Edgar Lee Masters

Originally posted by pico on 07/17/07

Greetings, Progressive Historians!  The following diary is a crosspost from a new series I’m starting at dailykos specifically dedicated to literature.  For each installment, I’m focusing on single writers or works, placing them within their historical context, and doing close readings of the text.  If you want to know more about the goals of the series, check out the introduction here.

Today we journey back to Chicago of 1915, where a lawyer formerly partnered with Clarence Darrow has decided to publish his latest collection of verse.  He’s no longer a young man, has little or no literary reputation, and only middling skills as a poet – but his work creates a firestorm of praise and condemnation.  The question we’re going to be discussing today is

How did an otherwise mediocre poet from Kansas write what is arguably the masterpiece of progressive American fiction?

 

Progressive literature is hard to write well.  That is, there is no shortage of books that try to develop progressive themes, but what makes so many of them fail (in my mind) is a paradox: one of the fundamentals of progressivism is a displacement (if not elimination) of black-and-white Authority, but literature “with a point” often feels as if it’s trying to replace one Authority for another. 

For example, if I were going to write a novel about why torture is wrong, there’s almost nothing more self-defeating than having the narrator say “Torture is wrong”, which is either blindingly obvious to the people who agree or off-putting to the people who don’t.  Neither reader leaves particularly happy.  Now, that’s a problem with all political literature, but the nature of progressivism – the recognition that different people bring different worldviews to the table – makes statements of Authority even more self-defeating.

Enter Edgar Lee Masters.  Masters worked as a lawyer in Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century, and before opening up his own firm he worked specifically representing the poor.  He published poetry pseudonymously, although neither of his first two collections received much notice. 

His breakthrough came in 1914, when he created a novel approach from two influences: Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, which describes a murder through a Rashomonesque succession of subjective narrators, and the ancient sepulchral epigrams collected in the Greek Anthology.  For those of you unfamiliar with the latter, sepulchral epigrams were inscriptions on tombs that often addressed the reader directly and/or spoke from the point of view of deceased (“You, reader, are reading my grave…”, etc.)

Masters hit on an ingenuous idea: why not tell the story of a town through its graves, allowing each of the deceased to tell his/her own story?  That vehicle allowed him to address even the most controversial topics of his time, since the dead have no reason to maintain the shallow social politeness of the living.  What resulted was the incomparable Spoon River Anthology

All, all are sleeping on the hill.

(note on edition: I use the Signet Classic edition with an introduction by John Hollander.  For the hyperlinked text, h/t cfk)

After a brief introduction, Masters launches directly into the lives of Spoon River, allowing us to acquaint ourselves with the small-town America that thousands lived, but no one talked about.  While as a culture we’ve long since rejected the Romantic notions of rural America, Masters was living in a time when the small town was rarely the target of any unified criticism.  For many Americans, the small town represented everything best about our nation arriving in the new century: close-knit community, family values, strength of religious faith, far from the madding city.  But Masters lived it and knew better.

He created a city of the dead, whose stories interlock and tell us about the face of small-town America that rarely got seen: the sexual politics, the corruption, the hypocrisy – but Masters was cynical without being jaded.  There are plenty of happy people in Spoon River, but they aren’t any more representative of the town than the adulterers, the drunks, and the cheats.  In fact, their lives are so connected that one can hardly be imagined without the other.

To show how he does it, and how he uses this form to transmit progressive values, let’s follow one of Masters’ more complex narratives, beginning with Minerva Jones:

MINERVA JONES

I AM Minerva, the village poetess, 
Hooted at, jeered at by the Yahoos of the street 
For my heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk, 
And all the more when “Butch” Weldy 
Captured me after a brutal hunt. 
He left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers; 
And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up, 
Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice. 
Will some one go to the village newspaper, 
And gather into a book the verses I wrote?-
I thirsted so for love! 
I hungered so for life!

Considering how much of a stigma is still attached to abortion, one can only imagine how shocking these lines were to readers in 1915.  Masters never uses the word, but there’s no ambiguity in his description of a botched procedure for a woman who was brutally raped by the town roughneck (more on him later). 

But the portrait of Minerva is more complex than a mere social statement.  Notice how her description begins: “I AM Minerva”, she proclaims herself superior to the uneducated folk in Spoon River, and for a moment, our sympathies do not lie with her.  But in the third line, we see that her disdain for her neighbors stems not from her perceived intellectual superiority (or at least, not only from that), but from their mockery of her “heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk.” 

By the time we realize her eventual fate, our initial misgivings about Minerva disappear – her final two lines become more tragic because we didn’t think much of her in the first place.  And Masters sneaks a bit of subtle commentary into her lament: she thirsted for “love” and “life”, with the implication being that an unwanted pregnancy due to rape provides neither.

Masters heaps bitter ironies onto the story by naming his character “Minerva”, who was not only the Roman goddess of the arts, but also of medicine.

All, all are sleeping on the hill.

