Authors: Edgar Lee Masters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet, playwright, biographer, and novelist.

August 23, 1868

Garnett, Kansas

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.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Poetry: A Book of Verses, 1898 The Blood of the Prophets, 1905 (as Dexter Wallace) Songs and Sonnets, 1910 (as Webster Ford) Songs and Sonnets, Second Series, 1912 (as Webster Ford) Spoon River Anthology, 1915 Songs and Satires, 1916 The Great Valley, 1916 Toward the Gulf, 1918 Starved Rock, 1919 Domesday Book, 1920 The Open Sea, 1921 The New Spoon River, 1924 Selected Poems, 1925 The Fate of the Jury: An Epilogue to Domesday Book, 1929 Lichee Nuts, 1930 The Serpent in the Wilderness, 1933 Invisible Landscapes, 1935 The Golden Fleece of California, 1936 Poems of People, 1936 The New World, 1937 More People, 1939 Illinois Poem, 1941 Along the Illinois, 1942 The Harmony of Deeper Music: Posthumous Poems, 1976 The Enduring River: Edgar Lee Masters's Uncollected Spoon River Poems, 1991 Long Fiction: Mitch Miller, 1920 Children of the Market Place, 1922 The Nuptial Flight, 1923 Skeeters Kirby, 1923 Mirage, 1924 Kit O’Brien, 1927 The Tide of Time, 1937 Drama: Maximilian: A Play in Five Acts, 1902 Althea, pb. 1907 The Trifler, pb. 1908 The Leaves of the Tree, pb. 1909 Eileen, pb. 1910 The Locket, pb. 1910 The Bread of Idleness, pb. 1911 Lee: A Dramatic Poem, pb. 1926 Jack Kelso, pb. 1928 Gettysburg, Manila, Acoma, pb. 1930 Godbey, pb. 1931 Dramatic Duologues, pb. 1934 Richmond, pb. 1934 Nonfiction: The New Star Chamber and Other Essays, 1904 Levy Mayer and the New Industrial Era, 1927 Lincoln, the Man, 1931 The Tale of Chicago, 1933 Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America, 1935 Across Spoon River, 1936 Walt Whitman, 1937 Mark Twain, a Portrait, 1938 The Sangamon, 1942 Bibliography Flanagan, John. Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and His Critics. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974. Flanagan describes the reception of Masters’s work by American and European critics and stresses the importance of relatively neglected works by Masters, including his Domesday Book and his biography of Abraham Lincoln. Hallwas, John E., and Dennis J. Reader, eds. The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1976. This volume of essays explores the works of three major poets from Illinois. Edgar Lee Masters practiced law for forty years. Charles Burgess’s essay examines legal arguments in his poetry, and Herb Russell discusses his literary career in the years immediately after the publication of his Spoon River Anthology in 1915. Masters, Hardin Wallace. Edgar Lee Masters: A Biographical Sketchbook About a Famous American Author. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978. This book contains numerous reflections on Edgar Lee Masters by his son. Hardin Masters presents a sympathetic view of his father’s poetry, but he does indicate that Edgar Lee Masters was a vain and often insensitive father and husband. Includes a thorough list of the more than fifty books written by Masters. Primeau, Ronald. Beyond Spoon River: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Primeau makes extensive use of Masters’s 1936 autobiography Across Spoon River in order to demonstrate the extensive influence of major writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Percy Bysshe Shelley on Masters. Primeau argues persuasively that Masters’s poetry written after his Spoon River Anthology does not merit the relative oblivion into which it has fallen. Russell, Herbert K. Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. The first book-length biography of Masters, with bibliographical references and an index. Vatron, Michael. America’s Literary Revolt. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. Vatron proposes that we read the poetry of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg as expressions of “political Populism.” Although this interpretation is somewhat forced, it does remind us of the historical and political context in which their poetry was written. Wrenn, John H., and Margaret M. Wrenn. Edgar Lee Masters. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A standard biography in the Twayne series, which also includes critical evaluation of his works and a good bibliography.

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