on the family life and career of his father). Helen divorced Edgar Lee Masters in 1923, presumably because of his numerous adulterous affairs. After his divorce, Masters almost never wrote of his first wife. In his 1936 autobiography, he referred by their first names to sixteen of his mistresses, but the index to Across Spoon River contains no reference to Helen Masters.
In 1926, Masters married Ellen Coyne; they had one son, Hilary. They moved to New York in 1931, where they lived for most of the last two decades of his life. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Masters became an important figure in New York literary circles. He became ill in the late 1940’s and died on March 5, 1950, in a convalescent home near Philadelphia.
Masters was a prolific writer. Between 1898 and 1942, he published more than fifty books in such diverse genres as poetry, autobiography, theater, biography, and short fiction, but he has remained famous solely for his Spoon River Anthology (1915). His autobiography, Across Spoon River, shows him to be a rather vain, libidinous, and unsympathetic person. Hardin Masters assured his readers that his two sisters, Marcia and Madeline, felt very alienated from their father for decades after the 1923 divorce.
When he wrote in his own literary voice, Masters was a terribly repetitious writer. In Spoon River Anthology, however, he composed 246 epitaphs, which revealed the extraordinarily diverse ways in which dead inhabitants perceived the reality of life in the mythical village of Spoon River. Although this very moving and well-structured book of poems clearly owes much to Masters’s own experiences in the Sangamon Valley of central Illinois, the feelings of joy, frustration, anger, grief, and love that it expresses have moved readers not only in the United States but in many other countries as well. Hardin Masters wrote with evident pride in 1978 that his father’s masterpiece had been reprinted more than one hundred times and had been translated into numerous foreign languages.
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