Spoon River Anthology Summary
by Edgar Lee Masters

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Spoon River Anthology Summary

Spoon River Anthology is a collection of poems (called "epitaphs") written from the points of view of deceased citizens of a fictional small town.

  • In the first poem, a cemetery speaks about the villagers buried on its grassy hill.

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

  • Many of the poems refer to previous ones, giving the sense that the lives of Spoon River's residents were deeply intertwined.

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 1,398 words.)