“I hate small towns,” Lenny Bruce reportedly said, “because once you’ve seen the cannon in the park there’s nothing else to do.” There was a time when I found this line funny and true, but then I had the good fortune to move to a small town in upstate New York. My town has proven a greater source of fascination than any true city I’ve lived in—though the reasons were not entirely clear to me until I reread Edgar Lee Masters’s masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, which turns 100 years old this year and has never once been out of print.
Spoon River is a doubtful advertisement for small-town life. “I loathed you, Spoon River. I tried to rise above you,” Archibald Higbie declares in his poem’s opening line. Modeled on the epigrams of the Anthologia Graeca, it is a series of more than 200 epitaphs spoken by the dead of Spoon River’s cemetery. (Spoon River is based on the towns of Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois, where Masters was raised.) Free in death to speak truthfully, spurn propriety, and spill secrets, these ghosts conjure a vision of a small town very much at odds with its own idealized, pastoral self-image.
Almost every kind of unpleasantness imaginable is present in these poems. Some Spoon River residents lead long lives before coming to ruin. Some lose life’s lottery at the outset: “Steel forceps fumbled by a doctor’s hand / Against my boy’s head as he entered life,” grieves the speaker in “State’s Attorney Fallas,” “Made him an idiot.” Some of Spoon River’s talking dead are children. Charlie French recalls being cut down by a toy gun in the midst of great happiness: “The lemonade stands were running / And the band was playing, / To have it all spoiled / By a piece of a cap shot under the skin of my hand.”
The darker consequences of sex loom large. “I would have been as great as George Eliot,” says Margaret Fuller Slack, but her ambitions suffocate beneath the burden of raising eight children: “Sex is the curse of life!” Slack thunders. The devastating “Nellie Clark” relates a life ruined by reverberations of the speaker’s rape when she was eight years old. In “Minerva Jones,” “Doctor Meyers,” and “Mrs. Meyers,” readers commiserate with three villagers who suffer death or disgrace because of botched, illicit abortions.
Frank talk about sex—not to mention adultery, prostitution, and abortion—was far from common in 1915, and the public was shocked. John Erskine wrote in the November 1922 North American Review of encountering a minister who “could not give his approval to the Spoon River Anthology, brilliant though it was; he could approve of no book that portrayed fornication.” Spoon River was “the sex-shocker, thePeyton Place of its day,” Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote in The New Leader in 1963.
Masters wrote these poems in free verse, still novel—even disturbingly so—at the time. Lawrence Gilman, considering Spoon River in North American Review in June 1915, called the voices of Masters’s speakers “bald, flat, and uncouth.” Masters never tried to pretty up the speech of ordinary people. Their stories, Gilman contended, were “often as rank and candid as the records of a police-court.”
But some found the candor of Masters’s characters refreshing. Alice Corbin Henderson, writing about Spoon River for Poetry in June 1915, argued that “despite the general sense of tragedy” in the book, Masters “makes life seem precious” as well as “humorous, squalid and noble at the same time.” Ezra Pound was also impressed. “At last,” he wrote, “the American West has produced a poet strong enough to weather the climate, capable of dealing with life directly.”
Masters makes small-town life come alive in its variety and specificity and unruliness. His masterstroke was to put these simple folk six feet under. Even though his characters are dead, he was able to emphasize their human energy. His “dead” characters seem more fully alive for speaking from the soil.
This pursuit of realism and psychological nuance should not have been controversial, but it was; Masters’s real project was to show that difficult lives are not failed ones but rather ones whose rewards are earned at greater cost. Spoon River feels neither bitter, as does much of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), on which it was a major influence, nor dated and gimmicky, as the short stories in Charles Jackson’s 1950 The Sunnier Side do. It is easy to forget that although Spoon River’s conceit necessitates depicting many downfalls and deaths, its monologuists also recount ambition and pride, comic episodes and welcome reversals, passion and love. Many endings in Spoon River feel like natural parts of life, not true tragedies.
In “Richard Bone,” a carver of headstones has a career that outlasts his self-respect; the longer Bone lives among the people of Spoon River, the more readily he sees through the dishonest epitaphs his customers order: “But still I chiseled whatever they paid me to chisel / And made myself party to the false chronicles / Of the stones.” That Bone’s guilt can be read as either noble or comically overwrought—or both, frankly—is typical of Masters’s complex and humane attitude toward his creations.
Indeed, many of Masters’s speakers are both tragic and figures of fun, self-pitying but nevertheless making compelling points. In “Daisy Fraser,” the prostitute asks, “Did you ever hear of Editor Whedon / Giving to the public treasury any of the money he received” for manipulating public opinion and “Did you ever hear of the Circuit Judge / Helping anyone except the ‘Q’ railroad, / Or the bankers?” Daisy maintains that she “never was taken before Justice Arnett / Without contributing ten dollars and costs / To the school fund of Spoon River!” Similarly, in “Judge Somers,” the judge, who “knew Blackstone and Coke / Almost by heart,” fumes about the fact that the town drunkard “has a marble block, topped by an urn, / Wherein Nature, in a mood ironical, / Has sown a flowering weed?”
Masters’s poems, his men and women, endure because they possess blunt force and human nuance. Spoon River shows humanity in microcosm: “Like Chaucer’s pilgrims,” critic Ernest Earnest wrote, “the 244 characters who speak their epitaphs represent almost every walk of life.” Earnest attributed the book’s immediate popularity to “shock of recognition. Here for the first time in America was the whole of a society which people recognized—not only that part of it reflected in writers of the genteel tradition.” He was writing in 1967 and clearly found Spoon River anything but dated.
In his 1992 introduction to an annotated volume of Spoon River Anthology, John Hallwas went a bit further toward identifying Spoon River’s appeal for modern readers; he addressed a tension at the heart of “the myth of America”—that is, its “contradictory thrusts toward individualism and community.” Spoon River is about not only community but also the challenges of knowing and being known by others. As the poet Maurice Manning recently put it, Spoon River belongs to a category of populist poetry that considers “what it is to just be human, and to have imperfections and failings and desperation and joy and love.” For that, it will always feel contemporary.
Indeed, Spoon River has inspired and likely will go on inspiring many contemporary adaptations—and mutations. The Italian musician Fabrizio De André released an album based on Spoon River, Non al denaro non all’amore né al cielo, in 1971. Steve Goodman sang “Spoon River” on his 1975 album Jessie’s Jig and Other Favorites. A number of composers, including Andrew Downes, David Garner, Lita Grier, and Wolfgang Jacobi, have set Spoon River poems to music. There is even an alt-country album by Richard Buckner based on it. A theatrical production of Spoon River was performed at Brooklyn’s famous Green-Wood Cemetery in 2011. Perhaps most improbably, the book was made into a computer game: “There are ghosts in the graveyard who are unable to rest because of unresolved issues in their former lives. Your task will be to end their suffering by performing tasks that resolve those issues.”
A century on, we contemporary readers are at an advantage. Because we do not flinch at subject matter that scandalized the reading public of Masters’s day, we may readSpoon River not as morbidly fixated on the ugly side of life but simply as attentive to all of life’s aspects. Masters’s speakers seize on moments or experiences whose deeper significance an outside observer could never guess, and Masters calls those moments to life with language that is beautiful without being flowery or self-conscious. Knowlt Hoheimer, a Spoon River resident killed in the Civil War battle of Missionary Ridge, lies in a grave inscribed with the words Pro Patria and wonders: “What do they mean, anyway?” This question echoes down to the present not because it sounds like a literary titan but because it sounds like the voice in our own heads.