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Picture of Edgar Lee Masters, author of Spoon River Anthology; novelist and short story writer; twentieth century American Literature


 
May 29, 1914
Edgar Lee Masters   (1869 - 1950)
 
Masters and Spoon River
 
by Steve King

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On 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:
    The ideas of Ibsen, of Shaw, of the Irish Theater, of advancing science, of a re-arisen liberty were blossoming everywhere, and nowhere more than in Chicago, where vitality and youth, almost abandoned in its assertion of freedom and delight, streamed along Michigan Avenue carrying the new books under their arms, or congregated at Bohemian restaurants to talk poetry and the drama. All this came to my eyes as though I had been confined in darkness and had suddenly come into the sunlight.
Into this springtime came Masters' mother, for a visit. They reminisced about the old days in Lewiston and Petersburg, Illinois, "bringing up characters and events that had passed from my mind," tracing their neighbors "to their final fates, to the positions in life that they were then in." On the morning his mother left, Masters went home and wrote "The Hill" and the first prose-poems of those who would speak out from their graves there:
    ...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.

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