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Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950)


American poet and novelist, best-known as the author of Spoon River Anthology (1915), a series of 'auto-epitaphs' or monologues in free verse, which often contradicted the pious and optimistic epitaphs written on the gravestones. The book gained Masters a large following and set him in the vanguard of the Chicago literary renaissance.

"Life all around me here in the village:
Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,
Courage, constancy, heroism, failure –
All in the loom, and oh what patterns!"

('Petit, the Poet,' from Spoon River Anthology)

Edgar Lee Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas. In 1880 his family settled at Lewistown, Illinois, near Spoon River, where Masters grew up on his grandfather's farm, surrounded by streams. Later Masters blaimed the Sangamon River and its unhealthy climate for the death of his brother Alex, who died of diphtheria at the age of five. Lewistown and Petersburg became models for the scene of his poems in Spoon River Anthology. Masters's father, Hardin, was a lawyer, and did not encourage his son's literary aspirations, refusing to support studies in this field.

Masters attended Knox College, known for its conservatism, and in 1891 he was admitted to the bar. After practicing law with his father for a year, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a lawyer for nearly thirty years. As a result of a boyhood case of pneumonia, Masters had always been weak in the lungs, and in 1915 he contracted pneumonia through overwork. His legal clients started to decrease partly because his revealing poems about bigotry and liaisons in Spoon River stirred controversy.

During the years in Chicago Masters married and began writing verse pseudonymously for newspapers. His first wife, Helen M. Jenkins, was the daughter of a Chicago lawyer. After resigning from Clarence Darrow's law firm Masters established his own law firm, remaining an attorney until 1920. Masters claimed that Darrow never paid him his share of the famous Haywood Case, a murder trial in 1907. Noteworthy, in his autobiography, Across Spoon River (1939) Masters never mentions Darrow, who represented his wife during the writer’s divorce.

As a poet Masters made his debut already in 1898 with A Book of Verses. It was followed by Maximilian (1902), a drama in blank verse, The New Star Chamber (1904), a collection of essays, Blood of the Prophets (1905), and two plays, Althea (1907) and The Broad of Idleness (1911). His friends included Harriet Monroe, editor of the Poetry magazine, Carl Sandburg, whom he came to regard as a literary rival, Vachel Lindsay, and other member of the so-called Chicago Group. This circle meant much to Masters, whose literary achievements had been scorned in Lewistown.

In 1909 Masters was introduced to Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, given him by Marion Reedy, editor of Reedy's Mirror of St. Louis. This inspired Masters' most famous work, Spoon River Anthology, a collection of realistic and sometimes cynical epitaphs spoken by about 250 persons buried in the graveyard of a village in the Middle West. "You will die, nodoubt, but die while living / In depths of azure, rapt and mated, / Kissing the queen-bee, Life!" Original idea for the book came from his mother, Emma Dexter, the daughter of a New England Methodist minister, with whom he discussed people they used to know in the villages. The work first appeared anonymously in Reedy's Mirror in 1914 and 1915, and was then published anonymously in book form. A noteworthy exception among the graveyard monologues is the poem 'Theodor the Poet,' about Masters' friend Theodore Dreiser. A sequel, The New Spoon River, came out in 1924, but it was less successful. Spoon River was Masters' revenge on small-town hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. It gained a huge popularity, but shattered his position as a respectable member of establishment.

Before the appearance of his most famous work, Masters had a serious extramarital affair with the artist Tennessee Mitchell, who married the novelist Sherwood Anderson in 1916. Tennessee, the "Deidre" of his autobiography, had a distinctive nose and a prominent smile. The relationship lasted from 1909 to 1911. When his wife did not grant him a divorce, Masters left his family and sailed in 1921 to Europe. While in Paris, he met the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, dined with her, went to the Folies Bergere, and had according to his diary an "amorous interlude." In Vatican he had an audience with the pope and he visited the graves of Keats and Shelley.

The height of the Chicago renaissance was passed, and Masters considered impossible to return back to his home town. He moved to New York, and after the divorce was settled, Masters remarried in 1926. His wife, Ellen Coyne Masters, was much younger; her father was an immigrant from Ireland, who had joined the U.S. Cavalry and patrolled Wyoming and Montana in the 1880's. Before marrying Ellen, Masters had an affair with a thirty-eight-year-old amateur poet, whom he called in his autobiography "Idothea." She was thin, had a prominent nose and suffered from a mysterious lower-back pain.  Ellen Masters pursued her own career as a teacher while her husband retired to the Chelsea Hotel to write. The colorful hotel on 222 West Twenty-third Street has also attracted such writers as Mark Twain, O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Arthur C. Clarke, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsburg.

Besides poems Masters published biographies of Vachel Lindsay, who was his friend and fellow poet, Mark Twain, whom he depicted a frustrated genius, and Walt Whitman. His sharply critical study of the Civil War president Abraham Lincoln (1931), an attempt to destroy the "Lincoln myth," was the only one of his later books to gain a wider attention.

