Memoirs often are published because they have been written by someone famous or by someone related to a famous person. Hilary Masters, while not famous, is known for The Common Pasture (1967), An American Marriage (1969), and Palace of Strangers (1971). He also is the son of Edgar Lee Masters, who attained his place in American literature with Spoon River Anthology (1915). Masters’ memoir, however, is not dominated by himself or by his famous father. As the younger Masters writes, “It’s not about me, but about how I was used by my grandparents and parents as a hollow log in which they left messages for each other. . . .” While Last Stands does contain many elements of the conventional memoir, it must be seen in its own unique perspective.
While Masters’ style appears plain and rather plodding, it is the structure of Masters’ memoir that holds the most interest for the reader, a structure that is uniquely analogous to the lives he is describing. Young Hilary’s life was divided between the Midwest and the East. He spent the school year in Kansas City with his grandparents so that his mother might pursue her studies toward a teaching career, and he spent his summers in the East, sometimes with his father, sometimes with his mother, sometimes with both. Consequently, Hilary and his mother made many trips back and forth across the country. Very early, he establishes that the pattern of his memoir was inspired by the pattern of his life. Back and forth is the way Masters tells his story. He goes from grandfather to mother to father to grandmother to grandfather, back and forth, from one to the other, from one time to another, from one place to another, and from one event to another. Masters does provide points of reference along the way, such as his age at a particular time in the narrative or the particular year it is, but his mind takes abrupt leaps from early boyhood days and memories to the last days of his grandfather, his grandmother, and his father, and the later life of his mother.
The title, Last Stands, alludes to Custer’s Last Stand, playing on Grandfather Thomas F. Coyne’s cavalry days at Fort Custer. In extending stand to the plural stands, Masters lends the title multiple implications, as the memoir deals with the last years of each of the four persons with whom Masters’ life was so entwined.
Masters begins the memoir with the funeral of his beloved grandfather, known as Gee Gee, in Arlington Cemetery in 1954. In the next pages, he relives scenes of childhood in which he sits on Gee Gee’s bed while his grandfather performs his nightly cleansing rituals in water a few degrees below boiling to accommodate the lingering symptoms of yellow fever and malaria. Hilary listened as Gee Gee told him stories of his cavalry days, of fighting the Indians, and of his life as a railroad builder in central America after he left the Army.
Later, Masters shifts to the funeral in Petersburg of his father whose death occurred four years prior to that of his grandfather. With such dramatic shifts, Masters reveals the peculiar character of not only the people themselves but also of their interaction with one another and with Masters himself.
Gee Gee is a fiery, strong, and exceptionally stubborn man who relives his past through the stories he tells Hilary and by a pilgrimage he makes in 1932 to Fort Custer. As an Irish immigrant, Gee Gee joined the United States Army illegally and did not attain his United States citizenship until 1885, through a civil court in Kansas City. As Hilary talks with him in the soldiers’ home, Gee Gee bemoans the fact that he is one of the last men still alive from the days he holds dearest, the only survivor of the Indian Wars still living in the home. He awakens every morning hoping that death will come soon. He had tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists in the lavatory, but he was discovered and was taken to the hospital where he recovered from the suicide attempt but fell victim to pneumonia. His act of despair led Hilary’s mother, Ellen Masters, to obtain permission for him to be buried in Arlington Cemetery, thereby honoring his wishes. He was laid to rest on a hill to the firing of the six-gun salute and taps. As the flag that covered his coffin was presented to Ellen, she nodded toward Hilary, and he received the honor.
Masters describes his father in brief phrases that reveal a man of great talent and great complexity. He was a successful lawyer and a secret poet, a devoted family man and a womanizer, a man of property...
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