Places: Spoon River Anthology

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1915

Type of work: Poetry

Places DiscussedSpoon River

Spoon Spoon River AnthologyRiver. Imaginary midwestern town that is probably loosely based on Lewiston, Illinois, where Masters studied law in his father’s office and practiced for a year before moving to Chicago. Masters’s book is a collection of 243 free verse epitaphs, in which the citizens buried in the Spoon River Cemetery talk about their lives, their failures, their loves, philosophies, triumphs, conflicts, secrets, and crimes. Many of the stories in the collection are related and intertwined, and to read the entire anthology is to experience a panoramic view of human existence and experience, a view filtered through the perspective of a small American town.

Because these people are no longer members of the living community, in which they would have had to preserve facades, please relatives, or impress employers, they have nothing to lose by being honest. Death frees them to show the reader the reality of their lives and their emotions. With this freedom, the audience is granted a visceral and moving portrait of how members of the human family can and do treat one another, how they really behave, what truly motivates them. The secrets Spoon River’s dead inhabitants reveal are sometimes shocking–stories of intrigue, corruption, frustration, adultery. On the other hand, the speakers tell their stories with a calmness and simplicity that induce a similar sense in the reader. Because of its very frankness, the anthology provoked protest from some readers who felt that it presented too sordid a picture of American small-town life.

BibliographyFlanagan, John T. Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and His Critics. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974. Examines critical reaction over several decades and discusses attitudes toward Spoon River Anthology. Evaluates subject matter and poetic form. Includes descriptions of theatrical presentations. Hallwas, John E., ed. Introduction and annotations to Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992. An excellent starting point. Introduction evaluates style, rhythm, meter, and literary influences. Discusses social attitudes, focusing on the influence of American myths and democratic ideals on characterization. Notes and annotations include textual variations and provide real life counterparts and explanations of period names and information. Annotated bibliography.Masters, Edgar Lee. Across Spoon River: An Autobiography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1936. Autobiography of Edgar Lee Masters, beginning with his early years in Petersburg and Lewiston, Illinois. Reveals incidents that are recreated in Spoon River Anthology. Compares and contrasts legal and writing careers and discusses literary influences and Masters’ relationships with writers such as Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser.Primeau, Ronald. Beyond Spoon River: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Detailed exploration of literary influences, from classical literature to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Analyzes style, comparing Masters’ poems with those of earlier writers. Discusses unusual blend of regionalism and unsentimental realism.Wrenn, John H., and Margaret M. Wrenn. Edgar Lee Masters. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A good critical source, providing biographical information and tracing literary influences. Discusses organization, style, and language. Explores relationships between characters, stressing realistic portrayals of social repression and sexuality.
Categories: Places