"Sometimes, I would see him read one of his own poems or pieces of prose over and over, as if to discover how they had been written." (Hilary Masters on his father in Last Stands, 1982)

Though Masters continued to publish volumes of verse almost yearly, the quality of his work never reached the level of his masterpiece. In 1943 he was overtaken by pneumonia and malnutrition. For the last years of his life, Masters was in poor heath. Reportedly the actor Peter Lorre wanted to assist the author by purchasing the movie rights to The Spoon River Anthology. Also Bertolt Brecht expressed in the 1940s interest in bringing the work to the screen. Ferdinand Reyher, a novelist, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, who knew the author, set up a meeting to discuss the project, which never realized. Masters died in a Philadelphia nursing home on March 5, 1950. He left nothing of value except his copyright to Spoon River and his papers. Masters's son from his second marriage, Hilary Masters, published in 1982 a portrait of his father under the title Last Stands.

For further reading: Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography by Herbert K. Russell (2001); Last Stands: Notes from Memory by Hilary Masters (1982); Beyond Spoon River: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters by Ronald Primeau (1981); Edgar Lee Masters by John H. Wrenn, Margaret Wrenn (1983); Edgar Lee Masters by Hardin Wallace Masters (1978); Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and His Critics by John Theodore Flanagan (1974) - Chicago Group (from about 1912 to about 1925): the term is variously used to include such writers as H.B. Fuller, Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg. Other depictions of small-town life: Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919); Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920), Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938)

Selected works:

  • A Book of Verses, 1898
  • The Constitution and Our Insular Possessions..., 1900(?)
  • Maximilian: A Play in Five Acts, 1902
  • The New Star Chamber and Other Essays, 1904
  • The Blood of the Prophets, 1905 (as Dexter Wallace)
  • Althea: A Play, 1907
  • The Trifler: A Play, 1908
  • The Leaves of the Tree: A Play, 1909
  • Songs and Sonnets, 1910
  • The Locket: A Play in Three Acts, 1910
  • Eileen: A Play in Three Acts, 1910
  • The Tread of Idlemess: A Play in Four Acts, 1911
  • Songs and Sonnets, Second Series, 1912
  • Spoon River Anthology, 1915
    - TV film 1966: Spoon River -antologia, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. Kalervo Nissilä, Seppo Wallin, adaptation by Charles Aidman, starring Mauri Heikkilä, Eeva Kantanen, Esko Pesonen, Sirkka-Liisa Rannikko, Tamara Lund, Markku Riikonen
    - Spoon River antologia (suom. Arvo Turtiainen, 1947)
  • Songs and Satires, 1916
  • Fiddler Jones, 1916
  • The Great Valley, 1916
  • Toward the Gulf, 1918
  • Starved Rock, 1919
  • Jack Kelso: A Dramatic Poem, 1920
  • Mitch Miller, 1920 (illustrations by John Sloan)
  • Domesday Book, 1920
  • The Open Sea, 1921
  • Children of the Market Place, 1922
  • Skeeters Kirby: A Novel, 1923
  • The Nuptial Flight, 1923
  • The New Spoon River, 1924
  • Mirage, 1924
  • Selected Poems, 1925
  • Lee: A Dramatic Poem, 1926
  • Kit O'Brien, 1927
  • Levy Mayer and the New Industrial Era: A Biography, 1927
  • Fate of the Jury, 1929
  • Lichee Nuts, 1930
  • Gettysburg, Manila, Acoma: A Dramatic Poem, 1930
  • Godbey: A Dramatic Poem, 1931 (sequel to Jack Kelso)
  • Lincoln: The Man, 1931
  • The Serpent in the Wilderness, 1933
  • The Tale of Chicago, 1933
  • Dramatic Duologues: Four Short Plays in Verse, 1934
  • Richmond: A Dramatic Poem, 1934
  • Invisible Landscapes, 1935
  • Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America, 1935
  • Poems of People, 1936
  • Across Spoon River: An Autobiography, 1936
  • The Golden Fleece of California, 1936 (wood engravings by Randolph Wardell Johnston)
  • The Tide of Time, 1937
  • Whitman, 1937
  • The New World, 1937
  • Mark Twain: A Portrait, 1938
  • More People, 1939
  • Illinois Poems, 1941
  • The Sangamon, 1942 (illustrated by Lynd Ward)
  • Along the Illinois, 1942
  • Poems, 1972 (selected and introduced by Denys Thompson)
  • The Harmony of Deeper Music: Posthumous Poems of Edgar Lee Masters, 1976 (edited by Frank K. Robinson)
  • The Enduring River: Edgar Lee Masters's Uncollected Spoon River Poems, 1991 (edited by Herbert Russell)

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