Her father Indignation Jones (I won’t quote in full) reveals another side of the story.  The town’s disdain for Minerva stemmed not only from her physical attributes, but from the perception that her family was poor trash.  The good citizens of Spoon River heaped so much scorn on the Jones family that we start to wonder if anyone will care that the daughter’s been raped:

Sometimes a man’s life turns into a cancer 
From being bruised and continually bruised

Masters also recognizes that issues like abortion do not exist in a vacuum – more people are affected than just the Joneses.  Let’s take Doc Meyers, who performed the ill-fated procedure:

DOCTOR MEYERS

NO other man, unless it was Doc Hill, 
Did more for people in this town than I. 
And all the weak, the halt, the improvident 
And those who could not pay flocked to me. 
I was good-hearted, easy Doctor Meyers. 
I was healthy, happy, in comfortable fortune, 
Blest with a congenial mate, my children raised, 
All wedded, doing well in the world. 
And then one night, Minerva, the poetess, 
Came to me in her trouble, crying. 
I tried to help her out-she died- 
They indicted me, the newspapers disgraced me, 
My wife perished of a broken heart. 
And pneumonia finished me.

The progression at the end feels the punchlines of a sick joke: once public condemnation takes away everything from Doc Meyers, life enters to seal the deal.  Notice that Minerva comes to Meyers because he has a reputation for helping out the poor and distressed: the class issue once again determines the events.

All, all are sleeping on the hill.

If these three poems represented the best of Masters’ work, he’d have had a considerable accomplishment just for dealing with such a taboo issue, but I doubt he’d ever have achieved more than temporary fame.  But Masters extends the Jones story into three more poems, and each of these elevates Spoon River beyond social commentary and into something more universal, powerful, and moving.

Taking them slightly out of the book’s order, first I want to introduce you to the man who started it all, “Butch” Weldy.  You know things are going to be bad when he begins by saying, “After I got religion…”

“BUTCH” WELDY

AFTER I got religion and steadied down 
They gave me a job in the canning works, 
And every morning I had to fill 
The tank in the yard with gasoline, 
That fed the blow-fires in the sheds 
To heat the soldering irons. 
And I mounted a rickety ladder to do it, 
Carrying buckets full of the stuff. 
One morning, as I stood there pouring, 
The air grew still and seemed to heave, 
And I shot up as the tank exploded, 
And down I came with both legs broken, 
And my eyes burned crisp as a couple of eggs. 
For someone left a blow-fire going, 
And something sucked the flame in the tank. 
The Circuit Judge said whoever did it 
Was a fellow-servant of mine, and so 
Old Rhodes’ son didn’t have to pay me. 
And I sat on the witness stand as blind 
As Jack the Fiddler, saying over and over, 
“I didn’t know him at all.”

“After I got religion” means “I’m not going to tell you about anything that happened before I got religion, as if my baptism washed away all my sins.”  It’s infuriating, infinitely more than the narrowness of Mrs. Meyers (see below), to watch the man responsible for so many ruined lives move on without so much as a mention – although, and this may say more about Weldy than anything within the poem, it’s entirely possible he doesn’t even remember Minerva, given his history of rowdy behavior around town (Weldy is frequently mentioned in the book). 

Of all the things that Weldy decides to discuss, it’s his own tragedy that takes center stage – that decision is one of Masters’ most incisive criticisms of human nature.  An accident (or was it?) at Weldy’s work leaves him blind, and to make matters worse, the combined power of Corporate Money and a complicit judiciary screw Weldy out of any chance of compensation.  Now he’s blind, possibly crippled, and out of a job.

Do we think he deserved it?  Maybe, in light of Minerva’s story, but there’s no doubt here that Weldy suffers a miscarriage of justice.  In fact, without Minerva’s story we’d be cheering wholeheartedly for Weldy… Are we really that dependent on context to shape our opinions about people?

All, all are sleeping on the hill.

Next up is Doc Meyer’s wife, who “perished of a broken heart.”

MRS. MEYERS

HE protested all his life long 
The newspapers lied about him villainously; 
That he was not at fault for Minerva’s fall, 
But only tried to help her. 
Poor soul so sunk in sin he could not see 
That even trying to help her, as he called it, 
He had broken the law human and divine. 
Passers by, an ancient admonition to you: 
If your ways would be ways of pleasantness, 
And all your pathways peace, 
Love God and keep his commandments.

Coming directly on the heels of the Jones story, Mrs. Meyers’ poem seems ripe for criticism, if not contempt.  We’ve witnessed a brutal rape, a desperate attempt to help, and a whole group of lives ruined in the process.  In reply, Mrs. Meyers calls her husband a “poor soul … sunk in sin”, and disdainfully rejects his attempt to help “as he called it”.  Notice, by the way, that Mrs. Meyers doesn’t call Minerva a rape victim: she references Minerva’s “fall”, as if the pregnancy were Minerva’s fault.

