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 understand that their views of themselves differ greatly from the opinions held by their fellow villagers. Each rereading of epitaphs helps one to see beyond appearances in order to discover the hidden and complex emotional and social realities in this village.
Spoon River Anthology is certainly not merely a work of historical interest about life in small American towns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These 246 epitaphs express a microcosm of almost any town—be it in the United States or elsewhere—from any century. Successive generations of readers have discovered many different levels of meaning in these poems.
Masters began this book with a powerful poem titled “The Hill.” As its title suggests, this poem is spoken by the cemetery itself, which is located on a hill overlooking the town. The cemetery asks repeatedly “where” certain villagers now are; the answer is not that they are in Heaven. The cemetery repeatedly answers its own question by responding: “All, all are sleeping on the hill.” This eternal “sleep” has brought little consolation to those whose lives were filled with unhappiness. The solitude and loneliness of those “whom life had crushed” have become permanent.
Although the dead speakers in the Spoon River Anthology are extremely diverse in their social backgrounds and personalities, Masters included several similar sets of poems that are spoken by spouses and by other members of the same family. These series of poems show clearly that personality conflicts or an unwillingness to communicate can doom a marriage to failure. Some critics have suggested that Masters was thinking about his own unhappy first marriage or of the profound incompatibility of his parents.
Among the most effective epitaphs spoken by spouses are those by Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Painter. He was a successful but vain lawyer who would have the reader believe that he was the innocent victim of an insensitive wife who forced him to leave their house and to live “in a room back of a dingy office.” Such an explanation, however, is not plausible. Despite divorce or separation, a wealthy lawyer would rarely have to live in such unbecoming quarters. Readers sense that Benjamin Painter is concealing an important fact.
Masters describes Mrs. Painter as a lady “with delicate tastes” who could not stand his alcoholism or crude behavior. Separation was essential for her emotional well-being. Despite their wealth, the Painters were bitterly unhappy and lonely people. Benjamin felt so alienated that he asked to be buried not near other family members but with his dog, Nig, whom he describes as his “constant companion, bed-fellow, comrade in drink.” This lawyer whom most people in Spoon River admired so highly was, in fact, a psychologically unstable man with a serious drinking problem.
Readers come to empathize with his wife, whom the townspeople considered to be a snob. The druggist Trainor expresses a curious assessment of the Painters. He affirms that they were “Good in themselves, but evil toward each other: He oxygen, she hydrogen.” This chemical comparison suggests that the Painters might have attained happiness and inner peace if they had never married each other.
Although the Painters clearly had a disastrous marriage, it would be wrong to conclude that Masters presented a consistently negative view of love and marriage. A very moving epitaph is spoken by a couple named simply “William and Emily.” Their surnames, social class, and professions are irrelevant; they represent any couple whose mutual love matured over the years. Emily and William speak with one voice. Their love for each other began with “the glow of youthful passion” and grew until they both started “to fade away together.” They feel, however, no anger at death. They aged together in mutual love, and it seemed only natural to them that the “fire” of passion and life be extinguished “gradually, faintly, delicately.” Emily and William felt inner peace when it was their turn to leave “the familiar room” of their earthly abode in order to live together for eternity.
The love of which Emily and William speak may refer also to one’s family and to society as a whole. Love of country is a theme frequently treated in the Spoon River Anthology. Masters never confused love of country with admiration for politicians. He was a Populist and consistently questioned the motives of politicians and members of the ruling class. He portrayed the leading figures in Spoon River, such as Mayor Blood, the circuit judge, Judge Somers, and state legislator Adam Weinrauch, as amoral individuals who abused their authority for personal gain by selling their votes or judicial decisions to the highest bidders. These vain men still do not understand why the townspeople held them in such low esteem. While they possessed power they were feared; in death, however, these members of the ruling class have received poetic justice.
The self-righteous Judge Somers is angry because he was buried in an unmarked grave, whereas an impressive marble tombstone was erected over the grave of the town drunkard, Chase Henry, who is amused by this unexpected and undeserved honor. He was a Catholic, but the local Catholic priest would not permit the burial of Henry in consecrated ground. For reasons that Henry has never understood, certain Protestants took umbrage at this decision and decided to honor him with an expensive tombstone. Chase Henry appreciated the irony of this situation. He tells his listeners: “Take note, ye prudent and pious souls,/ Of the cross-currents in life/ Which bring honor to the dead, who lived in shame.” Henry knows that his tombstone, topped with a large urn, means nothing. It was erected by irrational people angered by the priest’s refusal to permit the burial of Chase Henry in a Catholic cemetery.
Another speaker also knows all too well that one should not mistake appearance for reality. Barney Hainsfeather was a Jewish businessman whom the Christians in Spoon River never really accepted as their equal. Because of an absurd error, Barney Hainsfeather is now buried in the Protestant cemetery of Spoon River, whereas the body of John Allen was sent to the Hebrew Cemetery in Chicago. Barney and John both died when the train to Peoria crashed and burned; their bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Barney now finds himself under a tombstone with Christian prayers carved in the marble. He concludes his epitaph with this lament: “It was bad enough to run a clothing store in this town,/ But to be buried here—ach!”
Although Masters had a healthy distrust of those who possessed political power, he did remain an extraordinary idealist. Masters felt that people would become and remain morally upright if they avoided the destructive temptations of power and wealth. He firmly believed that wealth and power would corrupt almost anyone. One could object that Abraham Lincoln governed wisely without compromising his moral principles. Masters would argue that Lincoln was the exception and not the rule among politicians.
Perhaps the most famous epitaph in the Spoon River Anthology is the one spoken by Anne Rutledge, whom Lincoln had loved before his marriage to Mary Todd. In her simplicity and honesty, Anne Rutledge imagines that her altruistic love for Lincoln inspired in him a desire to uphold the ideals of “justice and truth” on which American society is based. In a mysterious but real way her love for Lincoln and his love for humanity made possible “the forgiveness of millions towards millions.” Love alone put an end to the hatred provoked by the American Civil War. Without love, a republic “shining with justice and truth” would have ceased to be meaningful to many citizens. Anne Rutledge ends her epitaph with these eloquent lines:
I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,Wedded to him, not through union,But through separation.Bloom forever, O Republic,From the dust of my bosom!
A mystical and almost religious union connects all those, both great and small, who live their lives so that the republic may flourish for the good of all of its citizens.