Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

To understand fully what Masters hoped to achieve in Spoon River Anthology, it is important always to keep one fact in mind: The people speaking are dead. Masters did not offer a picture of a town full of living people, so the careful reader must ask: Why not? Why must these people speak to us from the grave? What does Masters hope to accomplish with this technique? The first answer must have something to do with the liberty the dead have in addressing the living. These people are no longer members of a community in which they must preserve a facade, please a parent, or impress an employer. They have nothing to lose by their honesty. Many upright people in Spoon River admit to having had affairs (Sarah Brown, Willard Fluke, and Doc Hill), to having participated in illegal and immoral acts (the town marshal), to having practiced deception and fraud (Dr. Siegrfied [sic] Iseman), and to engaging in secret and shameful corruption (Deacon Taylor is a prohibitionist who dies of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver). Death frees them to show the reader the reality of their lives and their emotions. With this freedom, the audience is granted a visceral and moving portrait of how members of the human family can and do treat one another, how they really behave, what truly motivates them.

The fact that all the speakers in Spoon River Anthology are dead leads one to consider Masters’ thematic preoccupation. There are several positive and strong declarations in this collection. Lucinda Matlock, for example, describes her life as full and lusty, claiming that “Life is too strong” for most people; “It takes life to love Life.” Even the village atheist is filled with spiritual energy: “Coughing myself to death/ I read the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus./ And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition.” Despite these declarations, however, Masters seems to emphasize the vanity of human aspirations. No matter who people are, no matter how great they feel themselves to be, they find themselves at the end of their lives, “sleeping on the hill”—beggars, thieves, judges, harlots, teachers, philosophers, visionaries, and cynics—all are brothers and sisters in death, all are dust in the end.

Masters’ world view seems, then, heavily naturalistic—that is, characterized by a sense that one’s fate is determined more by biology, material circumstance, external forces, than by human will or desire. Even when the inhabitants of Spoon River have strong desires (such as Harry Wilmans’ naïve patriotic desire to go to Manila to fight for his country or Seth Compton’s desire to provide books and knowledge for the residents of this town), they are destroyed by these desires. It is almost as if—in Masters’ view—desire is destined to become disease or compulsion. Moreover, the citizens of Spoon River seem, frequently, to be slaves to their desires. Eugenia Todd compares human love and ambition to “an old tooth a pain in the side, or a malignant growth,” implying that the souls’ desires are nothing more than manifestations of some biology beyond conscious control; and Judge Selah Lively attributes his ambition to become a successful professional to the fact that he “stood just five feet two” and that people “jeered” at his size. The human spirit seems quite impoverished in Masters’ view, and traditional religion offers little comfort. Henry Phipps tells the reader that he lived his whole life “made white/ With the paint of the Christian creed” only to lose all, ironically, by an act of God.

Even human love and the family seem hopeless. Herbert Marshall tells the reader that the tragedy of human life is that people must love, people need to love, but the ones who people love usually do not return the affection: “This is life’s sorrow:/ That one can be happy only where two are;/ And that our hearts are drawn to stars/ Which want us not.” In fact, there is one hopeless love after another in Spoon River...

(The entire section is 1,088 words.)