Perhaps Edgar Lee Masters was a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was, SRA being one of the most idiosyncratic (one might say even accidental) masterpieces in any country’s literature. I believe I first came across it on a summer reading list sent to me by my high school and it immediately became one of my go to books which I read on a least an annual basis.
It seems Masters (a lawyer by trade who once worked with Clarence Darrow but who had already had several books published at the beginning of a very prolific literary career), had just finished reading the Greek Anthology, a collection of some 4500 Greek poems written between about 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D., many of which took the form of epigrams-laconic sayings that may or may not harbor a kernel of truth, while others were expressed as confessional epitaphs, in which the dead commented on their lives from beyond the grave. Shortly after reading it, Masters, experimenting with free verse, penned some of his own using them as a model and sent them off to Editor Reedy of “Reedy’s Mirror”, a literary magazine published in St. Louis, mostly as a lark, and Reedy liked them so much he asked for more. The poems were serialized there in 1914 under the pseudonym Webster Ford for fear of damaging Masters’s law practice, his real identity being revealed later that year by Reedy.
When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, it shattered the myth of small-town America as the bastion of American virtue. Meant to be read as a novel, the reader is required to piece together narratives from single lines and fragments contained in 244 individual poems. In his thinly veiled fictional town of Spoon River, situated in central Illinois near Lewistown, where Masters grew up, the honest, hardworking, chaste, and churchgoing live amidst corrupt bankers, abusive husbands, unfulfilled wives, sexual deviants, and failed dreamers, freed from the shackles of life by death, who “sleep beneath these weeds” confess their deepest secrets, disappointments, frustrations, joys, and warnings to the living in the form of brutally honest free verse poems. The poems are remarkable for the breadth of personalities and the honesty with which they speak. When his book first came out, Masters’ own mother, who was on the library board, voted to ban it. He was exposing family secrets; people were much more private then, and they didn’t want everybody to know their business even though in a small town everybody already knew it. Dubbed a sort of “Peyton Place” of its time, it was unofficially banned for over a half-century in his hometown. It wasn’t that people weren’t reading it- they most certainly were, they just wouldn’t admit or dare talk about it.
Championed early on by Ezra Pound (who wrote “At last the American West has produced a poet . . . ” ) and fellow Illinoisian Carl Sandburg, it was an international best-seller, reported to have sold 80,000 copies in four years, unheard of for a book of poetry. “No volume of poetry since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had attempted so much or had been so original,” says John Hallwas, who edited and annotated the 1993 version published by the University of Illinois Press, which I highly recommend, but only after you have familiarized yourself with the book.
The book went on to influence American masterpieces like Sherwood Anderson’s book of interlocking short stories about a small town, Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’ novels Main Street and Babbitt, and the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The work continues to stay relevant for its treatment of the human condition Hallwas also says. Although unknown by the general public, and certainly not taught in schools, it has never been out of print, has been adapted for stage and screen, taught in acting classes, translated into numerous languages, and phrases from one of the poems entitled “Alexander Throckmorton” were quoted by Pope Francis during his recent visit to America.
In contemporary culture another fellow Illinoisian, the late folksinger songwriter Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans” being his most well known song) has a song on his first album entitled “Spoon River,” obviously influenced by the book, though set in the Civil War time period, and more nostalgic; Richard Buckner, another admired folksinger songwriter made an entire album using some of the poems set to music, entitled appropriately, “The Hill” (after the prefatory poem), both well worth checking out.
I leave you with this, spoken by my favorite Spoon River denizen, Fiddler Jones:
THE EARTH keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret”.