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!”
(The entire section is 1318 words.)