Last reviewed: June 2018
American poet, playwright, biographer, and novelist.
August 23, 1868
March 5, 1950
Melrose Park, Pennsylvania
Edgar Lee Masters was the first major twentieth century writer to emphasize the psychological rather than the sociological in delineating the American character. After years of writing traditional poems on traditional themes inspired particularly by his reading of English Romantic writers, he turned in his early forties to the inhabitants of the towns where he was raised for subject matter. Using The Greek Anthology (a collection of short, epigrammatic Greek poems collated between the first and fourteenth centuries) as his model, and with the encouragement of William Marion Reedy, he produced a landmark in American poetry when his Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915. His attitude was that of the naturalists immediately preceding him; he explored the biological, political, economic, social, and sexual forces at work in a small town, centering his focus on the minds of his characters and emphasizing the sterility in village thought in a society where tradition had broken down. Edgar Lee Masters.
Edgar Lee Masters.
Masters, born in Garnett, Kansas, on August 23, 1868, moved with his family to Illinois when he was one year old. He spent his childhood in Petersburg and his early youth in Lewistown, a small town near the Spoon River. Though his natural interest was literature, his father encouraged him to study law and work in his law office. After a year at Knox College, Masters returned home to follow his father’s wishes. He started to write, and by his middle twenties he had had verses printed in Chicago papers and had done general newspaper work. After he was admitted to the bar he moved to Chicago, where, within twenty years, he achieved financial affluence and social position as a lawyer. During this time he wrote and published undistinguished verse and verse plays. In addition, he was active in politics, supporting William Jennings Bryan and John Peter Altgeld and serving as the president of the Jefferson Club of Chicago. He came to know writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Carl Sandburg. With the sudden emergence of new literary interest in Chicago in the second decade of the twentieth century he joined the group supporting the new magazinePoetry and received encouragement from such poets as John Masefield, Amy Lowell, and Vachel Lindsay.
The first group of poems to become a part of the Spoon River Anthology appeared on May 29, 1914, in Reedy’s Mirror. Epitaphs written by dead townspeople who were presumably telling the truth at last, the poems were a sardonic comment on the mental aberrations and spiritual poverties in a single town. When the book itself appeared it met with violent attacks but sold well. In 1916 Masters received Poetry’s Levinson Prize.
Masters became ill at this time, emotionally exhausted from the creation and defense of more than two hundred poems of the same type. The war had replaced other interests as the center of everyone’s world, and he went back to his earlier rhetorical style, in many instances reworking former pieces. During the next two decades he produced a series of novels, biographies, plays, histories, and poetry. Among these was a sequel to his most famous book, The New Spoon River (1924). He was never able to produce an equal to his masterwork, though he revealed in everything he wrote a searching for deep inner truth. Few people noticed that he also wrote of the beauty in life, Spoon River having bracketed him in their minds. Disillusioned and broken in health, he died at Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, on March 5, 1950.