Edgar Lee Masters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

Edgar Lee Masters’s prolific output included seven early unproduced plays (all published before Spoon River Anthology), four verse dramas, two later volumes of plays, and many volumes of prose.

Achievements

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Edgar Lee Masters’s long and varied career was distinguished by prolific productivity and a versatile display of poetic talent; he tried almost every poetic form, from classical imitation to verse drama to epic, and he handled them all with seeming ease and technical finesse. The sheer bulk of his writing—well over fifty books in his long lifetime—necessarily resulted in repetitiveness, unevenness, and frequent superficiality; and at his worst his poetry is mere magazine verse. However, his undeniable talent had early support from such noted critics and writers as Amy Lowell, John Cowper Powys, Ezra Pound, William Marion Reedy, Harriet Monroe, Harry Hansen, Louis Untermeyer, and Percy H. Boynton. At his best, his work surmounts changing fashions in poetic taste and even his own occasional lapses in style, technique, and taste.

Masters was long considered a one-book author. That book, Spoon River Anthology, was immensely popular in his lifetime—it went through some seven editions before he died. Given the immense praise, almost amounting to adulation, accorded the book on its publication, it was small wonder that his reputation thereafter began its long, slow decline; none of his subsequent books had either the popular or the critical appeal that it did. However, Masters won the Levinson Prize (1916), a Frost Medal (1942), an Academy Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1942), a Shelley Memorial Award (1944), and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship (1946).

Much of Masters’s importance as a poet, no doubt, derives from his ability to appeal to both the ordinary reader and the scholar, the same trait found in such contemporaries of Masters as Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robinson Jeffers and in later poets such as James Wright. This diverse readership has led to Masters’s being accorded a certain place in studies of American poetry and the Chicago Renaissance, but rarely have these studies amounted to anything like genuine analysis. Even though he failed to maintain his popular acclaim after Spoon River Anthology, selections from that book continue to be included in virtually every anthology of American literature and to be taught to succeeding generations of students.

Discussion Topics

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 85

Spoon River Anthology was originally conceived as a novel. What makes the form that Edgar Lee Masters finally chose so effective?

Consider Spoon River Anthology as a work of social criticism.

Some critics have seen Masters himself in the character Percival Sharp. How plausible is this theory?

What is the function of the Epilogue to Spoon River Anthology? Is in necessary or even desirable?

Masters was an admirer of Walt Whitman. How does his handling of free verse lines and rhythms differ from Whitman’s?

Bibliography

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Flanagan, John. Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and His Critics. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974. Flanagan describes the reception of Masters’s work by American and European critics and stresses the importance of relatively neglected works by Masters, including his Domesday Book and his biography of Abraham Lincoln.

Hallwas, John E., and Dennis J. Reader, eds. The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1976. This volume of essays explores the works of three major poets from Illinois. Charles Burgess’s essay examines legal arguments in the poetry of Masters, who practiced law for forty years, and Herb Russell discusses Masters’s literary career in the years immediately after the publication of Spoon River Anthology.

Johnston, Joseph A. “Illinois Lawyer and Poet Part One: Spoon River Muse.” Litigation 34, no. 3 (Spring, 2008): 61-65. The first half of this two-part article on Masters focuses on his start as a lawyer and on his marriage and his beginnings as a poet.

_______. “Illinois Lawyer and Poet Part Two: Apollo Cleaning the Sewers.” Litigation 34, no. 4 (Summer, 2008): 59-63. The second half of this article describes Masters’s rise to fame and wealth, his affair with Lillian Wilson, and the eventual failing of his marriage and career. Provides insights into Masters’s personal life.

Masters, Hardin Wallace. Edgar Lee Masters: A Biographical Sketchbook About a Famous American Author. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978. This book contains numerous reflections on Masters by his son. Hardin Masters presents a sympathetic view of his father’s poetry, but he does indicate that the writer was a vain and often insensitive father and husband. Includes a thorough list of the more than fifty books written by Masters.

Primeau, Ronald. Beyond Spoon River: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Primeau makes extensive use of Masters’s 1936 autobiography Across Spoon River to demonstrate the extensive influence of major writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Percy Bysshe Shelley on Masters. Primeau argues persuasively that Masters’s poetry written after his Spoon River Anthology does not merit the relative oblivion into which it has fallen.

Russell, Herbert K. Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. A book-length biography of Masters that contains bibliographical references and an index.

Vatron, Michael. America’s Literary Revolt. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. Vatron proposes that we read the poetry of Vachel Lindsay, Masters, and Carl Sandburg as expressions of “political Populism.”

Wrenn, John H., and Margaret M. Wrenn. Edgar Lee Masters. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A standard biography in the Twayne series, which also includes critical evaluation of his works and a good bibliography.

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Critical Essays