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Spoon River Anthology

By: Edgar Lee Masters

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Two hundred and twelve residents of a small town tell their stories without fear of recrimination or ridicule. The only difference is that they're all dead! The two hundred and forty-four poems that form the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters is really a series of epitaphs about the citizens of a fictional town called Spoon River and deals with the “plain and simple annals” of small town America. Edgar Lee Masters grew up in a small town in Illinois. His father's financial problems forced the young Masters to abandon ideas of college and take up a job instead. Though he continued to study privately, he was compelled to work on a series of dull and uninspiring jobs. Finally, he completed his education in law and set up a law practice in Chicago. His firm did extremely well. For nearly a decade, one of his partners was the legendary lawyer, Clarence Darrow. However, Masters secretly nursed literary ambitions and his first book of verse and several essays were published under the pseudonym of Dexter Wallace. He initially considered writing a novel about his early experiences, but soon gave up the idea. From 1914, he began publishing a series of poems based on his experiences in Lewistown, Illinois, where he spent his childhood. These were published in a St Louis magazine, under another fictitious name, Webster Ford. Finally, in 1915, the entire collection was compiled into a single volume entitled the Spoon River Anthology. In 1930, Masters wrote The Genesis of Spoon River, in which he describes the book's background, its concerns, the conditions in which he wrote and also how it was received by readers. This autobiographical companion piece provides wonderful insight into the workings of the creative mind and is itself a document of great human interest. It allows the reader to have a glimpse of the great humane thinker and compassionate mind that created the Spoon River Anthology. The book was an instant bestseller and found an immediate echo in the hearts of millions of readers from small rural towns and remote little settlements all over America. The poems provide a rare and unconventional view of small town life and shatter quite a few myths that romanticize such an existence. The poems are in free style and the brilliant imagery and evocative turns of phrase make each one of them memorable. Another interesting thing about Spoon River Anthology is that the poems are like separate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and the reader can put events together to make up the larger picture. Though Masters wrote several more poems, novels and biographies, none became so popular or well-known as the Spoon River Anthology.

The first poem serves as an introduction:

"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.

Each following poem is an autobiographical epitaph of a dead citizen, delivered by the dead themselves. Characters include Tom Merritt, Amos Sibley, Carl Hamblin, Fiddler Jones and A.D. Blood. They speak about the sorts of things one might expect: Some recite their histories and turning points, others make observations of life from the outside, and petty ones complain of the treatment of their graves, while few tell how they really died. The subject of afterlife receives only the occasional brief mention, and even those seem to be contradictory. Speaking without reason to lie or fear the consequences, they construct a picture of life in their town that is shorn of façades. The interplay of various villagers — such as a bright and successful man crediting his parents for all he's accomplished, and an old woman weeping because he is secretly her illegitimate child — forms a gripping, if not pretty, whole.


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Edgar Lee Masters

United States

Edgar Lee Masters was an American attorney, poet, biographer, and dramatist. He is the author of Spoon River Anthology, The New Star Chamber and Other Essays, Songs and Satires, The Great Valley, The...

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