May 29, 2014

Masters and Spoon River: sleeping on the hill

Reedy's Mirror for May 29, 1914 published the first installment of a series by "Webster Ford," a pseudonym of Edgar Lee Masters. The series, later collected as a book, was known as Spoon River Anthology. The title was the fictional name for a town Masters based compositely on Petersburg and Lewiston, Illinois, where he had spent his early years. He intended to represent all of humanity through a single town with over 240 residents of that town. In fact, each poem in the collection is spoken from beyond the grave by a different character buried in the town cemetery. The first poem, "The Hill," appropriately introduces the scene (and some of the dead people):

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.

Eight poems were included in the first installment of what he elsewhere termed "rampant yokelisms." Masters was unsure of their merit but the publisher/editor, William Marion Reedy, immediately knew they would be valued. Reedy had been pestering Masters to write something other than his old-fashioned, Greek-inspired poems and, particularly, something more American. As Masters recorded, the editor told him, "damn it man you're not Doric, you're American." The Spoon River Anthology, which was published as a book a year later, was really the only significant literary success for the Kansas-born Masters.

*Some of the information in this post was gleaned from Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography (2005) by Herbert K. Russell.

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