Spoon River Anthology Summary

In Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters collects 246 poems ("epitaphs"), each written from the point of view of a deceased citizen of Spoon River. Each citizen has his or her unique view of the world, and the epitaphs they deliver collectively form a narrative of their small town.

  • The collection opens with a poem titled "The Hill," in which a cemetery speaks about the villagers buried on its grassy hill.

  • Some of the characters in the collection include: Mr. Painter, the lawyer; Mr. Trainor, the druggist; the self-righteous Judge Somers; and the drunkard, Chase Henry, who has been gifted an expensive tombstone, much to his amusement.

  • Many epitaphs refer to previous poems, giving the reader the the sense that Spoon River was a small community in which the lives of its residents were deeply intertwined.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)
Spoon River Anthology cover image

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.

Spoon River Anthology Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Edgar Lee Masters is a rarity among writers: He established his reputation on the basis of one work, Spoon River Anthology. Masters was a prolific writer, producing many volumes of verse, several plays, an autobiography, several biographies, essays, novels, and an attempt to recapture his great success in a sequel, The New Spoon River. Except for a handful of individual poems from the other volumes, however, he will be remembered as the re-creator of a small midwestern town that he calls Spoon River. Spoon River is probably Lewiston, Illinois, where he studied law in his father’s office and practiced for a year before moving on to Chicago.

In form and style, Spoon River Anthology is not a work that sprang wholly out of Masters’s imagination; it is modeled on The Greek Anthology (dating from the seventh century b.c.e.), and the style of the character sketches owes a considerable debt to the English poet Robert Browning. Masters wrote his book with such an effortless brilliance and freshness that nearly a century after its first publication it retains a startling inevitability, as if this were the best and the only way to present people in poetry. From their graveyard on the hill, Masters lets more than two hundred of the dead citizens of Spoon River tell the truth about themselves, each person writing what might be his or her own epitaph. The secrets they reveal are sometimes shocking—stories of intrigue, corruption, frustration, adultery. On the other hand, the speakers tell their stories with a calmness and a simplicity that induce a sense of calmness and simplicity in the reader. As a result of its frankness, Spoon River Anthology provoked protest from readers who felt that the book presents too sordid a picture of American small-town life. While many of the poems are interrelated and a certain amount of suspense is created by having one character mention a person or incident to be further developed, the anthology is not centered on a unifying theme. About the closest approach to such a theme is the tragic failure of the town’s bank, chiefly attributed to Thomas Rhodes, its president, and his son Ralph, who confesses from the grave:

All they said was true:I wrecked my father’s bank with my loansTo dabble in wheat; but this was true—I was buying wheat for him as well,Who couldn’t margin the deal in his nameBecause of his church relationship.

Many people suffer from the bank’s collapse, including the cashier, who has the blame placed on him and serves a term in prison; but a far more corroding effect is the cynicism generated in the citizens when they find that their leaders, the “stalwarts,” are weak and culpable.

Masters pictures many vivid characters in Spoon River Anthology. They range from Daisy Fraser, the town harlot, who “Never was taken before Justice Arnett/ Without contributing ten dollars and costs/ To the school fund of Spoon River!”

to Lucinda Matlock, who

Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,And many a flower and medicinal weed—Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the  green valleys.At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,And passed to a sweet repose.

Others are the town physicians, Doc Hill and Doc Myers, both of whose lives are scarred; Petit, the Poet, whose “faint iambics” rattle on “while Homer and Whitman roared in the pines”; Ann Rutledge, from whose dead bosom the Republic blooms forever; Russian Sonia, a dancer who meets old Patrick Hummer, of Spoon River, and goes back with him to the town, where the couple live twenty years in unmarried content; and Chase Henry, the town drunkard, a Catholic who is denied burial in consecrated ground but who wins some measure of honor when the Protestants acquire the land where he is buried and inter banker Nicholas and wife beside the old reprobate.

Spoon River Anthology is weighted so heavily on the sordid side—abortions, suicides, adulteries—that the more cheerful and “normal” epitaphs come almost as a relief. Lucinda and Ann fit this category; others are Hare Drummer, who delights in the memory of a happy childhood; Conrad Siever, content in his grave under an apple tree he planted, pruned, and tended; and Fiddler Jones, who never can stick to farming and who ends up with “a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,/ And not a single regret.”

One especially effective device that Masters makes use of in his collection is the pairing of poems so that the reader gets a startling jolt of irony. For example, Elsa Wertman, a peasant woman from Germany, confesses that her employer, Thomas Greene, fathered her child and then raised it as his and Mrs. Greene’s. In the next poem, Hamilton, the son, attributes his great success as a politician to the “honorable blood” he inherits from Mr. and Mrs. Greene. There is also Roscoe Purkapile, who runs away from his wife for a year, telling her when he comes back that he was captured by pirates while he was rowing a boat on Lake Michigan. After he tells her the story, “She cried and kissed me, and said it was cruel,/ Outrageous, inhuman!” When Mrs. Purkapile has her say in the next poem, she makes it known that she is not taken in by his cock-and-bull story, that she knows he was trysting in the city with Mrs. Williams, the milliner, and that she refuses to be drawn into a divorce by a husband “who had merely grown tired of his marital vow and duty.”

Masters displays an amazing variety of effects in these short poems. His use of free verse undoubtedly helps to achieve this variety, for a stricter form or forms might make the poems seem too pat, too artificial. Sometimes Masters lets his characters’ only remembrance of life be a simple, vivid description, as when Bert Kessler tells how he met his death. Out hunting one day, Bert kills a quail, and when he reaches down by a stump to pick it up, he feels something sting his hand, like the prick of a brier: “And then, in a second, I spied the rattler—/ The shutters wide in his yellow eyes . . ./ I stood like a stone as he shrank and uncoiled/ And started to crawl beneath the stump,/ When I fell limp in the grass.”

Bert tells of his death without comment, but when Harry Williams describes how he was deluded into joining the army to fight in the Spanish-American War, in which he is killed, the poem is full of bitterness, horror, and brutal irony.

To say that every poem in this volume is successful would be as foolish as to contend that each entry in William Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is a masterpiece. Masters frequently strains for an effect; for instance, “Sexsmith the Dentist” seems to have been created so that Sexsmith may remark, at the end, that what people consider truth may be a hollow tooth “which must be propped with gold”; and Mrs. Kessler, a washerwoman, is probably included so that she might observe that the face of a dead person always looks to her “like something washed and ironed.” There are other poems in which the speakers do not, so to speak, come alive. One suspects that the poet wrote a number of philosophical lyrics, some of them marred by clichés and cloying rhetoric, and then titled them with names selected at random.

In the main, however, Masters does a remarkable job in Spoon River Anthology. Anyone may recognize in these poems the people one sees every day, and, though one may not like to admit it, when these people die they may carry to the grave secrets as startling as those revealed by many of the dead of Spoon River.