October 23, 2017
Masters and Spoon RiverOn this day in 1914 the first installment of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology was published in Marion Reedy's weekly magazine, The Mirror. Over the next six months Masters would write the remainder of his 244 "epitaphs," publishing them in book form in 1916. Both the magazine and book publications carried the pseudonym of "Webster Ford" as protection: Masters was a successful lawyer, and he feared that the backlash from local readers who objected to his unflattering view of life in a Midwest village -- a "degenerated" New World Eden, said one critic -- would ruin him. The book was an instant hit and soon became the best-selling book of American poetry to date; when the author was revealed he was indeed targeted, but the national praise so outdid the local anger that Masters was eventually able to give up legal practice and become a full time writer. Of his fifty books -- poetry, novels, plays, biography -- none would come close to the popularity of Spoon River.
In his 1936 autobiography, Across Spoon River, Masters reflected on "the really glorious year of 1914 that was making all of America happy." Gone were the Republicans and the "puerile imperialism" of Roosevelt; here was Wilson and the New Deal. Masters was forty-three, but feeling younger:
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.
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