Human Typology in Edgar Lee Masters

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The Human Typology in The Spoon River Anthology

The American writer Edgar Lee Masters produced during his long career a large body of work, including novels, play, biographies and essays, but he owes his literary reputation almost entirely to the Spoon River Anthology.

Set in the small town of Spoon River (based in par Lewistown, Illinois) the works consist of a series of interrelated free- verse monologues in which dead citizens speak about their past life. In a style characterized by brevity and clarity, each poems stands as an epitaph created by the individual it commemorates. It seemingly presents the simple lives of the citizens, but it really focuses on the irony, the sordidness and hardship of life. ([1]E. L. Masters” “Spoon River Anthology “)

Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas, the son of Hardin Wallace Masters, a lawyer, and Emma J. Dexter. Masters grew up in the western Illinois farmlands where his grandparents had settled in the 1820s. He was educated in the public schools in Petersburg and Lewistown (where he worked as a newspaper printer after school) and spent a year in an academy school hoping to gain admission to Knox College. Instead of entering college, he read law with his father and, after a brief stint as a bill collector in Chicago, formed a law partnership in 1893 with Kickham Scanlan.

Over the next ten years he expressed his Populist views in a series of essays and plays, written under the pseudonym Dexter Wallace.

In 1914 Masters began a series of poems about his boyhood experiences in western Illinois, published (under the pseudonym Webster Ford) in Reedy’s Mirror (St. Louis). This was the beginning of Spoon River Anthology (1915), the book that would make his reputation and become one of the most popular and widely known works in all of American literature. In “The Genesis of Spoon River” (American Mercury, Jan.1933), Masters recalls how his interest turned to “combinations of my imagination drawn from the lives of the faithful and tender-hearted souls whom I had known in my youth about Concord, and wherever on Spoon River they existed.” Though he would never equal the achievement or fame of Spoon River Anthology, he continued publishing poetry, novels, essays, and biographies for nearly thirty years. The amount and wide range of his production far exceeded its quality, by most accounts, and Masters’s place in twentieth-century American literature is still debated. ([2]

The “Spoon River Anthology” shows true character’s of the real life, actual human soul that have walked the Earth until they died and they have a real story to tell. Behind the seemingly insignificant or seemingly happy life they hide their true identities which can no longer be hidden after their death. People in this small anthology are element of our every day life. Reading this anthology we may encounter in one of these characters our neighbor, a friend, the workers on the street, a lover, a husband, a wife ect. The anthology shows the life of these people as it really was, without any masquerade.

These people presented in this Anthology they each have an important role in society. They can be considered symbols, having well defined characteristics. Society has told them how they must behave, how they most be. They stand some for goodness (priest) for love and care (mother, wife), for happiness and joy (children) for depravation (drunk man, lovers), justice (police, judges). ‘

Rev. Abner Peet

This poem was included in the original 1915 edition.

I HAD no objection at all
To selling my household effects at auction
On the village square.
It gave my beloved flock the chance
To get something which had belonged to me
For a memorial.
But that trunk which was struck off
To Burchard, the grog-keeper!
Did you know it contained the manuscripts
Of a lifetime of sermons?
And he burned them as waste paper.
( [3]E.L. Masters “Spoon River Anthology, pag 43.)
This small monologue describes the sad and harsh reality that our life’s work may be insignificant in the hour of our death. All that we have worked and all that represent an individual could be gone at a blink of an eye. Reverend Abner Peet was not sad for the material values that he gather during his lifetime “I HAD no objection at all….” He was disappointed when his “manuscript of a lifetime of sermons”   has been burned ‘as waste paper”. That manuscript was the true way to discovering his true identity. It must have been a true reflection of his soul and his work. The manuscript was the real thing that he worked for all his life. The importance of this epitaph is to show the reader that material values do not really count if we do not have spiritual left behind.

Benjamin Pantie

This poem was included in the original 1915 edition.

TOGETHER in this grave lie Benjamin Panitier, attorney at law,
And Nig, his dog, constant companion, solace and friend.
Down the gray road, friends, children, men and women,
Passing one by one out of life, left me till I was alone
With Nig for partner, bed-fellow; comrade in drink.
In the morning of life I knew aspiration and saw glory,
The she, who survives me, snared my soul
With a snare which bled me to death,
Till I, once strong of will, lay broken, indifferent,
Living with Nig in a room back of a dingy office.
Under my Jaw-bone is snuggled the bony nose of Nig
Our story is lost in silence. Go by, Mad world! ([4] E.L. Masters “Spoon River Anthology, pag 7)

The image show in this poem is very strong: the dog's bony nose beneath the jaw of this miserably depressed soul. The poet has created an incredibly accurate portrayal of depressed thinking in many of his characters. This is a perfect vehicle for "discussing" such notions, as depression is tied so completely to death, and though happiness is also celebrated, there are a good many more who resignedly recount their sad fate from the other side of life. The poem is also tribute I believe to the long know fact that the dog I the man best friend. Some of Benjamin’s negative characteristics are revealed. Although he was an attorney at law someone who is a representative of morality and justice, there some hints within the poem that he may been a heavy drinker “ With Nig for partner, bed-fellow: comrade in drink”. The story of Benjamin’s son continues in A.D Blood’s poem. He describes how Benjamin’ son and Dora made love on his grave

Why do you let the milliner’s daughter Dora, And the worthless son of Benjamin Pantier Nightly make my grave their unholy pillow?”

A. D. Blood

This poem was included in the original 1915 edition.

IF YOU in the village think that my work was a good one,
Who closed the saloons and stopped all playing at cards,
And haled old Daisy Fraser before Justice Arnett,
In many a crusade to purge the people of sin;
Why do you let the milliner's daughter Dora,
And the worthless son of Benjamin Pantier
Nightly make my grave their unholy pillow? 
[5](E.L. Masters “Spoon River Anthology, pag.31)

Every epitaph is linked to one other in some way. The lives of these persons are linked not only because they live in the same town, but because their destiny were linked by love, by fear anger, interests.

In the anthology no other 244 individual voices are heard. Alternately plaintive, anguished, angry and enigmatic, the voices from “Spoon River Anthology” evoke themes of hope and love, disappointment and despair,that are universal in their resonance. There is no doubt about the impact of Spoon River Anthology. Critical reception ranged from English critic John Cowper Powys’s view that Masters was “the natural child of Walt Whitman” to Ezra Pound’s proclamation that “at last, America has discovered a poet.” Perhaps more impressive was the book’s enormous popularity with non-specialist readers, an achievement that has outlasted the ups and downs of many a literary reputation in the academic canons. Spoon River Anthology is a series of poignant and often sardonic graveside monologues that capture small-town America, Midwestern values, and the angst of modern life.([6]

 1. Edgar Lee Masters, “Spoon River Anthology  … Note ” Pub Dover  Publications, Inc 1992

[1] Edgar Lee Masters, “Spoon River Anthology  … Note ” Pub Dover Publications, Inc 1992


[3] Edgar Lee Masters, “Spoon River Anthology  … Note ” Pub Dover Publications, Inc 1992 pag 43

[4] Edgar Lee Masters, “Spoon River Anthology  … Note ” Pub Dover Publications, Inc 1992

[5] Edgar Lee Masters, “Spoon River Anthology  … Note ” Pub Dover Publications, Inc 1992



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