Edgar Lee Masters American Literature Analysis
After the publication of Spoon River Anthology in 1915, several critics believed that Edgar Lee Masters would develop into a major visionary poet. His later books of poetry, including his 1920 Domesday Book and its 1929 sequel, The Fate of the Jury: An Epilogue to Domesday Book, reminded numerous readers, however, of narrative techniques and stylistic devices that he had used with greater diversity and effectiveness in Spoon River Anthology. Although less original than Spoon River Anthology, his other works in such diverse genres as poetry, biography, autobiography, fiction, and drama are certainly not negligible.
Although he did publish more than fifty books, his major works written after 1915 were his long narrative poems, Domesday Book and The Fate of the Jury, his autobiography, Across Spoon River, and his biographies of Abraham Lincoln (1931) and Walt Whitman (1937). In his autobiography, he referred to himself as “an omnivorous reader” who admired not only American literature but also the Greek classics and works of modern writers of his own literary sensitivities. He identified closely with German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and frequently praised Goethe’s ability to see through appearances and grasp the essence of reality. In his biography of Walt Whitman, he affirmed that Whitman had been the American Goethe. Masters argued that Whitman had expressed with unsurpassed clarity profound aspects of the American experience just as Goethe had explored the true nature of the German spirit.
Masters may well have exaggerated similarities between Goethe and Whitman, but he did help readers to understand why Whitman was the preeminent American visionary poet. Although Masters also wrote books on such important Americans as Abraham Lincoln, Vachel Lindsay, and Mark Twain, these are highly impressionistic works that tell a reader more about Masters’s views on American culture than they do about their subjects.
After his Spoon River Anthology, Masters wrote two major poetic works: Domesday Book and The Fate of the Jury. Critics have frequently compared the Domesday Book to Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868-1869). Both narrative poems describe legal proceedings undertaken to determine the cause of a woman’s death and relevant details about her life. Masters denied even having read The Ring and the Book before 1920, but the critic John Flanagan has argued that “the denial seems a bit disengenuous.”
In his Domesday Book, Masters used his extensive experience as a lawyer in order to show how a county coroner named Merival and the members of his coroner’s jury obtained testimony from diverse witnesses before concluding that Elenor Murray, whose body had been found in a wooded area, had died from natural causes. The Fate of the Jury describes the emotional suffering endured by Merival and the members of the jury in the years that followed their deliberations concerning the death of Elenor Murray.
In one sense Domesday Book reveals very effective uses of deductive reasoning in order to show that a crime had not been committed. As a detective story, the Domesday Book is very successful, but Masters believed that this book about the hopes, loves, and suffering of Elenor Murray and those who knew her somehow constituted “a census spiritual” of American society. Masters was clearly sincere, but he never shows convincingly that his remarks on Elenor Murray represent profound insights into the nature of American culture. A reader is left with the impression that Masters made excessive claims for the significance of the book.
Although the characters in Domesday Book and The Fate of the Jury come from diverse social classes and have very different personalities, these books are very repetitious and do not always retain the reader’s interest. Masters presents a consistently pessimistic view of life, society, politics, and the law. Once readers realize that Masters did not believe in the existence of true love, honest businessmen, or upright lawyers, they are not surprised that his characters behave in a terribly predictable manner. Despite initial positive reactions to the Domesday Book and The Fate of the Jury, these books have not aged well. They merely serve to remind readers that the Spoon River Anthology was Masters’s only aesthetically successful work.
Spoon River Anthology
First published: 1915
Type of work: Poetry
Interconnected epitaphs spoken by people buried in the local cemetery tell of life in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois.
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...
(The entire section is 2115 words.)