Spoon River Anthology

From The Poetry Foundation:

Edgar Lee Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas, and he grew up in the small towns of Lewistown and Petersburg, Illinois. The author of 40 books of poetry and prose, Masters is best remembered for his great collection Spoon River Anthology (1915), a sequence of over 200 free-verse epitaphs spoken from the cemetery of the town of Spoon River. His honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship.

When Spoon River Anthology first saw publication in 1915, it caused a great sensation because of its forthrightness about sex, moral decay, and hypocrisy; but its cynical view of Midwestern small town values influenced a whole generation of writers and their works. “The volume,” said Herbert K. Russell in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, “became an international popular and critical success and introduced with a flourish what has since come to be known as the Chicago Renaissance”—a group of writers, including Masters, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Theodore Dreiser, who disproved the notion held at the time that only on the East coast of the US were there writers capable of producing great literature. “It is safe to say,” declared Ernest Earnest in Western Humanities Review, “that no other volume of poetry except The Waste Land (1922) made such an impact during the first quarter of [the 20th] century.”

Masters was firmly rooted in the Midwestern society he both praised and criticized in Spoon River Anthology. The central Illinois area in which he grew up was especially revered for its historic association with Abraham Lincoln; Russell commented that Masters’ “hometown of Petersburg was but two miles from Lincoln’s New Salem; he knew personally William Herndon (Lincoln’s law partner), the Armstrong family (one of whom Lincoln had defended), and John McNamar (the man who jilted Ann Rutledge before her story became entwined with Lincoln’s).”

. . . .

Masters himself was trained for the law—he practiced as an attorney in Chicago for nearly 30 years, and for several years he was the law partner of Clarence Darrow, the lawyer later to become famous as the counsel for the defense at the 1925 Scopes trial—although he had long harbored literary ambitions. Using a variety of pseudonyms to avoid possible damage to his law practice, Masters began to publish poetry in magazines. By 1915 he had published four books of poetry, seven plays, and a collection of essays, but none of them had received much critical attention. Then, following the advice of Reedy’s Mirror publisher William Marion Reedy, Masters began to experiment with poetic form, bringing to life the sort of people he had known in his boyhood. The result was Spoon River Anthology, which mixed classical forms with innovative ones. It followed the example of the Greek Anthology, a collection of some 4500 Greek poems written between about 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D. Many of these poems, like those in Spoon River, took the form of epigrams—laconic sayings that harbor (or seem to harbor) a truth—and others were expressed as confessional epitaphs, in which the dead commented on their lives. Unlike the ancient Greeks, however, Masters made his dead recite their speeches in free verse.

Link to the rest at The Poetry Foundation

By coincidence, PG met Masters’ daughter, who was a older woman, when he was a sprout in college. She was a friend of PG’s favorite professor.

Here’s the introductory poem from Spoon River Anthology. As mentioned, Spoon River’s cemetery is on The Hill. (PG tip – If you read it out loud, you may get a better sense of the poem.)

The Hill

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife —
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one? —
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire,
One after life in far-away London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag —
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked
With venerable men of the revolution? —
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying —
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where is Old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.

The Hill via The Poetry Foundation