Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Spoon River Anthology

I just finished re-reading Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, which I bought at the Friends of the Library book sale last August. I read it when I was in high school and remember thinking something to the effect of “Hmm, I just don’t get what made this book become famous or a ‘classic.’” I bought it this time to see if I liked it any better and could see its value now.

Overall, I am still puzzled. In the introduction to this edition of the book, May Swenson says that Edgar Lee Masters “borrowed the mouths of the dead to give outlet to all his grudges, beliefs, indignations, insights, prophesies, discoveries of glaring injustice, revelations of life’s mysteries and paradoxes – and his own eccentric philosophy.”

The construction of the anthology is certainly very unusual. Each of the 244 “poems” is presented as a poetic monologue of a small-town character, evaluating, from the grave, his/her own life. These characters represent almost every imaginable profession and life-style. Using the 244 monologues, Masters presents 19 inter-related stories. (I know this because the author himself said so in his essay “The Genesis of Spoon River”.) For example, Tom Merritt tells how he was shot by his wife’s lover. Mrs. Merritt then, in her poem, tells of going to jail for the murder although she was not to blame. The lover, Elmer Karr, then tells of his years is prison, his remorse, and his acceptance back into society afterwards. The author achieved a surprising level of character development with this technique.

As for the “poetry” of the work: I always understood that poetry was at least half about the sound and uniqueness of the word choices and phrasing – the beauty of the language and the mental images evoked by it. There was little poetic language in this book. I marked four examples in which I personally found truth and beauty and will include a short one here. Most of the post mortem soliloquies are much longer than this one by the recently dead Alexander Throckmorton.

In youth my wings were strong and tireless,

But I did not know the mountains.

In age I knew the mountains,

But my weary wings could not follow my vision

--- genius is wisdom and youth.


devonianfarm said...

Dear Joan,

you might like the new online edition of Spoon River Anthology available at

Anonymous said...

Dear John

Do you know of any more stories. I have a paper due in which I am supposed to find 7 of the stories and I have only found 3.