But here’s what I love about Masters: whatever anger and disdain this poem elicits, it’s not due to anything within the poem itself.  Taken by itself, out of the context of Spoon River, Mrs. Meyers’ statement is honest and straightforward.  She’s a God-fearing woman who believes her husband has committed the ultimate sin, and she quotes Scripture in order to save future generations from the same mistakes.  And let’s not forget: she died of a broken heart.

What we derive from this is NOT a universe of moral relativism or subjectivity, even though the material seems to suggest it.  Masters’ world is not so open-ended that we ever doubt that the social stigma against abortion is harmful, that woman are systematically abused, that the courts and newspapers have been corrupted, and that corporate protectionism is killing America (this takes place during the Gilded Age, don’t forget). 

But the truth doesn’t lie with any single person: it exists between the poems, requiring us to juxtapose them in order to gain a better understanding of the people and issues involved.  Masters has effectively displaced the Authority of the text twice over: first by removing his own voice from the novel, and second by refusing to allow the truth to rest within any individual works.  We criticize Mrs. Meyers not because of anything she says per se, but because we read her against her husband.  And we learn to love Doc Meyers even more for it.  Furthermore, because Mrs. Meyers’ testimony rings so honestly, we never feel like Masters is pulling our strings.

In fact, by the time we get into later poems that may represent Masters’ opinions, we’re so used to taking everything as part of a greater mosaic that we never stop to think of these poems as “authoritative”.  Masters also pulled off a neat trick: we start reading his lesser-quality poems not as the uneven work of a mediocre poet, but as the individually poor expressions of Spoon River inhabitants.  Spoon River is, in a way, almost critic-proof.

Not to mention broad.  There’s nearly no social ill of early 20th-century America that doesn’t cross the stage, whether alcoholism and teetotalers, sexually transmitted diseases, corrupt politicians, anti-trust law, World War I, racism, religious intolerance, divorce, tax law, and on and on.  But I’m making this sound like a dull slog through social ills: Masters also brings in artists and poets, preachers, inventors, playwrights, children, chemists, teachers, hunters, lotharios, photographers, and the occasional cameo from a real person.

Let’s wrap things up: I mentioned above that the Jones plot gets extended into three other poems, and I’ve saved the final one for last.  Some hundred pages after the Minerva story, we get this:

ROY BUTLER

IF the learned Supreme Court of Illinois 
Got at the secret of every case 
As well as it does a case of rape 
It would be the greatest court in the world. 
A jury, of neighbors mostly, with “Butch” Weldy 
As foreman, found me guilty in ten minutes 
And two ballots on a case like this: 
Richard Bandle and I had trouble over a fence, 
And my wife and Mrs. Bandle quarreled 
As to whether Ipava was a finer town than Table Grove. 
I awoke one morning with the love of God 
Brimming over my heart, so I went to see Richard 
To settle the fence in the spirit of Jesus Christ. 
I knocked on the door, and his wife opened; 
She smiled and asked me in; I entered- 
She slammed the door and began to scream, 
“Take your hands off, you low down varlet!” 
Just then her husband entered. 
I waved my hands, choked up with words. 
He went for his gun, and I ran out. 
But neither the Supreme Court nor my wife 
Believed a word she said.

Whew, where to start?  This is such a rich poem that we can go in any number of directions: the most obvious being the apparent travesty of justice of having “Butch” Weldy on the jury of a man accused of rape.  Even that image is doubly-meaningful: do you remember Weldy’s physical impairment?  The irony of justice being blind was not lost on Masters, who used it effectively elsewhere in the book.

On the one hand, because we’re already suspicious of anything Weldy might have to say about rape, we’re likely to read this poem in a relatively straightforward way.  But something doesn’t ring quite right: Butler’s insistence that he went “in the spirit of Jesus Christ”, which feels almost superfluous here; the fact that Butler seems proud his wife didn’t believe Mrs. Bandle, even though the two of them were fighting at the time; the fact that his neighbors (not just Weldy) reached that conclusion quickly…

The story is never resolved, but we get a greater sense of the interconnectedness of life without it feeling like a gimmick.  Spoon River seems to live almost independently of the page, because we exit the book feeling as if we’ve met each citizen individually, without the mediation of an author with a “point” to make.  And at the same time, we’ve become more sympathetic to the poor, the disenfranchised, the dreamers, the lonely, the abused, the sinners… The Hill in the opening might just as well be the site of the Beatitudes.

At any rate, there are well over a hundred more poems that I didn’t even cover, so I hope you’ll explore some of the richness of Spoon River for yourself. 

links:

Edgar Lee Masters, at Modern American Poetry
Edgar Lee Masters, at Books and Writers
Spoon River Anthology, at Bartelby.com

recent dkos diaries on literature:

– cfk’s Bookflurries: Bookchat: Lightning: Struck Down by Beauty
– plf515’s What are you reading 42
– JEB’s Summer Reading with Kids
– ArkDem14’s What are you reading?

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