Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography by Herbert K. Russell

Start Your Free Trial

Download Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although Edgar Lee Masters was both a very prolific writer and a successful Chicago lawyer, many important details of his long life have remained unknown until the publication of Herbert K. Russell’s excellent biography. Edgar Lee Masters was an egotistical and vain person who had numerous affairs during both of his failed marriages and never tried to meet the emotional needs of his two wives and his four children. In addition, he treated with contempt publishers and critics who pointed out the very real weaknesses in all of his books with the notable exception of his sole masterpiece, his 1916 Spoon River Anthology. His 1923 divorce from Helen Masters was especially bitter, and his harsh and unjust criticism of his first wife permanently alienated Edgar Lee Masters from the three children of the marriage, Marcia, Madeline, and Hardin. When, as an old man, Hardin Masters wrote his biography of his father in 1978, fifty-five years after the divorce and twenty-eight years his father’s death, he argued that his father had been an insensitive and selfish man who had, nevertheless, written one masterpiece. Hardin Masters tried to write an objective biography, but he was unable to do so for two major reasons. First of all, his sisters, who were then still living, refused to share with him their mother’s diary and her papers, which contained important information on the especially stormy marriage of their parents. Second, Hardin was still angry with his father for his failure as a father and husband. In Hardin’s opinion, Edgar Lee Masters had created psychological and emotional problems for his wife and children, which would never had existed had Edgar Lee Masters remained faithful to his marriage vows. The very title of Hardin Masters’s book, A Biographical Sketchbook About a Famous American Author, strongly suggests that his book is not about his relationship with his father. Despite his best efforts, Hardin Masters could not maintain the critical distance required for an objective biography.

Herbert Russell realized that Hardin Masters’s biography and Edgar Lee Masters’s self-serving 1936 autobiography, Across Spoon River, were not reliable sources of information because both books lacked objectivity. Hardin Masters depicted his father in a very negative light, while Edgar Lee Masters attempted to blame Helen Masters for their divorce and accepted no responsibility for his libertine lifestyle. It seemed that it would be impossible for anyone to produce an accurate biography of Edgar Lee Masters, but the situation changed in the 1980’s. After Edgar Lee Masters’s death in 1950, his personal papers and manuscripts were in the possession of his two wives, and neither woman allowed others to consult these papers. Helen Masters died in 1958, and almost thirty years later, her two daughters finally decided to allow access to the papers and manuscripts once in their mother’s possession. At approximately the same time, Ellen Masters authorized her son Hilary to make available to scholars the papers and manuscripts then in her possession. He agreed with his half sisters that scholars should be able to consult these documents. Eventually, the library at the University of Texas, Austin, acquired almost all the Edgar Lee Masters papers from his children. With the approval of Marcia, Madeline, and Hilary, Herbert Russell began work on this biography, relying extensively on the manuscripts and papers in the University of Texas library.

Russell’s biography is very balanced. He achieves an objectivity that was totally lacking in both Hardin Masters’s biography and Edgar Lee Masters’s autobiography. Russell portrays Masters with sympathy and understanding, but he does not hide from his readers the clear fact that Masters was a flawed and inflexible person. He describes Masters’s long life from his birth in Kansas, his childhood in the Illinois towns of Lewistown and Petersburg, his law practice in Chicago from 1892 until the...

(The entire section is 1,764 words.)